“How many funerals have you officiated?” I asked my dad as I rifled through the “Funerals” folder in his office filing cabinet. He thought for a few seconds, sat back, and sighed, “Over 80.”
I was preparing to officiate my first.
As I thumbed through the pages, I started to recognize certain names within the stack, and memories of those individuals rushed to mind.
My dad, now in his 36th year as a pastor, has always pastored elderly congregations. Some of my fondest memories from my childhood are of joining him on pastoral visits to shut-ins or nursing homes. Even today, I can hear Harry tell me the story of meeting his wife at the 1935 Chicago World’s Fair, remember the way it felt to shake Gerry’s four-fingered hand (he lost his pinky in WW2), and name the passage Evelyn would recite to herself if she woke up nervous in the middle of the night (Isaiah 43).
Youth is powerful in the hands of the Lord and is to be commended (1 Tim. 4:12). Yet, I’m so thankful that I grew up in an elderly church.
That’s not a common refrain today. Instead, in many churches, there seems to be a fear of “age” — a dread of looking out of step with pop culture. There is a gravitation toward the new, the popular, the young. From the music we sing to the books we read and recommend, it seems that the church is smitten with youth. Many congregants are duped into believing that a vibrant church is synonymous with youthful vigor.
And this isn’t really a church problem. It’s a culture problem. At one point in Carl Trueman’s book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, he comments on our age’s “cult of childhood and youth,” saying, “the Western world of today generally credits youth with wisdom and sees old age as corrupt, myopic, or behind the times.”1Trueman, C. (2020). The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution., (Wheaton, IL: Crossway), 127. That sentiment is certainly pervasive, almost subliminally so.
In my previous role as a college pastor, I had a front row seat to the perspective of youth toward the elderly. In general, the belief was that elderly people — their beliefs and wisdom — are relics of a bygone era. This is a tragic and unbiblical perspective (Prov. 20:29).
How the elderly cared for me
That incorrect sentiment is far from what I experienced. I count myself blessed to have grown up in an elderly church, hearing their reflections on life and surrounded by their genuine care, comfort, and encouragement.
My experience is part of the reason why I decided to write this particular article. Throughout the pandemic, I’ve heard the constant charge that we must care for the elderly. And that’s true, right, and good. But today, I’d like to flip the script and reflect on some ways the elderly community in the church has cared for me.
- They shared their rich wisdom.
It may be true that the elderly Christians in my church growing up didn’t possess a detailed knowledge of pop culture or its trends. But they were skilled in knowing how to please God. That skillful wisdom hadn’t come naturally; it was the product of learned faithfulness and repentance over a prolonged period of time. Nor was their wisdom shallow. These were men and women who knew life and loss, joy and sorrow, sickness and health, wealth and poverty, success and failure. They could speak firsthand of the joys of faithfulness, of the consequences of sin, and of the beauty of restoration. The Lord’s mercy, comfort, and discipline were their friends.
It was this perspective and experiential knowledge that allowed elderly Christians to speak with stinging clarity into my life. Rather than seeming out of touch with today’s world, they applied their wisdom to my circumstances with precision. More often than not, the wisdom would come in the form of a five-minute conversation at church between Sunday School and the worship service, but that’s all it took for right and wrong to cut through a sea of gray.
- They taught me how to pray.
“Stephen, the older people pray,” is one line my dad repeated while growing up that will stick with me throughout my life. He proved it to me by dragging me along to Wednesday night prayer meetings.
At that age, it was difficult to keep my eyes closed for the entire hour, but now as a father myself, I understand why my dad brought me along. He did it so that I’d be shaped, not by the moment, but by the pattern of prayer (and to give my mom a break). My enduring memory is that the older people dominated attendance at those prayer meetings. And though I don’t remember the exact words of their prayers, their model of faithfulness was formative. They didn’t pray because they were strong; they prayed because even at their age, they were needy and dependent upon the Lord for provision.
- They never seemed too busy to care for me.
One of the things I try to guard against in my own pastorate is needlessly adding activities and expectations to church members’ plates. People always seem to be busy, myself included. There’s always somewhere to be and something to do. And unfortunately, in the chaos of it all, it’s easy to forget to take time to care for one another.
Busyness affects everyone, so the elderly aren’t immune to distraction or looking past people. But, at least in my experience, the elderly Christians seemed to have developed a greater sense of the importance of slowing down.
In my early teens, I went back to visit “home” and walked through the church my dad previously pastored. While there, I ran into Pastor Roy — a 95-year-old retired minister — in the hallway. Incredibly, he stopped his day, invited me to sit down, and, though he had a hard time hearing, spent the better part of an hour talking to me. He didn’t have to do that, but he did. He showed me that sometimes caring enough to talk to someone for an hour is more important than going to the grocery store.
What a vibrant church looks like
Due in large part to the wisdom, encouragement, and prayers of elderly saints, I knew better how to please God in middle school, high school, and college. They taught me neediness is a sign of maturity and that dependence upon the Lord for provision never ends. And though I’m not particularly skilled at slowing down and caring for others yet, I’d like to be. Their examples challenge me every day.
An elderly church may not be what comes to mind for most people when they consider the characteristics of a vibrant church. Maybe it should, though. Our churches — the leadership and congregations — would benefit greatly from their prayers, listening ears, and wisdom.
- 1Trueman, C. (2020). The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution., (Wheaton, IL: Crossway), 127.