01 August 2013

"Too many old people"?

by Dan Phillips

Preaching through Titus was eye-opening and encouraging for me in a number of ways. One of those ways was in reflecting on the brute force of the text in 2:1-8 (opened up hereherehere and here). In that passage, Paul casts a net that takes in the whole age-range of the congregation. Pride of place goes to seniors, to older men and older women, who then have a ministry embracing younger women and men.

If we let it, this has real impact on how we will view our local assembly. Think it through with me.

Many folks in their 20s and 30s would walk into a church featuring a lot of people in their 40s and upward, and would be concerned. I understand that, and I don't entirely blame anyone for the reaction. That is, if they see a church predominantly tilted to the senior years, they will wonder if it has lost vision. They'll wonder if it's dying.

They will be concerned that this may be a church "married" to a single point on the calendar, rather than to the word of God — as if the 1950s (or, for that matter, the 1850s, 1750s or 1650s) constituted an especially sacrosanct dot on a timeline, and everything coming after that dot is suspect, or probably even evil. Not sharing that timebound devotion, they'll wonder whether they'd find a home in this family, or whether instead they'd find themselves also suspect and marginalized.

Those are legitimate concerns, in themselves. I'm not writing to challenge anyone for merely having those thoughts. In fact, I would agree that there's no excuse for a congregation to wed itself indissolubly to some imagined Post-Biblical Golden Age in any given culture. Paul reflected no such concern or fancy, nor did he encourage it; nor should we.

What's worse, I know what it is when a congregation has the smell of death about it. It's just very, very sad. It is as if you've stepped into a time machine, in a way. In another, it's as if you've stepped into a funeral parlor. There's a feel of sad resignation and frustration; all is ingrown and cliquish; arms are already closed, not open. What you're seeing is a slow death. They're huddled together waiting for the end... and it's on its way.

So I'm not writing to say that anyone should feel wicked and guilty if he feels a concern at the initial sight of a senior-weighted congregation. But I am writing to urge you not to stop with those first impressions. I am writing to suggest other thoughts you should also have, other questions you should also ask yourself, in forming a decision.

First, I'd suggest the alternative: you should really feel concerned if you don't see many people 40 and up! After all, the leaders are called elders for a reason (cf. Acts 20:17; 1 Tim. 5:17-19). While that term isn't necessarily bound to a certain number of candles on a birthday cake, the least you have to say is that it isn't negative towards the higher numbers! In fact, Scripture (as opposed to our culture) is pretty much univocally positive towards advanced age (see the second sermon linked above). To have walked with the Lord for a great many years is a good thing, it's a blessed thing, it's a valuable thing. In a healthy congregation, younger people will seek out and value their seniors in the Lord.

And if there are few or none to seek out, that isn't a good sign, other things being equal. It really, really isn't. It could mean that this is a ministry that doesn't wear well. It could mean that this is a ministry for the moment, not for the ages. It could mean that the leadership is every bit as tunnel-visioned as the Golden Agers mentioned above. It could mean that seasoned saints who've been a few blocks with the Lord have weighed it, and found it wanting.

The fact that mature folks are not drawn to a ministry is not a selling point to a Biblically-minded man or woman. If you walked into a church in a multi-ethnic neighborhood and found a large group of one skin-hue, you'd wonder. You should also wonder if a congregation has few or no seniors.
Ironic aside: I've no doubt that many yoots who would be (rightly) utterly repelled by any congregation they suspected of racism have no problem at all with one characterized by ageism.
What's more, a church lacking the very folks Paul focuses on first in Titus 2 lacks vital resources. Young men won't have accomplished, seasoned models to look up to, won't have those resources to draw on or be cautioned or matured by (to dangle a preposition). Young women won't have those mature ladies to help them navigate the rocks and corals of their own passions or cultural blinders. Better to set out across the desert without water, than to try to navigate the world without mature, older believers in an assembly.

Look at it Biblically and matured saints aren't a red light, a warning sign, or an obstacle. They're a gold mine.

Second, before you draw a conclusion, inquire. If you're not seeing many under-40s, is it indeed the church's short- or narrow-sightedness? Have they reached out to the younger folks within their number? Have they offered classes, seminars, fellowship opportunities that are sensitive to their needs and concerns? Are they planning any? Are they willing? Or have they just given up?

