Aging in a changing world

Age is a funny thing. When I was a child, nothing on earth could tempt me to eat broccoli. But now, it’s one of my favourite vegetables. As a teenager, any spare moment was invariably filled with a game of football with the lads from school – no matter what the weather! But now, curling up in front of the fire with a good book is much more appealing.

Our responsibilities change as we get older, too. We first learn to be responsible for ourselves, then often for a spouse, then children, and then parents. Each stage brings its own unique joys and trials.

Each generation has different attitudes, too. I’m old enough to remember that on Sundays most shops would close, but those who are 10 years younger than me don’t have those memories. It’s hardly surprising that it’s easier for me to think of Sundays as special, than it is for them. Likewise, grandparents who remember rationing and children brought up in an age of recycling, are much more likely to be concerned about waste than those who grew up in the extravagant 80s and 90s.

That’s why, in this magazine, we’ve got several articles that deal with issues that face us at different stages of our lives – whether that’s growing up, dealing with the busyness of the middle years, learning to make the most of retirement, or finishing our race well. This approach mirrors that of Paul, who taught Timothy and Titus to consider someone’s age and treat them appropriately (1 Timothy 5, Titus 2, see also 1 Peter 5).

But we shouldn’t let this occasional focus in Scripture distract us from something that is easy to miss – these specific directions for those who are older or younger are the exception, not the rule. It’s remarkable that the Bible rarely singles out one group over another. And perhaps it’s even more remarkable that there’s no New Testament letter written only to young people, or only to older ones. Instead, there’s an implicit (and sometimes an explicit) reminder that in the church of God, there should be people of every generation.

Sadly, that’s often not what we find in our churches today. It’s not uncommon to find a church full of students and young families – and a little down the road find another church where everyone is over 65.

What went wrong?

It’s clear there’s an increasing fragmentation in wider society, and many of us who have grown up in that society have let that infiltrate the church. In my grandparents’ generation, the family would gather around the radio to listen to the BBC Light Programme. But in my parents’ generation teenagers went to their bedrooms to listen to Radio 1, their parents listened to Radio 2 downstairs, whilst granddad and grandma listened to Radio 3 in the annexe. Today, the ubiquity of smartphones and computers have heightened that separation still further.

This separation has been compounded by increased social mobility, more people going to university, and less secure jobs, which have often left families scattered around the country. For many, it’s rare for two generations to be enjoying the same activity together, never mind three or four generations.

These changes are ones that we can’t avoid. But we mustn’t be passive. Where society is improving (for example in the ways we treat minorities) then the church should be leading the change. But where society is degenerating, then the church must swim against the tide. Most change in society is a mixture of good and bad. It’s up to us to use the good and fight the bad.

The changes I’m describing are not new. They began to happen at least two generations ago, and their effects began to be felt in the church perhaps twenty or thirty years ago. This increased separation between younger and older manifested itself in several ways, some of which are quite trivial in hindsight, but seemed vital at the time. We argued over pews versus chairs, over pianos versus organs, over hymns versus ‘choruses’ (even the word seems quaint, now!), over the NIV versus the AV, over tradition versus change.

These things do matter, and it’s good that they were discussed. But where debate should have led to understanding and co-operation, frequently the debates turned into arguments, and sometimes the arguments into all-out wars. When this happened, there were usually no victors. Where the older generation ‘won’, it left a younger generation feeling unwanted – and where churches lost that generation, they lost the generations that followed, too. But in churches where the younger generation ‘won’, it often left the older generation feeling equally unwelcome – no longer at home in the church they had faithfully served for most of their lives.

So how do we put right these wrongs? In principle, it’s very simple, but in practice it will be tough. We must get back to the Christian mindset of Philippians 2:3-5:

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus.

If we had all lived like that, there would be no churches that were full only of older people, or full only of younger people. There would have been no ‘worship wars’. The church would have stood as a beacon to the world, demonstrating that unity in Christ Jesus brings people together, not drives them apart. If we had demonstrated we are not of the world, the world would have seen how we loved one another, and God would have been glorified (see John 15-17).

So all the articles in this issue of the magazine are written for all our readers. I’m not in the flush of youth, and nor am I in my old age, but I do need to know how to best support and pray for those who are. I need to empathise and understand. I need to know the grass isn’t always greener. I need to know that my way isn’t the only way, and often it’s not even the best way. I need to be reminded that we are all one in Christ Jesus. This magazine has helped me to remember all these things, and my prayer is that it will help you remember, too.

This article was published in March 2014. Bookmark the permalink.

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