As early as I can remember, Miss Elsie Dennison was my Sunday School teacher. The years have swiftly passed, but I can see her now, clear as then. She’s 75, a little hunched over, with brown hair that I now suspect wasn’t entirely natural. She’s standing in a classroom in our small Baptist church in coastal Maine. There aren’t many of us; just three or four kids. Yet a magic is in the air. Miss Dennison loves us, and she teaches us the gospel, using the church’s flannel-graph board and her own earnest faith. There, in that little classroom, young and old joined together in the name of Jesus Christ.
This kind of gospel unity across generations is challenged today, as some Christians over-emphasize friendship with their peers and lose out on opportunities for cross-generational fellowship. This separation—called ageism—diminishes the gospel’s power.
TYPES OF AGEISM
Early Christian leader Cyprian once said of division that « Anyone who rends and divides the Church of Christ cannot possess the clothing of Christ. » Such behavior takes shape in two ways when it comes to generational differences.
First, the old separate from the young. We have all heard of churches in which youth is distrusted and elderly church members have control over church affairs. Though many elderly Christians adore young believers, aged Christians do sometimes distrust those younger than themselves, and create division within the body of Christ.
Second, and more commonly today, the young separate from the elderly. When youths are not taught to reverence the aged, their behavior « opens wide the door to pride and folly, » in the words of theologian David Wells. This posture misses the blessings that accrue to those who seek to love and respect their elders. The strongest form of youthful ageism involves a sullen dislike for the elderly. Though many well-trained young people avoid this spirit and love the elderly, ageism does seem particularly manifest in my generation, the anti-authority cohort.
Some churches, wittingly or unwittingly, practice youth-oriented ageism. It is of course well and good to contextualize, to use one’s natural proclivities and background to reach the lost. However, the matter seems to shift when congregations practice a style of music, sermon, and dress that potentially excludes an older generation. Though such congregations may not intend to practice exclusion of the aged, the elderly will likely stay away from them, and God will lose glory that is rightfully his.
BIBLICAL TESTIMONY ON AGE
The Bible’s teaching on this matter pushes us away from our natural tendency to associate based primarily on common background. To those of us who sometimes overlook the elderly, the New Testament authors direct us to love all who believe, regardless of how different from one another we may be. Christ’s parting words to his disciples in John 15:12-13 lay the foundation for this idea: « My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. »
Paul reinforces this principle in Titus 2:2-6. Here, he teaches that an age-integrated church enables members of varied life situations to encourage and strengthen one another. He writes:
Older women likewise are to be reverent in behavior, not slanderers or slaves to much wine. They are to teach what is good, and so train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled.
This is a beautiful passage. Christians of different ages do not simply fill the same pews. We reach past our differences and build one another up in mutual faith.
But there’s more. When Christians of all ages gather together, something strange and magical happens: we display the gospel and we declare our true identity. This is what Christ promised in John 17:23: « I in them and you in me, that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know that you sent me, and loved them, even as you have loved me. » Here, John teaches ageism-prone people like me that the unified church speaks the gospel with a force we never know as individuals. The world may only fully understand the gospel when it observes the gathered church.
In so doing, additionally, we show the church’s true nature. We are not a social club or a religious organization, a group of individuals paying dues and holding meetings. We are a little heaven, a living preview of a place to come. Our unity now shows the watching world a snapshot of a place where love is perfected and God is exalted.
ADJUSTING OUR PERSPECTIVE
Rock or soft pop? Ties or jeans? Hymnals or power point? Wise choices on these matters may affect our ability to connect with unsaved people. God is glorified in the diversity of his people, and he uses our natural interests for the advancement of his kingdom. Yet it seems clear from the brief textual survey above that congregational unity attests to the gospel’s power with unique efficacy. Understanding this, theologian Francis Schaeffer challenged the church: « We cannot expect the world to believe that the Father sent the Son, that Jesus’ claims are true, and that Christianity is true, unless the world sees some reality of the oneness of true Christians. »
We might ask ourselves, then: am I a vessel of unity for the furtherance of the gospel? None of us who love Christ desire to obscure the gospel—but is this happening in our lives and our churches? If so, how can we change this? With my lack of experience, I cannot suggest a perfect answer. Yet surely there is nothing lost and much gained in devoting ourselves to the cultivation of congregational unity. Such devotion promises to strengthen not only our evangelism, but our churches themselves.
Miss Dennison passed away some years ago. She worships in heaven now. As our Sunday School teacher, she taught us children a foundational truth: that the gospel is magnified most not in our clever words or strategies, but in local churches that proclaim Christ, places where the young and the old gather and bring a flannel-graph gospel to life.
1 Cited in Alister McGrath, The Christian Theology Reader, 464; originally in Cyprian of Carthage, de catholicae ecclesiae unitate, 5-7; in Corpus Christianorum: Series Latina vol. 3, ed. M. Bevenot (Turnholt: Brepols, 1972), 252.117-254.176.
2 The problem is as old as Paul’s counsel to Timothy in anticipation of such discontent: « Let no one despise you for your youth. » (1 Tim. 4:12)
3 Youths who behave in this way overlook the biblical ideal that « Gray hair is a crown of glory; it is gained in a righteous life » (Prov. 16:31). Thus the elderly are worthy of honor.
4 David Wells, No Place for Truth, 100.
5 I might say here that it is great to use commonalities such as age and interest for purposes of evangelism. This seems to be one of the primary ways that non-Christians are drawn to churches to consider the claims of Christ. But once unbelievers have turned to Christ, ought we not teach them that the church is the one place in the world where background is of no matter to believers, and that the gospel renders us all equal and united in Christ?
6 Paul develops this doctrine in his letter to the Corinthians where he introduces the idea of the Christian church as a body. We read in 1 Corinthians 12:12: « For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body–Jews or Greeks, slaves or free–and all were made to drink of one Spirit. » This passage is essential to understanding Christian unity. Also see Galatians 3: 27: « For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. » This passage does not teach us that the gospel of Christ obliterates our personalities and distinctive backgrounds, but rather that the unity of body is such that we are to treat one another as if such distinctions in fact do not exist at all.
7 Scholar D. A. Carson speaks of this transforming love: « God’s love so transforms us that we mediate it to others, who are thereby transformed. We love because he first loved us; we forgive because we stand forgiven. » The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God, 82.
8 Such is the thrust of 1 Timothy 5:1-2, where Paul writes, « Do not rebuke an older man but encourage him as you would a father. Treat younger men like brothers, older women like mothers, younger women like sisters, in all purity. »