Christianity and the Cult of Youth

Why do so many churches sideline the elderly?

Here is my thesis: just as most of the West has elevated all things youth while ignoring, downplaying or overlooking the elderly, so too in most of Western Christianity. Not everywhere of course, and not all the time. But far too often we see most of the emphasis focused on younger believers while older ones are more or less sidelined, marginalised, and forgotten about.

Let me try to unpack all this. For much of human history cultures respected and revered their elders. Even today Asia for example still largely does have this high regard for the elderly, although as it more and more engages with modernity, this too is waning. But for so long it was the default position.

The West however continues to grow in its secularism, so it has very much lost an appreciation for older folks. Indeed, all of pop culture, from advertising to the movies to music to television to games is all fixated on youth. So the elderly are increasingly shoved to the side and ignored.

And churches in the West invariably tend to copy what the surrounding culture is up to, so in far too many churches today we see the same thing occurring: youth are in the spotlight while the elderly are shunted aside. Just consider how many of the larger churches in the West “do” worship.

Often they may have an earlier Sunday morning worship service geared for – and maybe a concession to – older Christians, with a more staid atmosphere and older hymns, etc. Then later services will be geared much more for everyone else, with the rock concert atmosphere we now find everywhere. Many of the larger churches will have just one of these ‘old folks’ services but a number geared for the younger worshippers.

You might say that is because we have less and less elderly among us. Actually, not so: demographically speaking, the biggest pool of the population in the West today is the elderly, with less young people coming along to match their numbers. But so obsessed are we with the culture of youth, that often the older saints are forgotten about.

Sure, these older Christians might still be counted on to do some volunteer work in the church, or to help make casseroles for some church dinner. But often that is about it. My point here is that there is something that comes with age: it is called experience, it is called wisdom, it is called maturity.

I am not saying that all old people are super saints, and I am not saying younger people are substandard believers. But generally speaking it is true: maturity often does come with time. We learn things along the way, God teaches us, we experience things, we learn lessons, we mature, we develop more deeply in our spiritual lives – and that often involves a process of time.

Again, young folks can grow spiritually strong – I am not saying they cannot. But Scripture itself speaks about these matters. One well-known text on this is memorable from its KJV rendering: “Lay hands suddenly on no man” (1 Timothy 5:22).

While newer versions give a somewhat different wording, the point of the passage has long been held to be that we should not thrust a new Christian into positions of spiritual leadership prematurely or too quickly. The ESV puts it this way: “Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands,” and the context of course is about church leadership.

Moreover, the very concept and terminology of ‘elders’ found throughout the New Testament, especially in the Pastoral Epistles, speaks to this reality. These church leaders are not referred to as ‘youngers’! Sure, we also have Paul saying in 1 Timothy 4:12, “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young”.

So we need biblical balance here. No one is saying only those 40 and above can be church leaders, and so on. But we are saying that Scripture does put a premium on the elderly in general. Consider just a few such texts, of many:

Exodus 20:12 Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

Leviticus 19:32 You shall rise up before the grayheaded and honor the aged, and you shall revere your God; I am the LORD.

Ephesians 6:2 “Honor your father and mother” (this is the first commandment with a promise),

1 Timothy 5:1-2 Do not sharply rebuke an older man, but rather appeal to him as a father, to the younger men as brothers, the older women as mothers, and the younger women as sisters, in all purity.

1 Timothy 5:17 Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honour, especially they who labour in the word and doctrine.

1 Peter 5:5 You younger men, likewise, be subject to your elders; and all of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another.

These are just some of the texts highlighting the place of older folks. But instead of drawing upon all their experience, insight, wisdom and maturity, we too often just put the elderly Christians out to pasture. We forget about them and refuse to learn from them.

I was talking to an older saint a while ago who is around my age. In the past we both had spoken often at various parachurch groups and the like. I said I was not getting invited back much to these groups. He said it was the same for him – they preferred younger speakers and teachers.

Now I can understand why groups may not want me back – I do not think I am great shakes when it comes to being some most-wanted speaker. But my friend I regard as a spiritual giant who has so much to offer, yet he too has been hung out to dry it seems.