I'm saying don't assume. What if you were to learn that the pastor had launched a number of initiatives that simply weren't supported at the time — because the younger folks who were present at the time had other things to do, didn't want to commit, didn't like having to show up at a particular time, a dozen other things? Or because there weren't that many of them... yet the church was trying to serve them equally with everyone else? Or what if you learned that other outreaches/inreaches were either in the works, in the planning stages, or held in readiness for when there was actually someone to benefit from them? Would that change your impression? If so, how will you know unless you slow down, take some time, and ask?

Third, again before you draw a conclusion, remember the besetting sins of your own culture. It is a consumer-driven culture. To their great shame, Christians look at the church as they look at retail businesses. They expect to be catered to. They expect to bring nothing but demands and requirements, and they expect those demands to be met and seen-to, now, on their time-table. Of them it could well be said, "I came not to serve, but to be served." They don't expect to commit, give, build, sacrifice, stay. You walk in, a store doesn't have what you want the way you want it, you walk out. As with Wal-Mart, so with church. Same-same.


You know, exactly like the Bible says.

The opposite of.

And so fourth, having remembered that, ask yourself the question: What do you expect? What do you demand? Is it your attitude that you won't stay if you don't already see a bunch of people like you already carrying the burden and doing the work? How would that even happen, if everyone else had your attitude? Really, think it through: what if everyone else who visited that church was unwilling to stay until someone else did the work they're unwilling to do, to provide the ministry they're demanding to receive? Like you're doing?

And how would that even happen? How does that happen? How do you think churches grow, ever? Have you asked yourself that question?

Do you think they drop down out of Heaven, fully-staffed with volunteers committed to doing what you're unwilling to do? Do you think pastors simply pick up the phone, dial 1-800-FLOATER, and order a set of 45 trained, equipped, qualified, committed 25-year-olds to be delivered next Sunday to create the ministry of which you wish to be a passive beneficiary?

I recall a man telling a story some years ago that led me to respect (and like) him even more than I already did. He was a black brother, who'd begun attending this predominantly white church. After a time, he felt a bit lonesome and discouraged. It was still pretty much just him and his wife amid a sea of lighter shade of pale, and they sometimes felt like they stuck out. After a while of no change in the collective epidermal hue, he was tempted to leave, to give up.

But then Bill asked himself, "So, if I leave, what does the next black brother find, when he comes? Same thing I found. Someone has to be first, someone has to stay, someone has to build. Why shouldn't it be me?" And he stayed; and in time he was not remain alone. In fact, when the pastor left, the church called a black brother to pastor the church. In part, because Bill asked himself, "Why shouldn't I stay and build?"

Good question, eh?

Bibley, in truth, wouldn't you say?

Dan Phillips's signature

36 comments:

David Regier said...

Excellent post.

Michael Coughlin said...

This is excellent and timely. I go to an "old" church (as some would see it).

My young brother who has been visiting loves our doctrine, loves me, the pastor all of it.

But there just aren't enough people his age there. Frankly, there is only one male within about 2 decades of him upwardly speaking, and he isn't a kid anymore so the bunches of people 5-6 years younger aren't appealing to him.

So as he progresses in his disobedience to the local church, I proposed to him the same thing you stated at the end - "Someone has to be the first. Maybe you can start our young people's ministry."

Who knows what will happen? I will definitely sent this blog post to him!

Appropriate Captcha: Resovit

DJP said...

Thanks Michael, that's great to read.

This is one of those posts that I hope has a broad reach specifically because I have the hope that these thoughts could serve many worthy ministries, and help many good brothers and sisters make wiser decisions.

LeeC said...

I am NOT an integrated church guy. I don't see anything wrong with it as long as you don't believe others who are not "integrated" are sinning.

That said, I find it sad how often we have broken our churches up into five to ten year increments. Some churches have young adult AND young adult married ministries.

When I was first married I wanted older saints around me to share their godly wisdom, not a pooling of ignorance.

We need each other, young and old. When you go to bed you don't keep your arms in one drawer and your legs in another while your torso lies down.

If your church prefers to have age oriented classes great, but don't forsake fellowshipping with the WHOLE body!

debussey55 said...

If you're seeing "too many" or "too few," maybe you're at the wrong service. Early worship skews old at my church; later worship is aimed at families and children so it skews young. Walk into the "wrong" one and you may think you're out of place (of course, if your goal is the worship of God, who cares who's sitting next to you?)

