A Feature Review of
Growing Old in Church
Reviewed by Michelle Van Loon
A steady tide of articles, books, and conferences (so many conferences!) throughout the last couple of generations has encouraged church leaders to focus on attracting young families as a sure-fire way to grow their congregations. There are some perfectly good reasons for this. Young families fill a church with activity, create lots of opportunities for programming that encourages outreach to the friends and neighbors of those young families, and affords opportunities to influence the spiritual lives of two generations at once.
However, a heavy emphasis on one demographic often squeezes out others in the family of God including singles, the disabled, those battling chronic illness, and seniors. (And It is worth nothing that the latter category has lots of overlap with each of the previous three.) There are hopeful signs that the mechanistic formulas of the church growth movement may be fading. If we say we believe that each person in a congregation is necessary for the healthy function of the local and universal body of Christ, then a renewed focus on intergenerational ministry may be emerging in its place.
Baker Academic has launched a series for church leaders that focuses on providing practical pastoral theology for various lifecycle themes including birth, friendship, addiction recovery, and aging. I had an opportunity to review Will Willimon’s contribution to the series, entitled Aging: Growing Old. Willimon, a retired United Methodist bishop, served as a professor at Duke Divinity School and was the dean of the Duke University chapel for twenty years. He is in his seventh decade of life and writes with honesty, humility, and grace about both the spiritual tasks of aging, and the gifts and challenges of providing pastoral care to those in the last chapters of their lives.
His thesis is clear: “We can retire from our careers but not from discipleship; the church has a responsibility to equip us for discipleship in the last years of our lives. Even though growing old usually includes some painful events, the Christian faith can enable us to live through both the joys and anguish of aging with confidence and hope.”
Seven chapters address themes of aging throughout Scripture, the upheaval of aging, retirement, aging well, the developmental tasks of the final quarter of life, what it looks like to grow old in the church, and end of life questions. Pastor Willimon has a lifetime of excellent anecdotes, balancing them nicely with expert citations drawn from contemporary research as well as a deep wellspring of Scriptural knowledge and application.
And he isn’t afraid to challenge popular voices who’ve spoken into the life of the church regarding aging. For example, he challenges some of the thinking of Father Richard Rohr, who has been very influential in leading the discussion about the second half of life, noting, “Rohr paints a rosy picture of the second half of life as a serene time when we wise and magnanimous people allow our basic goodness to flourish, leaving behind those sour elderly who have a bad attitude,” he writes. “It’s easier to think of old age as the crowning time of life when one is not completely dependent on the beneficence of the Social Security system.” The truth is many struggle to wear that crown when they simply don’t have the resources to buy polish to maintain it.
Willimon calls on pastors to confront the temptation to marginalize older members, challenging them to integrate seniors fully into the life of the church. This challenge works both ways, as part of ongoing pastoral task for those working with seniors means recognizing that the church must serve as an antidote to the tendency to romanticize the good old days. Instead, he calls on pastors to recognize the church can assist in “…bring(ing) some of our self-absorbed, self-deluding nostalgia under control”.
The book’s subtitle is “Growing Old in Church”, and the emphasis throughout is on “growing” rather than aging. Willimon challenges legacy members to willingly step aside from some of their positions of leadership in order to allow younger members to flourish. And he calls on church communities to create meaningful lifelong learning and worship opportunities and build social connections in the context of spiritual formation for all. While he urges some churches to find people who are willing to act as advocates for seniors, if each leader took his excellent counsel to heart, every single church member no matter what age would become those advocates.