Thankfully some churches and Christian ministries still affirm the value of older Christians, and are happy to put them to good use for the Kingdom. But I suspect that in the West they are few and far between. As a result, millions of years of collective wisdom, experience and understanding is being lost, while older believers are sidelined.

There is so much by way of mentoring, discipleship, and teaching that the older saints can offer to the young. They have a wealth of experience, knowledge and understanding. But so often all that is left untapped, unused, and unwanted. What a tragic waste.

‘But,’ some might protest, ‘in order to reach the young, we must use the young’. Hmm, I would have thought that in order to reach the young – or anyone else for that matter – we need the Holy Spirit, the power of God, and the Word of God faithfully and fearlessly proclaimed.

The idea that the young can only be reached by cool, hip and trendy young church leaders (complete with all the by now mandatory look, clothing or uniform – you know what I mean), along with all the entertainment, razzmatazz and amusements, seems to be at odds with the way Scripture presents things.

OK, so call me a grumpy old man if you will. But even if I were still young, I and plenty of others can see that the cult of youth is a thing. It certainly is in the world, and sadly it too often is a thing in our churches and Christian ministries. I am simply asking us to reconsider all this a bit.

Let me finish this way: Since I have learned over the years how very easy it is for folks – including Christians – to misunderstand or misrepresent what you have said, let me once again clarify things in order to lessen some of the cases of people taking offence, or wanting to pick a fight:

-Have I said that all churches and Christian groups are guilty of this? Um, no.
-Have I said that young believers are substandard Christians? Um, no.
-Have I said that there is no place for younger Christians in the life and work of the church and Christian ministry? Um, no.
-Have I said that older Christians are always spiritually superior to younger ones? Um, no.
-Have I said that only real old believers are capable of godly leadership? Um, no.

I think my point here has been more or less clear. Our culture worships youth and is devoted to youth, and it tends to despise or ignore older folks. And too often the church has followed suit. As such, there is nothing amiss in asking some hard questions about all this.

I was going to conclude this article and post it, but I just now decided to do a quick net search and see what others might have said about all this. Much has been said, so let me briefly quote from two such pieces I found. One says this in part:

Sometimes senior saints question their usefulness in the church as they age. That’s unfortunate because they’re an essential part of the body of Christ. Although we trust in our sovereign and wise God to add and take away from his local body as he sees fit, church life is different without them. As pastors, therefore, we need to remind our elderly members that they’re not only loved by their Good Shepherd and Savior—they’re also loved and needed by his people.

Here are four reasons every local church needs senior saints.
We need your prayers.
We need your practical, biblical wisdom.
We need your encouragement.
We need your presence.

Another article said this:

God has called us to honor our parents (Lev. 19:3; Eph. 6:2) as well as the other seniors among us too!

About one year ago a senior commented, “Seniors need a church too!” He was correct. Some seniors feel that the better years of life are gone and the better years of church life are gone too! Some seniors feel the disdain and slight rejection that occurs within their own church. They have come to accept the fact that the church no longer highly values them. Surely, you have heard that the church is looking for the younger people. Some churches are even less interested in them, except for their money and a number in the attendance count.

Wouldn’t it be great to honor our seniors as much as we do the younger generation? Shouldn’t the music be designed to provide a balance so that it ministers to them and also the younger generation? Maybe, just maybe we could turn down the music volume and sing some old hymns. Wouldn’t it be great to treat them as equals? How about a sermon on Sunday morning about honoring our seniors? I heard about a church youth group that would mow the front yards of their seniors several times per year. What an expression of honor. God calls us to honor our parents and other seniors too! There are many ways we can do that. Honoring our seniors honors God the Father – The Ancient of Days. He is the Senior of seniors.

[1851 words]

38 Replies to “Christianity and the Cult of Youth”

  1. Insightful again Bill – thank you.
    The last two sentences in your last quote say it all!
    We have been told that in our wider region, one of the denominations will not consider pastors being older than 45 – and yes, required ‘uniform’, razzamattazz etc . .
    Sadly an underlying contempt is often evident, sadly too often combined also with proud superiority and lack of respect. Certainly short-sighted as life moves on inexorably and indiscriminately for everyone . . .

