Challenging ageism in the Church

(Photo: Peter Crumpler)

Age has rapidly become a massively divisive issue in societies across the world. But is the Church any better at bridging the generation divide?

Politicians, donors and voters in the United States are becoming increasingly concerned about President Joe Biden's age and health, following his performance in the recent TV debate with Donald Trump.

Should President Biden fight the upcoming election, or stand aside for someone younger, is the question being asked.

In the UK, many churches are concerned about the increasing age of their congregations. The Church of England has set 'growing younger and more diverse'  as one of its key priorities. The CofE wants to 'double the number of children and young active disciples in the Church of England by 2030.'

It's a brave and important objective and will be a vital part of renewing the Church as it seeks to serve the people of the nation for years ahead.

But, almost subliminally, it contains another message, and one not intended I'm sure by those who drew up the strategy. And it's this – that it can make older people feel less valued in our congregations and church networks.

At a recent conference in London, a senior Salvation Army representative used a slide in his presentation that contained a key message. It said simply, 'An older church is not a failing church.'

The Salvation Army's objectives for its ministry among older people include challenging the stereotype of the older person, challenging ageism, resourcing and affirming older Christians, and providing appropriate resources to local centres and leaders.

The conference brought together a range of Christians organisations working with older people. They looked at how they could work together more closely, how successful initiatives could be shared, and how the best use could be made of buildings and other resources to help the growing number of seniors in our communities.

The groups acknowledged that many older people are involved in serving other older people and are often resourcing many of the services and events run by local churches and other organisations.

It's been good in recent years to see the growth of organisations such as Faith in Later Life and the Anna Chaplaincy movement that are focussed on supporting and serving older people in our churches and communities.

But I wonder if the key to developing healthy church communities lies in seeking to make them places of intergenerational flourishing – where each generation and age group feels accepted and welcomed. And where they can each relate to the other.

Church of England Bishop Graham Tomlin recently wrote: "The calling of the elderly is just as important as that of the young or even the middle-aged. Yet it is different. We need to value older people, not because they can do the things younger people can, but because they are object lessons in how to navigate life, and how to prepare for the next one."

Bishop Tomlin's words are wise and underline the importance of the generations accepting that they have different gifts and perspectives. Our church communities will be better places when people of all ages are relating to each other, sharing life experiences and giving their insights.

I love hearing about children visiting older people's centres, or of seniors telling their life stories to groups of young people. Or of older people mentoring younger disciples, and learning from their more youthful insights. All ages have so much to offer.

So 'growing younger' may be part of the solution to help our churches thrive, but growing intergenerational – in a revolutionary, counter-cultural way – seems to me to offer something especially attractive and missional to our age-divided 21st century world.

Rev Peter Crumpler is a Church of England minister in St Albans, Herts, UK, and a former communications director with the CofE.