Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as if he were your father. Treat younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters, with absolute purity.
-1 Timothy 5:1-2 (NIV)
A couple of days this week, I’ve seen some trucks from a clean-out service at the house across the street from the church. The guy who lived there died a couple of months ago, and I guess his children are getting ready to sell the house.
First, though, someone has to clear everything out. Hence the trucks, and crews carrying out a lifetime’s worth of stuff.
He lived there already when I started at the church and moved into the neighborhood almost 26 years ago. He must have been there over 50 years. He and his wife raised a son and a daughter there. A few truckloads of stuff later, and you’d never know he lived in the house at all. Someone else will move in, eventually, and then in a few more years no one who knew him will be in the neighborhood anymore. Seems sad, though I guess it’s only inevitable, the natural consequence of advancing years. James said it well: “You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” Few of our houses will be remembered as our houses for very long after we’ve stopped occupying them.
Sometimes, though, our culture’s fixation on young and new unduly influences us to hurry the previous occupants out the door.
That’s what seems to be happening in a church in Minnesota.
The church, though it’s been shrinking in size and increasing in age for some time now, has a loyal core group of members who have been keeping things going in the absence of a pastor. Recently, though, a new pastor has come in with a turnaround plan. Actually, it seems more like euthanasia. Someone — the pastor, the denomination, or both — decided the most efficient thing to do would be to close the church, make some renovations to the building, and then reopen as a brand new church. Drastic, sure, but OK.
Here’s the problem, though: The existing members — almost all of them in their 60s or older — would be moved to another church. Then, when their church reopened (as a “new” church), they would be encouraged to “talk to the pastor” about coming back, provided they were on the same page with the new church’s leaders about vision, direction, and so forth. It was suggested that they should wait 15-18 months after the church reopens to connect with the pastor about returning.
So, to sum up: The decision has been made — independent of the core group of members who have kept a small, struggling church alive and witnessing to the gospel in their community — to shut their church down and reopen it later in the year as a new church. And, a year and a half or so after they reopen, that core group can interview with the pastor and apply for readmission.
Maybe the pastor himself can explain it: “It’s a new thing with a new mission for a new target and a new culture.” No, guess not. But at least he said “new” a lot.
Maybe a denominational official can make this all sound better: “We are asking them to let this happen. For this to be truly new, we can’t have the core group of 30 people. The members of the church have other options.” No, that doesn’t help either. But, again, at least he referenced how “new” it was all going to be.
Look, I get that leading churches can involve difficult choices. I get that sometimes folks can get too wound up in the way things have always been done in a church to allow for needed changes. I get, too, that there are reasons to be concerned about young adults leaving churches. That’s a trend that’s easily observable across all denominations, fellowships, tribes, and flavors. It’s such a worry, in fact, that I could go to Amazon right now and browse title after title of books about bringing young adults back into the church.
Do you know what I see a lot less of? Concern about how churches can minister to the older people in their pews. Most churches, I think, are growing older, and I frankly don’t hear much about how we can best minister to folks with increasing health problems, or who are burying their spouses, or who are trying to figure out who they are after they’ve retired, or who don’t have the energy or the mobility they once did.
All I hear is how to be the kind of church that young people will want to attend.
Are we expending so much of our energy and resources chasing our world’s infatuation with “young” and “new” that we don’t have anything left over for our older members who have kept us alive for decades?
I’m not even sure that chasing young and new is getting us where we want to be anyway. My son, a college student, attends a chapel service every week with a couple hundred students who just get together and sing hymns. On purpose. They could sing Chris Tomlin or Hillsong or whoever if they wanted to. They choose hymns, instead. “Don’t let anyone tell you that people my age don’t like to sing hymns,” he says.
But it doesn’t have to be one or the other, does it? There’s room in our churches, isn’t there, for trying to connect with younger people while at the same time making time and room to love and serve those who are older? If we reach one generation at the expense of another — whichever way our preference goes — haven’t we already failed? Are we really supposed to believe that the church should be generationally exclusive? That the gospel doesn’t have something to say to people in their youth as well as those in the twilight of their lives?
Has our world’s single-minded pursuit of youth and novelty so damaged us that we can’t even imagine a community in which four or five generations can serve the Lord, and each other, and their community together?
I mean, of course we all prefer and gravitate to people most like us — including in age. But should we be content with that? I think not.
Listen: if nothing about your church has changed in twenty years, something’s off. Churches always have to change, like everything else in this impermanent, changing world. The world to come is the permanent one.
But change doesn’t have to — and shouldn’t — mean leaving behind brothers and sisters, or mothers and fathers as Paul might say. It’s still their house, too. Let’s be in no hurry to move their stuff out.
It’s no great trick to create something new after you’ve gotten rid of the old.
Creating something beautiful, full of love, and fit for the kingdom out of treasures new and old? That’s God’s work. And that’s what I want to be a part of.