  2. The previous church I attended have a 12 noon “legacy” bilingual service in Cantonese and English, as this was how “they’ve always done it”. Now down to around 20 worshippers, mostly over 80, & will probably “die of natural attrition”, as its members, one by one “return to God”.

    Those “youth-centric” churches you mention are missing out on a huge “pool of wisdom”, as these seniors have likely made the same mistakes in the past, & the youth have deprived themselves of someone to learn from! 🙁

  3. Spot on Bill! In the churches we’ve attended over the last few years (with one exception) the music is deafening, the auditorium has been darkened to set the “mood” and asking for a hymn to be played semi regularly is just not on. We’ve been told that the music is aimed at the young people now even though the congregation is 60% oldies. I was saved in my 30’s and if I hadn’t sought out the older women at church I would not be where I am today. At 68 I am now one of those older women and I wonder where I fit in today’s church culture. Bless ya’

  4. Thanks for this encouraging message, Bill. I too often feel useless in my church. However, your encouragement and that of Alistair Begg have helped me a lot. One thing we elderly can do is pray. I spend time praying for my church, for my pastor, for his next sermon, and many other things. I can’t do much physically anymore but I can pray a lot! There is a lot to pray about today too. I always enjoy your articles and messages.

  5. The straw that broke this camel’s back at one church geared for the young was the band and “song leaders” singing the same short thing 12 times—yes, 12 times! I counted them.
    The Christians I respect most are older people who have retained their faith (and strengthened it) amidst many varying trials and tribulations. Their wisdom and encouragement is being wasted by the neglect of many (but not all) young people.

  6. Sadly quite a few Churches have cut out the “senior service” at 8 am. One I am familiar also cut out the 6pm youth service and has attempted to bundle everyone into a 10am service which is youth oriented. The result of these moves has been seniors and some young people leaving the church completely. Gone has the support and wisdome of many seniors plus a number of young people who would have been part of the future of the church. Reduces the Ministers work load as well the future of this church, makes no sense to me.

  7. Here’s a thought: we need the energy and daring of the young folk AND we need the wisdom and perspective of the elder folk. Thanks Bill for an excellent article with good food for thought.

  8. I think they are sidelined because;
    a) They have years of experience, which young people don’t want to hear.
    b) They have a set of moral values that the young people don’t want to hear.
    c) Most older generation Know some of the word of God and the youth of today don’t want to hear that either, they want to be able to follow after “other gods”.

  9. Agree completely. By my teen years I was in a typical protestant church youth group (not a particularly welcoming / edifying one, I became a christian despite it). Later I was keen to send my kids to one, and did so but with mixed “outcomes”. The evening service was completely focussed on youth / young adults, but I noticed that as people moved on from those categories quite a few moved on from the church and active Christianity as well. I also ended up looking back thinking that the rather insubstantial and private “discipling” efforts eg in small groups with young leaders was pretty mixed in quality! I guess that most church leaders have good motives but I’ve wondered for a while whether such a strong emphasis and almost exclusive nature for the youth group / young adults is ultimately damaging to the church (even devil inspired?) because it puts up substantial barriers to intra-church and intra-generational relationships, and because it perhaps is too haphazard in discipleship training.

  10. I’m now in my late 60s and visited Hillsong Church in Sydney a few years ago. Yes most of the congregation was half my age or younger but I was made SO VERY WELCOME. I loved the music as well.
    I’m been to several different churches when visiting various towns and go with the attitude of encouraging the congregation and praying for them. This was not the case when I was younger. I remember feeling very unwelcome in a big church once as no one spoke to me. Now my attitude has changed. I speak to them as I would to my dearly loved grandchildren.
    You make some very good and valid points Bill but it’s amazing how just being loving can change the atmosphere.
    Was told by a young lady ‘you rock’. I think that was a compliment?

  11. Our media is full of young beautiful people & not much about old beautiful people.

  12. Spot on Bill. My thoughts exactly, sadly. “Maybe, just maybe we could turn down the music volume and sing some old hymns. ” At least occasionally.

  13. Things are very different in the Catholic Church, Bill. All the youth have abandonned the Church and the only ones left are the elderly. They are the only ones who come to church and pay the bills. In another ten years, as we all depart this life, there won’t be anyone left. Last one out, turn off the lights.