Kerry James Allen said...

As a church planter I understand this all too well, having fielded these type calls by the dozens through twenty years here:

Taker: "Do you have (AWANA, youth program, senior ministry, choir, Christian school, etc. etc)?

Me: "No, but we'd love to offer some of those things. Would you like to help us get them started?"

Taker: "Click."

As someone said, no one wants to be a pioneer. They get arrows in their backs. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. And I'm not applying that to money, but rather to big churches and smaller churches. And sadly, most of the larger churches have grown at the expense of the smaller. Once you've been to Wal-Mart the corner grocer doesn't look very appealing anymore.

Great post Dan. It won't be heeded by many, but if it affects one family who stays and serves in a smaller church it would be worth it.

Zechariah 4:10

Dale Wilson said...

"Someone has to be first, someone has to stay"

I had a conversation a couple weeks ago with someone who attends a church that leans very old. He said that every 1-2 months, they have a new young family with kids come into the church. They stay 1-3 weeks and when they see no one else their ages, they move on. Unfortunately, the process repeats itself every couple months.

If only 1 of those families would make the decision to stay because the Bible is preached in truth and the sacraments are administered rightly, then the whole congregation could be transformed over the course of a year or two.

Tom Chantry said...

A very good friend of mine is a deacon in the church where we grew up. Whenever I ask him how the church is doing, he replies - being a deacon - in terms of demographics and manpower. Namely, as the church ages, the "grey" demographic increases in percentage. Too many young people leave for churches that are more, well, young. Which leaves the deacons with a growing number of people needing visitation, support, etc. and also with a shrinking number of people able to visit and serve.

All of which highlights a corollary to the situation you are suggesting: some folks are leaving churches, not just failing to join them, because the church is getting old. So to those looking for a church, why? Perhaps you moved. Perhaps your church went apostate. But if your church simply grew less “relevant,” aren’t you also avoiding the biblical pattern Dan suggested? And aren’t you choosing to avoid the very sort of service that defines Christianity?

I Timothy 5 makes it very obvious that the church is to care for its own widows and orphans. The family bears the first responsibility, but the church is its immediate backup. If everyone able to serve leaves to find a new family with more benefits and less requirements, where does that leave us?

Imagine if we did things this way in the family. A group of siblings grow up in a loving home, go out and start families of their own, and then, as their parents approach retirement, they sit down with them and say, “Mom, Dad, this family has grown, well, old. We’re not finding the sort of activities that our kids want. We respect the way you ran the family and all, but it’s just not doing it for us anymore. We’re going to go be part of the Smith family from now on. We wish you the best!”

It’s a fairly obvious disaster, but Christians who abandon an aging church without due cause to join something hip are doing much the same thing. I wonder whether they aren’t just trying to avoid service because, frankly, service is a drag. All the while missing the fact that the very older people who may require our help are also the ones best suited to pass on the riches of the faith.

Doug Hibbard said...

This is what we're working on. Many of the younger families are drawn to head up the road 15 miles to the churches that have "more stuff" for their kids.

In turn, we were being left with people over 60 trying to reach unchurched teens and young adults, and the connection just wasn't there. Now, though, we're seeing the younger families stick around and make an effort to spread the Gospel in the town they live in.

I think Christian folks ought to have a really clear reason before they drive away from a church by their home to attend one in another ZIP code. And that shouldn't just be "This church is *way* cooler."

rfb said...

Pastor Phillips,

Respectfully sir, the premise of "find [myself] also suspect and marginalized" is foreign to me. I was young and am now a sexagenarian.

The most important (by an overwhelming degree) attribute of any church of which I and my family have been members of is whether the Word of God is being rightly divided.
Programs and special age groupings? Bleh!

My understanding of the Church is that it is a familial model, and as such always has the broad cross-section of, well, families. Our church is smaller but still consists of people from 3 months to 85 years.

When you say "they'll wonder whether they'd find a home in this family", I think that maybe the focus of special age groupings in churches has created this artificial divide.

At the dinner table at our family, when all is gathered, there are 5 month olds sitting next to grandmas and cousins and aunts and uncles. It seems to me that it would not be different at the Lord's table.

