Recently, while trawling through pages of Christian job advertisements, I was struck by the sheer amount of youth work and ministry on offer. With over half of the UK’s churchgoers over the age of fifty five, there has been a necessary influx of movement to reach young people and bring them into the Church.
But within the valuable and integral work with children and youth, I suspect another mentality quietly creeping into the Church. In trying to reach the younger generations our ministry to older people, both inside and outside of the Church, is often being overshadowed. We live in a cultural climate which doggedly avoids the inevitable reality of death and worships the smooth skin and high hopes of youth. Society often values what we can do and what we can achieve. Old age is seen as the sad, wrinkly decline into unproductiveness and death — something which we avoid thinking about and push to the parameters of our mind.
And yet, as believers in Jesus we should model an entirely different paradigm: we believe in the inherent dignity of humans made in the image of God, valued not for what they do, but because God has made them. So how often do we think and preach on ageing, and the difficulties and joys of becoming older? Do we invest in the amazing ministry that older people are able to practise within the church? Sometimes, but not often enough.
There’s also a lack of connection and relationship between the old and the young. How many close friendships do we have with people in their sixties, seventies, eighties, even nineties? Many people struggle to relate to someone so much older or younger than them. And the negative perceptions of older people being ‘stuck in their ways’ and young people being ‘lazy’ and ‘hanging around street corners’ don’t help.
And yet the Church is described by Paul as a body made up of many parts. I once sat in a service which reminded me of a giant mixing pot, brimming full of diversity: a colourful community of different skin colours, languages, and ages. The young and old are supposed to enrich each other’s lives in a way which I believe is quite unique. When we stop seeing each other as old and wrinkly or young and irresponsible, we begin to see past the age and instead we find a person.
It saddens and frustrates me when older people are disregarded simply on the basis that they are physically weaker, for “those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honourable we treat with special honour” (1 Corinthians 12: 23). If we’re sometimes failing to honour older generations within the Church, how much more is this the case outside it? In a recent ‘campaign to end loneliness survey’, it was reported that about half of older people in Britain say the television is their main form of company. There are many older people who need a community to belong to and crave company and relationship, but are reluctant to come to church. So there is a need to bring church to them, through local ministries like ‘Young at Heart’, an initiative started by a woman in my church who runs themed social events with a desire to share faith in Jesus with people reaching the end of their life.
The more friends I make with people much older than I am, the more I realise how much the old and young need each other. As youth ministry continues to boom, my hope is that equally we invest just as much in the older generations, and that we see the old and young standing side by side.