Post Author: Stephanie Sorge Wing
It was the first viral challenge of 2019: “How hard did aging hit you?” To play, one posts the very first picture uploaded to a social media platform next to the most recent. For many Facebook users, this seems to cover somewhere around a decade, give or take a few years. I cheated and posted a precious picture of my older sister and me long before social media was a thing, and likely before Mark Zuckerberg was even born.
The challenge proved to pack a bigger punch for some than aging itself. Pulling up a snapshot of life can bring up a flood of powerful memories – some good, some not so good. Seeing the physical changes of our bodies and faces can be another mixed bag of emotions. Some friends obliged and posted their pictures, along with lists of ways that they had grown, paths their lives had taken, adversities they had faced, and their pride at the beautiful people they have become, wrinkles and all. Even those posts were painful and triggering reminders for others of dreams that had been deferred or dashed completely, painful losses, and other ways in which life just hasn’t been what they thought it would be.
Our love/hate relationship with aging is, if not peculiarly American, at least particularly so. Youth and beauty are worshiped in many ways. The industries that sell products to combat aging are expected to exceed $216 billion in revenues by 2021. At the same time, younger generations are judged as lazy, irresponsible, Peter Pan-like entitled adolescents who refuse to grow up. The stereotype is also that they are more self-centered and not motivated by civic duty. They aren’t joining Rotary, Lions, golf clubs, or churches. Clearly they must not care about anyone beyond themselves!
Most churches have been experiencing this tension for years. Initiatives to encourage young adult leadership and participation in the larger church have been around for a while. Where are the young people? We must find the young people! As I approach my 40th birthday this year, my time as a “young” person is officially coming to an end, I suppose. I felt it last year as I was reviewing applications for commissioners to our biennial General Assembly. For the last number of years, going to GA hasn’t been feasible for me with young children. But if I apply in future years, I will no longer be able to check off that shiny “25-40” box. I’ll be in the 41-65 group, no longer of special interest to the Church.
As more of our congregations continue to age and see decline in both numbers and energy, the desire to bring in more young people (often young families, which is a whole other matter!) can become priority number one. I’ve heard from many church folk in many places something along the lines of: “We need young people to come in and take over… the rummage sale, lead the women’s groups, teach Sunday school, serve on governing boards….” Many are looking for their own replacements – the people who will come in and do the things they have been doing for many years. But most “young people” I know aren’t really that interested in continuing traditions or serving the church in those same ways. Even if they are, younger generations don’t have nearly the same level of time, energy, or resources to pour into volunteer service at the church as previous generations did.
At the same time, many younger folk have amazing gifts and talents and creativity that the Church desperately needs. Churches that want “young people” simply to come and take over what they have been doing will probably continue to decline. But those who provide a place for all generations to come and participate as they are called and able will be enriched in new and exciting ways as more gifts are shared and the contributions of people, great and small, are honored and celebrated.
In many churches, age is hitting pretty hard. Buildings are aging and in need of more specialized and expensive repair and upkeep. The faithful members who have been there for decades remain faithful and active, but they aren’t getting any younger. Their children have moved away, or found new church homes elsewhere, or have dropped out of church altogether. It’s getting harder to find volunteers willing or able to provide the same kind of programmatic leadership for all ages, especially when fewer are showing up.
Churches are also susceptible to the cultural objectification and adoration of youth. We want to see (but usually not hear) babies and young children, large youth groups, and successful college and young adult ministries. They make us look young and relevant. They make us feel successful and validated. Our church is the cool church where all the hip young people want to go! Look – we aren’t a dying church after all!
We want to see pews of shiny young people, and we want them to outnumber the “gray-hairs.” But we don’t necessarily want them to change anything. When we see young people as the infusion that the church needs to survive, it’s no wonder that those who come are quickly turned off by that feeling, and those who actually stay for a little while soon burn out. That’s where the road leads if we mirror the youth-obsessed culture rather than exhibiting a different way.
What does it look like to make room for true hospitality for younger generations? Not because we need them, but because we – the church, the body of Christ – see their particular needs and longings, and know that we have something to offer? For one, it looks like a welcome that doesn’t immediately come with a request to teach Sunday school! But it also looks like taking them seriously, getting to know them, and learning how they might be part of this complex but intricate body of Christ. Are there particular needs or gifts, hungers or ideas and passions that they bring? Of course there are! All of that is just part of what makes this body of Christ so beautiful.
At the same time, we don’t want to center everything around younger generations. There are particular needs, gifts, hungers, ideas, and passions that every member brings to the body. A church that is truly hospitable to younger generations will be equally earnest in engaging the middle and older generations, too. There are nonagenarians in my congregation who still have stories, experiences, and gifts that other long-time members don’t know. Challenging the cultural adoration and objectification of youth moves the whole body into a greater balance of intergenerational relationship that can be authentic and grounding.
Aging “hits” all of us – individually and corporately – continuing the story of who we are and how we have come to be. Our shine doesn’t dull when we hit the big 4-0, nor does our capacity for meaningful contribution to the body have a requirement of having been born in or before a certain year. Aging changes institutions, and the church is certainly changing. Maybe we can stop worrying as much about the wrinkles and gray hairs, and take greater delight in this beautiful body of Christ that we are called to be, giving thanks for the continual work of transformation by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Having just celebrated her 10th anniversary of ordination, Stephanie is grateful for the metaphorical lines and gray hairs that decade has brought. The jury is still out on whether her 3 and 5 year old sons keep her young or contribute to the gray hairs. Stephanie is grateful to serve as Pastor at Trinity Presbyterian Church, where all ages are warmly welcomed into the body of Christ gathered here.
Image by: Stephanie Sorge Wing
Used with permission