Tuesday, May 23, 2023

Church, Culture, and Aging

The Adult Education class at my little church has been indulging me in a four week conversation about faith and aging in America.  I'm cobbling together a manuscript about the role of the church as our society ages, and there's nothing like getting the stories and insights of other Jesus folk to help inform and shape my thinking.  As we've talked about the struggles and marginalization of the oldest of the old in our culture, something keeps gnawing at my soul.  

There's a great deal of talk in the church about the young.  I mean, I love young folks and all, and young families are a blessing to the church.  We've got to be relevant, to speak to the zeitgeist of the twenty and thirty somethings.   

"Young people are our future," we cry.  "We need young people."

This is true. Without the engagement of "The Youth," the church will not survive.  It is unquestionably in our organizational self-interest to be as youth-friendly as possible. 

But then the contrarian in me pipes up.  It's consumer culture that divvys up humankind into marketing demographics.

Is organizational self-interest the purpose of Christian faith?  We want to "grow the church," but if that means parroting the values of culture, is that what we're actually doing? 

As America grays, and more and more human beings will find themselves sidelined by the endless rush of our culture, our seniors are increasingly pushed out to the margins.  They are conceptualized as either irrelevant or an obstacle to our cultural pursuit of whatever shiny object has most recently been dangled in front of us.

At some level, I wonder if the focus on The Youth represents a tacit acceptance of America's marginalization of The Old.  The Old are not productive, are not driving profit margins in this fiscal quarter.  They are not interested in the latest iPhone.  Unless they are unusually well off, they have nothing the culture wants.  

A church that is conformed to culture will share that understanding.

For all of our talk about being a community that reaches out to the last and the least and the lost, there seems to be a bit of a blind spot when it comes to those who have nothing to offer us.  They can't offer a long future of participation.  They can't offer financial support, because the majority of older folk in our culture don't have enough resources for their own care, let alone our latest Annual Campaign.  Their preferences are conceptualized as an obstacle to our future.  Their old hymns and familiar liturgies don't mesh with our vision of a TikTok ministry.  We don't sing their songs, or listen to their stories.  They aren't repositories of wisdom, but inconveniences, souls whose lives and faith have value to the institution.

"You have nothing more of value to offer to the church as a person," we seem to be saying to the homebound elderly, before fishing around in our bag.  "But here's a brochure about Gifts and Bequests."

This is particularly true of my denomination, which is just the faintest bit ironic.  If there's any church that should value the voice and presence of Elders, it'd be Presbyterians.