Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Stop Knocking the Old Folks

When my husband and I returned to Duke for our PhD work, we found ourselves free to choose a church for the first time since . . . well, for the first time, honestly.

When we were MDivs at Duke, we attended churches where one or the other of us was assigned as a student intern, or we attended the church of a fellow seminarian whose ministry we wanted to support.

When neither condition applied and we were free (or was it obligated?) to choose, we warily and dutifully did the rounds of all the United Methodist churches in Durham.

We were open to a fairly wide range of styles of doing and being church--contemporary or traditional or "blended," program-driven or people-oriented, faithfully struggling or humbly succeeding: it was all, at least potentially, good.

The only churches we rejected out of hand and without a second glance were churches where someone came up to us after the service, grabbed us by the shoulders, and staring into our eyes gushed, "We need people like you in this church."

By "people like you," they meant, of course, young people. (And, in my husband's case, young, attractive people.)

These churches had bought the line that youthfulness was a sign of spiritual value, a more wrongheaded notion than which I've rarely encountered. Our presence qua young people--quite apart from our spiritual maturity, our faithfulness, our integrity, our willingness to tithe--was judged to be an asset to the church.

Honestly, after teaching young people for the better part of two years, I have to question this notion.

There's nothing wrong, of course, with attending to the spiritual needs of young people. Churches with enjoyable youth activities, accessible teaching for younger folk, and a commitment to integrating adults-in-training into the work of the church are certainly doing right by their kids. (The church in which I was raised deliberately made space for older teens and college kids on their various committees, and I briefly served on the worship committee there.)

But churches that wish to fill their pews with young folk because they believe a church full of young folk is necessarily and certainly a healthier congregation than one full of older folk are just plain wrong.

I have taught classes of between eight and twenty-five students, spoken at our college's chapel, and mentored both individual students and student groups.

And I should say, lest what follows be read as the uncharitable rantings of someone who hates working with undergrads, that I love my kids--from the grumpy, reading-averse footballers to the academic all-stars, from the kids for whom that C+ is a hard-won accomplishment to the ones that email me to ask for more reading, and even, especially, the plagiarizers, for whom I always hope good will come from the confrontation.

But their youth is not an asset in and of itself. It is, in fact, a challenge, even a need, that must be addressed.

They cannot be taught without being entertained.

Their fragile egos require exceptionally delicate handling.

Some of them--particularly the well-educated ones--are desperately ill-acquainted with work, especially physical labor.

Most importantly, they are thoroughly trapped by superficial expectations of worth--they will listen only to hip, attractive, controversial, or charismatic folk, and will utterly dismiss the wisdom of the frumpy, the awkward, the weak, and the weathered. They are not completely lacking in respect, but they have horrendously distorted notions of who is worthy of respect, whom they should trust, whose lives are worth imitating. Counter-intuitively, they are frightened by genuine novelty. If it doesn't come dressed in the costume they have been conditioned to prefer, it is not to be borne.

A church full of young people may look like a church teeming with life and vitality. But it is also a church teeming with neediness, immaturity, and folly. (Perhaps a daring folly and a receptive immaturity, but perhaps not.)

I just gave the homily for the mid-week Lenten service at our church. Our church membership is delightfully varied in many ways--a great range of ages, educational levels, maturity, and spiritual gifts. But this particular service (lunchtime, very liturgical, contemplative) seems to have connected with more older folk than younger folk. (Perhaps more teenagers would come, if it weren't during school hours, but perhaps not.)

As I was preaching, I felt keenly the difference between speaking to young folk and speaking to people with some years on them.

I spoke very simply, without being especially vivid or entertaining. And yet most of the faces I saw were attentive, open, engaged, thoughtful.

Every single person over the age of seventy had a kind word to say to me afterwords--not because I had done anything particularly well, but because they knew the importance of kind words.

And everyone over the age of forty that knew me already made sure to say hello to me--not because I was cool or famous or in any way wonderful, but because they respected our acquaintance and knew how to maintain it.

There were, of course, younger folk there, too, and their presence was a blessing. But their presence was a blessing quite apart from their youth--they happened to be particularly awesome young folk. Their youth added nothing to the worship service; it was, instead, their maturity in spite of their youth that made their presence a pleasure.

To put it bluntly, it's the little old ladies that keep the church standing--both literally and metaphorically.

Older members of the congregation know how to build community. They are not afraid of work, even if their bodies don't always cooperate. They take financial matters seriously. And they are more open to change than young folks. (No, I'm serious. Youth is attracted to frivolous novelty--change for change's sake. Considered, purposeful, thoughtful, and potentially permanent change is difficult for them. But you convince a seventy-year-old of the reasonableness and worth of a particular change? Watch out.)

If there are no gray heads in your congregation, you have a serious problem.

If you have a congregation full of gray heads, do not despise them. There is life and wisdom and growth there.


toweringajax said...


There are almost no one BUT grey hairs in the congregation I serve. It will literally die if more young folks don't show up. Now, that is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is a true thing. We have about 2 years of financial solvency before were are too old and too few to continue.

Sarah Sours said...

Well, it will die if more people don't join, that's for sure. As will many of the mainline denominations.

Do those people have to be 18-35yo? I'm not so sure about that.

It's a hard situation to be facing, but I think both pastor and parishioners should face it without the belief that age and spiritual vitality are inversely correlated.

I'm sure you're already doing this, but what I was trying to do with this post was to encourage congregants of churches with a largely elderly population to look for the gifts that are present in that largely elderly population.

The capacity of older folk to build genuine community is the one I'm focused on at the moment. (It is not a capacity that young folk have, generally--or don't have yet. It's something they learn through interaction with older folk.)

But I'm sure there are others.