Last year, 1 October was designated as ‘The International Day of Older Persons’ by the United Nations, with the subtitle, ‘Stepping into the future: tapping the talents, contributions and participation of older persons in society’.
It’s a title you’ll rarely see mirrored in a Christian publication. It’s an odd thing when secular organisations point out the value of older people, yet Bible-believing Christians often fail to see it.
At a Christian festival earlier in 2017, my colleagues and I surveyed visitors about their churches’ engagement with their older members. In small to medium churches seniors were generally fully engaged, having a role in decision-making, community outreach and evangelism to both mature and young people.
We were particularly blessed by a participant who wrote that, in his church, seniors were ‘involved in welcoming/hospitality/small prayer groups. They encourage and support younger people, giving guidance, including financial advice. They reach out to others, sharing the wisdom and gifts and insights from the Lord and his Word’.
Another said: ‘Older people are at our heart. They take all roles within church, including pastoral, prayer meeting … everything except physical lifting’ — a reflection of the biblical Levites and Numbers 8:25; and just as it should be. But many churches, particularly the larger, regarded their older generation as beneficiaries needing to have things done for, or to, rather than being active participants.
I asked a friend how his church reached out to older people. ‘What would be the point?’ he replied, ‘What would they bring?’ When I pointed out that this was an ageist attitude, he was amazed. Like most of us, he had been drip-fed ageism through so many channels all his life that he had absorbed it unconsciously, until it had become part of his mind-set.
Does this ring any bells? I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve heard an older person say, ‘I don’t want to be a burden’. A typical remark, after a session on God’s purpose for old age, came from a retired teacher who said that, at 70, she thought her useful days were over. I pointed out that there is no end-point in Ephesians 2:10: the ‘good works’ it mentions are for life.
Dr William H. Thomas, a gerontologist and professor at the University of Maryland, wrote an award-winning book that has been hailed as ‘a seminal work and a call to arms’. Its title is What are old people for? How elders will save the world? (Arthur Rashap, Jefferson Area Board for Aging). At one point the publisher advised the author not to use the words ‘older people’ in the title, because it would put people off. Most people are ageist, he was told.
Thomas argues that although ageism has always existed, today’s virulent variety has been fired by the very generation that is now entering old age, the ‘baby boomers’ — those born after 1945. These were the largest generation in history, and their sheer weight of numbers meant they changed the culture of each decade they occupied.
Their student revolts in the 1960s and 1970s saw the rejection of historic mores and values. They created a ‘malignant enlargement of adulthood’ and projected a view of old age as falling off a cliff into terrible and inevitable decline, a time of uselessness and becoming a burden. And, amazingly, although the biblical view of old age is crystal clear, many Christians have absorbed such attitudes.
Yet today’s older generation holds tremendous promise for the church and the spread of the gospel. It’s unlike any other before it. Not only is it the largest in history, it is more active, more involved and more supportive of others.
Grandparents are helping the young with their mortgages and child care, and in their 90s and 100s older people are even abseiling, running races and organising events for charity. A survey by Age UK in 2014 showed grandparents contributed £61bn to the economy through employment, informal caring and volunteering: £37bn from employment and £11.4bn from voluntary work. A report by the RVS (formerly the WRVS) said they are ‘the glue that holds society together’.
I have written What’s Age Got To Do With It? to encourage older people to step into their God-given roles and enjoy all that God has destined for them.
When the Lord created the universe, it was part of his plan from the beginning that people should ripen to maturity, developing wisdom through a life time of experience and relationship with him, eventually taking their place as elders in society. Older people are here on purpose and for a purpose. So, if you think that being old is to do with a rocking chair and a passive life style, think again. You’re looking through the binoculars backwards!
What’s Age Got To Do With It? turns the lenses the right way around, to give a clear view of God’s purpose for his seniors. It helps identify ageist thinking that holds so many back, and shows how to dismantle it in yourself and in your church. God has a high view of older people.
Louise Morse’s recent title What’s Age Got to Do with it? Living out God’s purpose at all ages is published by Monarch Books, 192 pages, £8.99; ISBN: 978-0857217486.