By Stuart Briscoe
Almost twenty years ago my wife, Jill, and I were invited to address a gathering of a few hundred seniors at a weekend conference. The majority of the people in attendance were retired, still in good health, full of ideas, bursting with experience, capable, and accomplished. “But,” they said, “In our churches we are being marginalized. They don’t need us, they don’t want us, they won’t listen to us, and they disregard us.” It’s worth noting that these were not professional grumblers. They were the visionaries, the givers, the workers, the pray-ers, and the leaders who had been God’s means of bringing the churches in question either into being and/or to their present position of significance. But at some point in their aging, these mature saints had been deemed redundant. So in between our teaching sessions, we heard lots of stories, saw many tears shed, and tried to answer many questions from troubled hearts. Both of us came away from the conference deeply concerned. Let’s take a look at the issue of marginalization–or being parked on the sidelines of the church.
When Paul told the Galatians, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28), he was addressing an issue that caused him much concern. The teaching that believers were “all one in Christ Jesus” was not being readily accepted. Some of the new believers who lived in the were divided by racial, gender, and social differences. Their differences were obvious and important to them.
All societies divide easily with differences trumping commonalities most of the time. We find it easier to mix with our peers and to associate with those of similar social and economic status. There is no point denying differences and there is no excuse for failing to respect them. The differences we hold dear are certainly not unimportant, but neither are they all important. Our position in Christ–that is, the relationship all believers enjoy with Christ—matters more than all the differences in the world. Paul described it, “There is one body and one Spirit–just as you were called to one hope when you were called–one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:4- 6). He focuses on one-ness, on the unity that God has created through the work of Christ and the Spirit.
But at the same time, we are called to recognize and encourage our diversity (1 Cor. 12: 4-6), some aspects of which are divinely ordained; others less so! This means we should be working hard to craft a unity that respects diversity and encouraging a diversity that does not fracture unity. As much as many people doubt it–this can be done! In fact, even skeptical secularists who have little time for the church have been known to admit that the Christian Church is able to replace barriers with bridges, and to bring together people who would have little to do with each other. Where this is the case, it is a thing of wonder and beauty. Where it is lacking, we must regretfully admit the criticism that “11:00 a.m. on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of the week” is, too often, not without merit.
You may ask, “What does this have to do with many older believers feeling they are being pushed aside in the churches they belong?” The short answer is, “a lot.” The task of preserving unity and fostering diversity has proven to be too taxing for many churches. Some of them have settled for unity by discouraging or even disallowing diversity. We all know of churches where everyone looks, sounds, talks, and dresses like everyone else. In those churches, those who do not conform get the message that they don’t belong. It might be a case of a church catering primarily to seniors or looking askance at tattooed, nose-ringed, mini-skirted young women in their midst.
The other extreme abandons unity and simply starts different ministries for each group. For instance, a ‘20-something’ group does their own thing thus sparing seniors having to adapt to younger preferences, while the younger people are delivered from having to tolerate tiresome older people’s hang-ups. Either way someone is marginalizing somebody–or perhaps everybody is marginalizing somebody. As the church tends to concentrate more on the “next generation,” it is the aging that are more often marginalized.
Some older people are remaining faithful to their church, but finding it painful. Many are walking quietly away altogether. Some are staying home while others are abandoning the faith. And the result is, instead of the church being an example of unity in diversity, it is a fractured demonstration of Christians not getting along!
While marginalized seniors need a ministry that caters specifically to their needs and aspirations, they need much more! They need to be part of a community of faith that incorporates people different from themselves–in age, outlook, experience, spiritual development, interests, and desires. Non-seniors equally need interaction with those old enough to be their parents and grandparents.
We learned this early in our pastoral ministry. In the heady, exciting days of the Jesus Revolution in the late 60’s and early 70’s, the congregation we were called to was primarily made up of suburban families. Then all at once, we made contact with a group of about 100 Jesus people. They were different in every way from the congregation. Our experience of un-churched young people in Europe had led us to believe that if the wild and woolly “unchurched” young people who were professing Christ were untaught and not properly discipled, they would branch off into all kinds of exotic heresy or worse. On the other hand, if they were integrated into church life, they could become a great power for God. So we welcomed all 100 of them on one glorious Sunday morning––and the “fun” began!
We knew the church could easily split on generational lines at this point! So we took pre-emptive action by teaching about the body of Christ, the diversity of the members, and the need for cooperative and complementary relations between the generations and the call to unity in diversity, pointing out that the Trinity is the greatest example of this. We believe God is “Three in One”–that’s diversity in unity. We also believe God is One existing in three persons–that’s unity in diversity. Anything God makes resembles the beauty and intricacy of this structure. That was the “theology,” but most of the people were eager to have some practicality, so we provided a seminar called “Generation Bridge.”
The seminar was made up of about 20 people invited to participate as representatives of different aspects of the church community. They were commissioned to study The Epistle of James for six weeks. The seminar was repeated. When we offered it for the third time, we were told, “There’s no need; we’re getting to know each other and learning to love each other. In fact, we older people have been asking the younger ones to explain why they do what they do and the younger ones are asking for help in understanding their parents!”
Those who came out of the seminars began to take up positions in the church’s life where they could relate to people on the other side of the bridge, and a cross-fertilization of ministries began. Older people began to work in the children’s nursery, younger people started workdays in the homes of older single people. Twenty-something’s volunteered to pick up older people to transport them to church. We also learned that youth provides enthusiasm that seniors sometimes lack, while seniors provide experience that younger people usually lack! Enthusiasm without experience breeds chaos; experience without enthusiasm frequently produces stagnation. But enthusiasm wed to experience promises and produces healthy ministries. In other words, ageism—the segregation of communities on the basis of age—is not only wrong; it is dangerously shortsighted and seriously counter-productive! And it most definitely has no place in the community of faith.