  14. Thanks Bill, I also loved your article and even though am 60 I still look up to the ‘golden oldies’ for wisdom, experience and insight especially on the internet. I was only reading this morning in 1 Kings 12:6-24 ‘Rehoboam took counsel with the old men who had stood before Solomon his father while he was yet alive, saying, “How do you advise me to answer this people?” The older men advised Rehoboam to speak good words to the people. However, Rehoboam forsook the older men’s counsel and instead took the counsel of the younger men he had grown up with and spoke harsh words . The result was that the people of Israel departed from Rehoboam as King and Jeroboam became their king – Only the tribe of Judah followed the house of David with Rehoboam as king in Jerusalem.

  15. It makes me really sad to hear of this. I haven’t attended the church I grew up in regularly for a few years now after moving away, but every visit I love to chat with the older members. A couple of special people are like extra grandparents in a way (all four of my biological grandparents passed before I turned 18).
    I think that is the best way to balance younger and older members – treat each other with the love and respect we would of family members. I have personally experienced being belittled as a younger person (what I was doing was considered less important than the seniors activity) so I think the church as an organisation intentionally investing in building mutual respect (with a considered weighting of experience for the senior side) is really important.

  16. After having read and thought long and hard about the subject that you have discussed I would have to say that I agree with everything that you have said as I am not wanted ,needed or looked upon as having any value whatsoever, I still attend my local place of worship out of obedience to my Lord God Almighty.You never know one day some one will just ask a question that I may be able to answer and that then is the reason for my being here.Thank you for your wisdom and understanding.

  17. I go to a church which caters for Spanish on Saturday, Italian members early Sunday morning and then has two English Sunday morning services due to the healthy growth of congregation..midweek meetings cater for the youth to hold their meetings as well as for open age…it has a healthy mixture of young and old with great respect for each other …the worship is both contemporary and older, and again is balanced….sadly hymns are only sung occasionally, I was taught many many of them as a young. Christian ..Whatever one’s spiritual needs are there is a church which should cater for ones level of spiritual growth..I don’t just go to a church building to get my spiritual food but study the written word and listen to learned preachers…Whether we are young or older we need to respect and listen to each other and learn,teach, and encourage each other…we are all on the same journey.

  18. Much wisdom comes from experience.
    Memories of failure are preventative.
    Memories of success are patterns for future success.
    Accumulative knowledge tends to create good priorities.
    Only in the perspective of time can these truths be realized.
    It is impossible for youth to duplicate that process.
    We need the emotion and passion of youth.
    we need the experience and wisdom of our elders (‘tho I don’t seem to have as many as I once did!)
    Thanks for your ministry Bill! It is so needed!

  19. In my late 40s now I still young enough to be an 80s child and experienced the christian music scene with loud bands like Stryper etc and heavier, yet my personality has always been a reflective type and even back then grew frustrated with the addiction to constant loud noise in church services. It was almost as if people can’t handle a bit of silence even for a minute.

    In the past 10-15 years this has grown more pronounced. When I visited a friend’s Edge church last year it was dark, and louder than virtually any rock/metal show I have seen and I have seen amongst the heaviest bands in music history… There was not a moment’s silence and of course the speaker had to yell the whole time, as if God and us couldn’t hear that well. I much prefer quiet contemplative church practices now (yes I still listen to loud music sometimes).. the only problem is that all the contemplative churches I’ve tried are pluralistic and are afraid to stand on objective truth…it’s very frustrating – I don’t fit in the pentecostal church because of it’s addiction to loudness and programs, yet the churches that practice silence are typically lefty progressive orientated.

    There is definitely a disdain or at least ignorance of older folk at some churches these days. Anyone over 40 at some hyped up churches are almost invisible at times…. Also from experience I know that at these big pente churches there are rarely anyone younger than 30 allowed on the worship team. (It’s like Logan’s Run where all people must die at 30!) … One friend was rejected from being on a worship team as she was 34, not looking like a model and her songs were said to be ‘not what they were after’… The reality was that my friend has written some deep powerful songs that were more fitted to Psalms and Lamentations. …and that its a no no in big loud happy clappy churches.