As always sir, with a salute toward you and your work. Keep writing.

DJP said...

"Sexagenerian" almost didn't make it through the filter.

Jack said...

As a "yoot" I would also say that the inverse applies. Many old people stay in the same church and as the population ages they don't try to engage the youth, instead they just stay in their same lane. That's fine, but in all honesty, it isn't good for integration of generations.

CallingMuslims said...

Great stuff! My church is currently going through Titus in sermon form and in our small groups. I had already come to many of the conclusions you have in your post here. I am 30 something "black/African American/Negro" whatever the proper term is suppose to be, my current church is 85% white and I recently asked a older white man to be my mentor. So yes someone has to be the first.. why not me?

DJP said...

Jack, you are absolutely right. Can't say everything in one sermon, or one post — though I've been accused of trying.

If you did ever have the time or inclination to listen to that sermon, the second-linked, you'd find that I do challenge the seniors among us specifically to do that very thing.

Thanks for making that point.

DJP said...

God bless you, CM. I love hearing that sort of thing. Hang in there.

Chris H said...

this post is relevant to my life, and so I'll leave my story and beg for advice. If this is not the place for such a thing, please feel free to remove this and just let me know.

I've attended my church for 20 years (I'm now 34, so there), and been heavily involved in many ministries, started others, so on. My wife joined our church when we were married. The only other married couple in our age range (being very generous with that word) moved away due to job offers elsewhere.
She has no peers in her stage of life. Our son is the first born in that church in 15 years. He has no peers. Ministry opportunities for her (she is not able to dedicate the time to start one) are nil. My mother teaches "children's church" for my 2 year old son.

I love my church. The preaching (okay, so it's my dad) is ultra-Bibley, the music is God-honouring, and the people are friendly and outgoing. The idea of leaving tears my heart. Yet, I consider it because I want my family to be nourished and have Christian friends. 2 years ago, my wife and I agreed we would wait a year to see if we could be the "first" young family that attracts others, but it has not happened, and in her generosity she has not pushed the issue, though I know she's not happy.

So: what now? Anyone?

Tom Chantry said...

Chris H,

This is a good example of what a blog can’t do, and of what it can do.

In the first place, I don’t know whether anyone in a blog meta can tell you what you ought to do in your specific situation. We don’t know your wife, your child, your mother, your father, your church, or, honestly, you. So many variables. You have responsibilities as a church member, as a son, as a husband, and as a father. What is commendable, from where I sit, is that you have taken those seriously. You didn’t say, “Forget the church and my parents; my wife and kid have to come first.” You took it all seriously at once, and that is really what Dan is urging in this post. But to answer the “What do I do now” question is beyond us, unless we think we have knowledge which is hidden with God.

On the other hand, there is something that can be said, and perhaps it will be helpful. I think I can say that, while you have the responsibility to chart a course for your family, you needn’t feel any anxiety about the situation. What I mean is, you have honored God, and that means something. You have honored God as a churchman by staying with the church in a hard circumstance. You have honored God as a son by staying close to your godly parents, and it is evident that you will continue to do that no matter where you worship. You have honored God as a husband and father by having your family under the ministry of the Word of God, and further by prayerfully considering what is best not for yourself, but for your family.

Obviously you are neither omniscient nor infallible, and that’s on top of being a sinner. You aren’t God, but you have honored God. I honestly believe that you are going to find some blessing in this situation. I’m no prophet, so I can’t say how that will look, but I know the Scripture. The God who said “those who honor me I will honor” still blesses his people.

So, you need to make a decision, either to search for another congregation or to wait longer in the place where you are. You need to make that decision carefully and prayerfully, and most likely even if we did know you we couldn’t tell you how to make it; it has to be you. But you don’t need to worry that somehow it won’t turn out to your blessing. You’ve already followed the path of honoring God. That can only turn out well.

Robert Warren said...

Dan:

I once heard Dr. MacArthur speak about what makes a good sermon. He mentioned a couple of qualities (among others): 1. The ability of the sermon to be effective when translated into another language; (I'll link that to cultural blending). 2. The ability of the sermon to be read decades or centuries later and still be effective; (I'll link that to generational issues).

Outside of my own experience with our church, I don't have any evidence to the effect, but I could guess that wherever one finds a church that is balanced generationally and culturally/racially, the preaching will be of the quality that MacArthur spoke of.

