I wonder if others observe a phenomenon I think I see in many churches: people clustering with others in their generation? The 20-somethings spend their time with other 20-somethings talking about 20-something concerns. The young families hang out with other young families, hosting play dates and trading parenting tips. It seems to me that 60-somethings tend to flock together with other 60-somethings. There are notable exceptions, of course. There are those older men and women who become pillars in the church by investing in younger men and women. And there are the younger persons who seek to serve young families or older members. But by and large, people seem to spend the bulk of their spiritual energy and time with other people in the same stage of life.
There’s much that can be said about this–its scope, causes, benefits, and so on. But one thing that strikes me today is that segregating into enclaves based on age and life-stage tends to weaken the future of the church. What do I mean?
Well, it’s clear that God intends the faith to be taught and passed down from the older generation to the younger. Paul’s words to Titus are perhaps the most well-known words to this effect:
You must teach what is in accord with sound doctrine. Teach the older men to be temperate, worthy of respect, self-controlled, and sound in faith, in love and in endurance. Teach the older women to be reverent in the way they live, not to be slanderers or addicted to much wine, but to teach what is good. Then they can train the younger women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no one will malign the word of God. Similarly, encourage the young men to be self-controlled. In everything set them an example by doing what is good. In your teaching show integrity, seriousness and soundness of speech that cannot be condemned, so that those who oppose you may be ashamed because they have nothing bad to say about us. (Titus 2:1-8)
But what happens when this vision of body life doesn’t materialize in a widespread way because we cluster into our demographic groups?
Well, 20-somethings tend to learn mostly from other 20-somethings. They’re cut off from the perspective and wisdom gained by being a generation or two older. They develop 20-something solutions to what will likely either be 40-something foundations or problems. They make courtship and dating decisions that look really cool at 20 but turn out to be short-sighted at 40. They make purchasing decisions that seem life-giving at 20 that turn into major burdens at 40. I think I see lots of 20-somethings (guys in particular) running the race without self-control, self-control that older members could and should help them gain.
Meanwhile, the 40-somethings work through marriage, parenting, and career issues without the longer view of 60-somethings. As quiet as it’s kept, knowing how to be a husband, wife or parent doesn’t come to us by osmosis. We have to be taught how to love a wife, how to respect a husband, and how to raise our children in the fear and admonition of the Lord. And sometimes those callings get as nuts-and-bolts as learning how to cook, how to discipline, how to argue and how to make up. During this period, our 30- and 40-somethings develop or continue habits that either help or hurt. Sadly, many will do so without the wisdom that comes from more seasoned experience. Consequently, they take the same lumps others could have helped them avoid. Or they “make it” through that middle-age season via a series of trial and error experiments.
This, of course, affects the temperature and vitality of the church. We have congregations of people “trying to figure life out” largely alone. Great amounts of time get invested in helping young people negotiate the choppy waters of early adulthood, middle-aged people work their way through challenges of marriage, family, and career, and older persons figure out meaning late in life sometimes without much-loved spouses, declining health, and shrinking numbers of living peers. Pastors and elders mistakenly think they must become masters of each stage of life, counsel people through every opportunity and difficulty, and be there in every circumstance. But, actually, the Bible instructs the pastor to teach the congregation to be there for one another and does so by tying the generations together so that the built-in expertise of old age gets leveraged for every younger generation. It’s a beautiful thing.
In this way older members of the local church become the front line of discipleship and care. They brighten the future of the church by teaching younger members how to live out the faith, how to avoid mistakes, seize opportunities, practically apply the word of God to their lived realities. As that store of wisdom, maturity, and experience gets passed on and received with humility, the spiritual, emotional, and volitional maturity of the congregation rises considerably. The more mature the young persons in the body the brighter the future of the church. We sometimes act as if older members have no role vital to the future of the church. But actually they are absolutely essential, indispensable.
Thabiti Anyabwile is a church planter in Washington D.C. and a Council member with The Gospel Coalition.