  20. Thank you, Bill, for another timely and insightful article about what is happening in so many churches today. Each person posting a comment has made essential, valid points and shared experiences. I especially appreciate the post of the Rev. Dr. Camm, in which he listed the Biblical morals and truths and the sense of order and wisdom many young people do not want to hear and, as implied, how such unsound young people could corrupt and damage a church.

    The church of my childhood was ruined by a pastor who insisted on putting new members in places of responsibility without discipling them or even getting to know them. Very soon unsound policies and practices were part of the church operation, as well as making excuses for serious sin in which the young leaders and their families became involved and then justified in their minds. Finally it was revealed the pastor himself was involved in a double life, and we surmised he had put the questionable new members in charge because they did not have the wisdom to catch onto his scheme. Once the truth was revealed, the denomination head stepped in to remove him from the church and strip him of his ordination. At this time I changed churches. Two youth-oriented pastors have served since that time, and the church no longer is recognizable. Even the name of the church was changed to something non-denominational because the original name might “offend” some people.

    The next example happened to the church of my single years in a large city. The church had a great mixture of music and members of all ages, and the pastor was a very strong, loving, and personable leader who related to and included all ages. In time, this man of God and his wife were called home to heaven, and the church, of course, looked for a new pastor. It must be the deacon board of my youth had changed and that the new board was comprised of people who lacked wisdom in fulfilling their office. They became impressed by a young man who had majored in marketing in a state college and had had a part-time ministry to the students of his alma mater. He boldly announced that was starting a “young people’s church,” and the deacon board passively let him take over, dismantle the church library, and destroy many church records and memorabilia. He removed the handicap parking lot and did away with the senior citizens Sunday school classroom next to the parking lot, which discouraged the older people from attending. When they complained, he told them to join another, certain church in the city that “would be glad to have them.” All of this was heartbreaking.

    When my long-time friend told me what had happened, I told her there are two things the affected people could have done: (1) they could have cited the man for discrimination on the basis of age and disability and should have reported this in detail to the headquarters of the denomination; and (2) they could have reported the parking lot/classroom situation to the local, state, and Federal governments because the man had violated the code for public buildings and also the Americans with Disabilities Act, with documentation sent to the denomination. I am mentioning this in case other people are confronted with a similar, sad situation and would not know that protection is available.

    The first red flag, I told my friend, was the man’s having a degree in marketing from a secular university (instead of Bible and ministry from a Christian college), followed by what we in the United States call “Madison Avenue tactics.” Such tactics are not taught in the Bible because they focus on humanistic and business-oriented solutions and leave out prayer, faith, and the role of the Holy Spirit in drawing people to Christ.

  21. I am in my early 70s from a small wheatbelt town in Western Australia, Unfortunately Anglican seem to be the same as the Catholic Church we find it hard to attract the youth although the young Anglican Families still see the importance of having their children Baptized within the Church, our congregation welcomes them with open arms we love to hear the sound of the Children which reminds us to humble ourselves like children as we kneel at the foot of the cross of Jesus.
    I traveled to Perth last year when Franklin Graham Toured I did enjoyed his presentation was extremely happy to see the youth it reassured me that Christianity was alive and well. In fact I did enjoyed the upbeat music, although I might add will never take the place of our Hymns. Perhaps my only concern which I could see was how the youth embraced the music hopefully they where dancing to Jesus and truly worshiping our Lord and Savior and not just the beat of the music which made them feel good. My prayers are with the youth that they are lead by the Holy Spirit to do Gods work. One thing we can all do as we age is become Pray Warriors for Gods Kingdom.
    Thank you Bill for your Ministry which is so needed. AMEN

  22. When the church I did attend employed a minister in his early thirties, I became obsolete (60s, bible college-trained; university trained; parachurch ministry director). We were forced to sit and listen to playschool sermons.

    I was so bored I had to leave to stop myself going comatose. The church has gone from about 130 to 30. I only know of a couple of oldies who stayed. The prayer meeting is 30 minutes on a Wednesday afternoon and about two people go to it. The men’s meeting is on Saturday morning at 7 am. About five go to it.

    The Wednesday night youth group is doing well but most of them never darken the door on Sundays.

    The midweek home groups which I wrote the manual for are on life support. I am beginning to wonder if I know what church is all about at all.