Jason Dohm said...

On a slight tangent: sowing and reaping applies to church life too. People who sow nothing are disappointed when there isn't a harvest for them to reap. Then, because of the disappointment, they leave, but they shouldn't be disappointed when the utterly predictable happens. Sow nothing. Reap nothing.

If you want to be happy in the local church, invest your life.

JR said...

Kerry James Allen,

Have you been to a Wal-Mart???

No thanks.

Larry Geiger said...

"Imagine if we did things this way in the family. A group of siblings grow up in a loving home, go out and start families of their own, and then, as their parents approach retirement, they sit down with them and say, “Mom, Dad, this family has grown, well, old. We’re not finding the sort of activities that our kids want. We respect the way you ran the family and all, but it’s just not doing it for us anymore. We’re going to go be part of the Smith family from now on. We wish you the best!”

Tom, actually this is sort of what happens when folks pass away. Parents are going to go away. Usually within three score and ten or fourscore years. Maybe all churches should expire within 80 years?

Kerry James Allen said...

JR, I know (hope) you are being facetious, and yes I've been to Wal-Mart, in fact just yesterday. It makes a good illustration of what is being discussed here on many levels, to wit:

Most people who go there find that small, local stores can't compete with what Wal-Mart offers (just as most people who go to larger churches would say the same about the smaller churches) and...

Wal-Mart exists because it has vacuumed thousands of people out of those smaller stores just as the larger churches have done to the smaller churches.

If anything, Wal-Mart is analogous to the megachurches of America. We now have over 2,000 churches with more than 2,000 people in each of them, more than at any time in history. And the neighborhood church has suffered as a result and the culture has gotten worse.

I say these things as someone who pastors a small church currently as well as attended a church of over 5,000 for seven years in the past. I'll shop at Wal-Mart but still take the smaller church, thank you.



Scott Welch (formerly Scooter) said...

A timely and needed post for my wife and I. Adds some fresh knowledge to our stunted conversation.

Rachael Starke said...

(Must. resist. Franking. the. meta. about how WalMart personifies all that is wrong with America in general and the church in particular. Ahem.)

This is vintage meaty gospelly Pyro goodness, right down to the added flavor of Chantry's input. I recently visited a church with exactly this problem - no one looked over the age of 45. I found out that the oldest child in the entire church (of close to 250) was 11. It was distressing.

graceandgraphite said...

I've always been an oddball who tended to get along with or was more interested in folks older than me rather than my peers. My little church has a pretty good mixture of ages, and this past Sunday after service I had lunch and hung out with one of the oldest couples in the congregation--and it was great. (I'm 28; they must be at least in their 60s, possibly past that.) Thankfully, age has never been an issue for me. I guess I'm just weird like that. :)

Sir Aaron said...

DJP and I have talked about this several times (him being my Pastor and all). I have a lot of observations but I'll only share a couple.

People generally want to serve but they want to do so in a way that is convenient to them. They want to help prepare potluck or be the assistant in Sunday School. There is nothing wrong with that per se. But few want to hold the mantle of responsibility. That is they don't want the ministry to be dependent on them showing up week after week, preparing between Sundays, and having to be accountable to elders for what happens in that ministry. And somebody has to be that person.

However family integrated a church is or isn't, eventually the result is the same. Kids grow up. They go to college, get married, and move away. In a small church, that progression can come in what amounts to giant tidal waves. In fact, it doesn't just happen at church. At work, we face the same problem. Waves of hiring came, people get older, then we have waves of retirements. It takes years to get new people on board and get them trained. You always hope for a steady progression and turnover but that isn't the case. If you get a massive wave of young people graduating and moving on at a church, it makes difficult to build back up so that incoming guests don't see an "old church."



Sir Aaron said...

@Chris H:

I can relate somewhat to your problem. I also understand why Chantry was light on advice. It's hard to give advice when you are getting but one side of the story and only a few sentences at that.

Just keep in mind that there are people who can't find a church with solid Bible teaching at all.

You may also speak with the elders about their plans to minister to youth. They've got to have somebody who can push the wheelchairs up the ramp.

Paul Reed said...

The age separation in churches has always bothered me. It's as if we have more in common with someone our own age than another Christian. It almost as if the "youth", "middle-aged" or "elderly" part defines us more than the "Christian" part. And don't even get me stared on racial separation.

