We all know America is obsessed with youth. But what about the church, and what do we do about it?
The magazine Psychology Today calls it “America’s Obsession with Never Growing Old.” Dale Archer writes, “It’s difficult to believe that our founding fathers powdered their wigs gray in order to appear older and wiser. That’s right—being old was in. No more! From hair dyes to Botox to Viagra to wrinkle creams to a plethora of surgical procedures, the race is on to remain forever young.”
The bias against growing old is not just cosmetic. According to the Wall Street Journal, complaints of age discrimination filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission have increased in recent years. Paul Irving, chairman of the Milken Institute Center for the Future of Aging, says, “Workers over 50 are burdened by an outdated definition of ‘old.’ Despite evidence to the contrary, they are unfairly judged to be costly, less productive and agile, and unable to learn.” He adds that “older workers are rarely represented in corporate diversity and inclusion initiatives.”
So in a culture where everything “new” is said to be “improved” and everything old is said to be obsolete, why should we value our nation’s “seasoned citizens”?
For one thing, many older people have the wisdom, experience, and, yes, the energy, to still get the job done. Winston Churchill, profiled in the movie “The Darkest Hour,” helped save the West after he turned 65. Olga Khazan of The Atlantic points out that Robert Frost and William Carlos Williams wrote over 40 percent of their best poems after turning 50.
As people of faith, we know that the Bible teaches us to respect, even revere, those with more mileage under the hood. Proverbs 16:31 says, “Gray hair is a crown of splendor; it is attained in the way of righteousness.” Some of the greatest saints were very gray indeed. Think of Abraham, Moses, and Sarah. Then add Daniel, Anna, and Paul.
So how are we doing as Christians in withstanding the cultural tide? Well, Christianity Today reports that while the average age of Protestant senior pastors has risen to 54—a decade older than 25 years ago—“older clergy may actually have a harder time finding new jobs as they age.” And “when a senior pastor spot opens up, some churches seek out younger candidates who are expected to serve long-term or draw in younger congregants.”
As someone who, truth be told, isn’t as young as he used to be, I find this bias against those with a little gray in their hair to be disappointing. Yes, the church needs young leaders, of course, but what it really needs are good leaders, of whatever age.
And if we get younger leaders, who is going to train them? A recent Barna study said, “The bare facts of the matter are that even the wisest of older pastors is not here indefinitely, and his wisdom will be lost to the community of faith unless it is invested with the next generation.”
Andrew Root, author of “Faith Formation in a Secular Age: Responding to the Church’s Obsession with Youthfulness,” says that churches have bought into Madison Avenue’s siren song that “authenticity” is paramount and can be found only by catering to young people.
In an interview at Religion News Service, Root quotes Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who seemed prophetic when he said in his day, “The church has been more obsessed with the youthful spirit than the Holy Spirit.” But “To encounter the Holy Spirit,” Root says, “means there is no longer slave nor free, male nor female, Gen Z or Baby Boomer, but all are one in the person of Christ.”
Amen to that. And while we’re paraphrasing Paul, let me add this: to each–young and old—is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.
The Church’s Infatuation with Youth: We Need the Gray Heads
If your church leadership is not already doing so, encourage them to tap into the talent, wisdom and expertise of their “over 40” congregants. It benefits the local church body, and provides a great example to the culture of the value of every individual’s gifts, no matter what their age.