  23. Personally I prefer a pastor who is at least in his 50’s since he would have been around a bit and have the experience. With a whole generation being raised to believe they are the best they are special it I no wonder the world is youth oriented. And with so many churches using growth models to increase attendance and revenue, all of these models are secular, it is no surprise they would become youth oriented.

    I value what our elders have to teach us but respect your elders can be taken to far as I have met ones that are either stubborn to the point of being unwilling to even discus something with you, two or three Q’s with A’s is NOT a discussion! Or are rather cantankerous. Some are just as childish as the youth (grey haired children). Sure they are few in number but one experience with them can be off putting (This can be a bit reason some young don’t like older people). I have talked to a few on email and I try to be very respectful but even I have a breaking point. [Most of the time wisdom comes with age but sometimes only years do]

    We all should be open to discussion, real discussion takes time especially through email, and willing to accept that someone else might have a unique perspective. The youth should not be so presumptuous as to believe the have the answers. The old should not but so stubborn as to be unwilling to reexamine their beliefs to ensure they are still correct. Just because a belief is long held doesn’t mean it is right. My approach is “let’s find the answer together” in that way I can show what I believe the answer to be and if you have an insight or idea I hadn’t thought of I can consider it and check out the evidence.

    The youth have much to learn from the elders and the elders might still learn something from the youth. Typically the youth have more to learn.

  24. There’s a significant hurdle in front of a lot of youth today, that causes them to shun the many opportunities they have to cherish the moments of discipleship that are on offer with elderly Christians.
    I think the stumbling block for some youth is ego. They don’t like their feeling of humility should they expose their lack of scriptural understanding to an older person.
    I find so many young folks with little or no comprehension of scriptural revelation but when you try to shed light on their misunderstanding their light turns off.
    It really saddens me

  25. Part of that problem Michael is the “experts” told us to puff them up under the guise of self-esteem they are right they are great they know things others, older people, don’t know etc so they ended up with huge egos and an unwillingness to accept they don’t know the truth that they are wrong about something. Before the 50’s we didn’t need experts to help us raise our kids then all of a sudden we couldn’t raise them withOUT expert help. The church had by that time long since lost any sort of power, mostly Icabod since the turn of the 20th century, (we ran on fumes for a while but that ran out after the war) and so we didn’t correct this expert problem the kids raise by expert parenting became the biggest part of the church leadership and raised their kids with self-esteem. Now we see the fruits of the error of so long ago. Sometimes errors take a generation or two to produce their fruit.

  26. At 66 and coping with chronic health issues, I no longer worry about what my place is in the church. And this after attending church since I was 15. Yes, I have noticed the roles I used to fulfill have been taken by the younger folks. But now I am happy for them to have to have it. It is almost as if one’s relationship to God is reduced to a private hobby, because one knows the church won’t bother to pay much attention to it, if any. I have come to feel that the church is not the best place to engage in a fulfilling life in Christ. Unless you are 35 or younger, of course. But not to worry…even they will eventually grow out of it.

  27. Bill, I know this is a very ‘late’ comment, but here goes.
    I until recently attended church with my daughter. She had shifted from our ‘home’ church to another because her friends went there. Our church had fumbled the youth ministry and it died. She followed her friends, sensibly.
    Her now church has a fabulous youth ministry and late afternoon youthy ‘service’. Completely non-liturgical, which under-impresses me.
    Sometimes one of the clergy-fellers speaks to me, but their time is taken with the youth. Naturally an older man is transparent to young people. Sometimes a young fellow just entering my profession will chat to me, but he’s the only real contact with that group….and even that dried up. I don’t blame him…its just the way it is. When I was in my 20s I didn’t even know one could talk to older people…and they always wanted to give advice! Except that is, for one old saint who was warm, disarmingly humble, and shared with me man to man.
    There are a couple of older people at the service. Sometimes we speak. But it’s shallow and hard to hear over the noise. So I used to go and wait for Beth in the car. Now she can drive, I don’t go at all.
    What I’d love is a monthly Saturday morning or Sunday afternoon fellowship group: read the Bible, talk about it, maybe listen to a tape or watch a video together, coffee and cake, a couple of hymns…that would be fabulous.

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