A Patriot said...

Wow! This is good stuff.

I love my church and it's age ranges, though I have been to churches without age ranges. It is odd to be a child in a church with few children. However, it was the best church in the area so my parents chose to attended. Eventually, there were more families with children.

At my current church a few pews back of where I sit is a couple that have been married for 60 years. The gentleman has served God as a pastor since he was 18 years old. There is another couple a few pews ahead of me that has been married for about 50 years I think. Seeing that in a world full of divorce is such an encouragement. I couldn't imagine trying to navigate this crazy world with only people my age (early 30s) around me. That sounds to much like the blind leading the blind.

Michael Coughlin said...

Praise God for all the great testimonies!

Morris Brooks said...

Chris H, I will give you one piece of advice. Don't put the Lord on a time table of your making. It is too easy to become frustrated when He hasn't moved by when we think He should have.

Chris H said...

I appreciate the kind words - thank you.

Yes, trying to have this sort of conversation on a blog is not optimal, but I figured I could count on fair, straightforward input and I received it.

There is much I could not say about the situation, so I suppose I was just looking for some validation that I wasn't bailing on a church just because there were too many old people (there, I brought it back to the actual topic, even the title).

Lydia McGrew said...

Chris H., if I may chime in here a little: One possibility is continuing to be a member of your current church while participating in some activities either at other churches or with other groups. For example, we have a hymn sing in our home every other month with fellow home schooling families in our age range. Our church itself does not provide that sort of interaction because of the small size and age of the congregation. Similarly, the larger (not mega but much larger) local Baptist church has always been quite happy for our children to participate whenever we have wanted in their youth or children's ministries.

I understand that that might make you uncomfortable, as if you are "using" the other churches, but as a general rule I have found that they do not look at it that way. Obviously, it's not the kind of thing that would be sustainable if everyone were doing it. That is, if everyone belonged to some other church but sent their kids to Awana at First Baptist Church, First Baptist would have trouble fielding enough Awana workers from among their own membership. But it doesn't actually happen that way, and I think your local "First Baptist" and those running its ministries would probably be quite happy to be part of a creative solution to your family's dilemma.

Harley Schwartz said...

Thank you Dan.

I attend a church that's fallen on hard times, and unfortunately I'm one of the only two regularly attending adult singles in the group. We've had many like-age people blow in and out, and I'm sure some reasons for leaving included no youth gatherings for lack of youth, only one young-marrieds couple attending, no nursery services available for lack of infants... we'd love for those things to be in place, but providentially they're not. We also have the disadvantage of distance because we live in a very large city.

However, the advantage is to be surrounded my men and women who have been there, seen this, done that, and so wisdom comes easy to them. Isn't that the best place for a 25-year-old man to be?

What many might not think about either is that if you want to attend a faithful church, you are going to walk with a limp. That is, there will be something that you do not like and you might feel it's a thorn in your flesh. It can be things such as long driving distance, a church recovering from a controversy, lack of marriage prospects, few individuals of your own race, little prospect of entering ministry, no nursery available, meeting in a hotel/rental facility, or maybe it's in a city/state with a poor socioeconomic situation. However, sometimes that's just the price of buying the truth and not selling it. I can thrive in a church that doesn't have all the particulars I want, but I could never survive in a church that had all my preferences yet there was no true faith to be found.

DJP said...

That's very helpful and very mature, but it still makes me sad for your church. I have SO been there, and of course am there now in that I know visitors don't see everything they want already in place. And so what do you do? I have another post on that coming up.

So, I really feel for you and your church and, I imagine, your pastor. I'm sure every caring pastor looks at (say) the singles in his church and think how much he'd like them all to find their mates within the congregation, or feel they have to turn to services or such to make contacts from outside the assembly.

I'm being tempted to ramble, so let me bring it back to: I appreciate your perspective and commitment, your maturity and priorities, and pray the Lord prospers His work in your church.

Harley Schwartz said...

Dan,

Perhaps you might appreciate a follow-up. Our church is growing in health, the services have been increasingly edifying, the love is increasing, we accepted one young man into membership, and the Lord has been pleased to bring a few more visitors. Best of all, my new wife (as of later this month) will be joining us, and she is excited to become part of the church!

The Lord has been kind to us!