The church family I serve is guided by a vision of discipleship as a lifelong journey of “following Jesus together.” As a pastor, I have the privilege of walking alongside people of all ages as we discover what it means to grow in Christ. While the language we use to talk about discipleship always feels a bit imperfect and incomplete, we’ve found it helpful to describe a maturing disciple as someone who is growing in worship, deepening in community and moving on mission. These phrases encapsulate everything we are striving to experience as we journey together as a congregation.
On the best of days, the pursuit of this vision is a complex undertaking. We’re blessed to be a church composed of a rich diversity of people from all generations. This reality provokes us to ask how the life of discipleship is expressed in every stage of life—from childhood to senior adulthood. It also presses us to grapple with what it looks like to truly follow Jesus together as a community of all ages.
As we wrestle with these challenges, I feel especially called to consider those age groups that often are marginalized within local churches. Older adults rank near the top of this list. In recent history, seniors have tended to be dismissed and devalued within our society and—to too great of an extent—within our congregations.
This neglect is unfortunate. Here in Canada, nearly one out of every five residents is over the age of 65. In an aging society like ours, it makes little sense strategically to disregard 20 percent of the population. Furthermore, this doesn’t reflect God’s heart. I find no biblical support for the notion that churches should feel content to put their older adults “out to pasture.”
In actuality, the testimony of Scripture calls us to a very different way of viewing and responding to our elders. If the life of discipleship truly is about following Jesus together throughout our lives, I’m convinced that we fall short when we fail to pay attention to our senior adults.
If the life of discipleship truly is about following Jesus together throughout our lives, I’m convinced that we fall short when we fail to pay attention to our senior adults.
Revisiting our vision
This desire to consider the unique circumstances of older adults prompts me to ask whether our vision of discipleship adequately encompasses what Jesus desires to form within his followers as they journey through the latter stages of life. Is growing in worship, deepening in community and moving on mission a realistic way to talk about the life of discipleship during the senior adult years?
Our society tends to envision older adulthood chiefly as a time of battling to keep health problems at bay. Is this all that we can expect for those who are oldest among us—and from them? What should we make of the vivid picture of older adults provided in Psalm 92:14: “They will still bear fruit in old age”?
If we listen to the counsel of Scripture, we can see “the normal Christian life” as one of growing in faithfulness, fellowship and fruitfulness even as we advance in years. R. Paul Stevens, retired professor at Regent College, observes that the Bible “does not primarily present older people as moving into spiritual decline. Just the reverse.” Older characters in the Bible, he notes, are depicted as possessing an “openness to new discoveries, new adventures, and life-changing fruitfulness.”
I do believe that growing in worship, deepening in community and moving on mission can be a helpful framework for thinking about the potential that lies in following Jesus in older adulthood. Yet we should expect that the journey of discipleship will take on a distinctive form during this stage of life. This is worthy of closer consideration.
Growing in worship
Growing in worship entails humbly loving and growing in relationship with God, learning about who he is and seeking to submit to him in every aspect of our lives. Some have wrongly assumed that the very idea of growth is incompatible with the experience of aging. Wes Wick, director of the organization Young Enough to Serve, summarizes this flawed view of older adulthood: “Your personal growth season is far behind you. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”
In A Vision for the Aging Church, James Houston and Michael Parker caution that the possibility certainly does exist that the prejudices, thought patterns and negative experiences we’ve accumulated over the years could “make us less flexible” and hinder our ability to learn and grow. This is far from a foregone conclusion, however.
In a recent article in Faith Today magazine, retired Regent College professor Maxine Hancock reflects thoughtfully upon the surprise “graces” that she is discovering as she journeys further into older adulthood. She describes how she has been drawn more deeply into a life of prayer and the practice of spiritual disciplines.
Even the physical limitations that have come with age have presented her the opportunity to slow down and lend attention to her inner life, Hancock says. She writes about experiencing new horizons of the Holy Spirit’s work in her life—convicting her, prompting her toward a life of fuller obedience and calling her to grow in the image of Christ. Her story is a beautiful account of growing in Christ while growing older.
Hancock’s reflections remind me of so many older members within my own congregation—those in their seventies, eighties and nineties who exemplify a life of continuing to grow in worship. These individuals bear testimony to newfound depths that they are experiencing in relationship with Christ.
Richard Morgan and Jane Thibault … encourage us to see older adulthood “not as a random series of events to be endured and adapted to but as an intentional movement toward God. Not just a journey but a purposeful, sacred search for our Beloved.”
These older adults remind me of the words of Richard Morgan and Jane Thibault, who encourage us to see older adulthood “not as a random series of events to be endured and adapted to but as an intentional movement toward God. Not just a journey but a purposeful, sacred search for our Beloved.”
I am grateful for older followers of Jesus who have inspired me by modeling this intentionality, this growing love for God. They help me see clearly that older adulthood can be a significant season of spiritual growth.
Deepening in community
Our church’s understanding of deepening in community focuses on loving other Christians, participating humbly in the church community, pursuing relational health and unity and contributing to the building up of the body of Christ by exercising one’s spiritual gifts. Many older adults within our congregation have exhibited a longstanding commitment to the faith community. They are extraordinary models of “not giving up meeting together” (Hebrews 10:25, NIV).
Nonetheless, I also have seen in their lives that the process of deepening in community is never complete. When unintended offenses or unfortunate conflicts arise, many older adults are still learning to humble themselves, apologize, extend forgiveness and preserve a spirit of unity—not unlike the rest of us.
Participating in community is often especially challenging because it forces us to face the reality of our own brokenness and sin. This is hard. However, gaining awareness and understanding of ourselves is a key aspect of how we grow as constructive contributors within the family of faith.
In her book, God Isn’t Finished with Me Yet, Barbara Lee suggests that later life can promote this sort of growth. The realities of this season of life prompt older adults to ask, “Who am I?” Honestly facing this question, she suggests, can aid us to develop self-awareness. In turn, we can embrace the healing that Christ offers, grow in our ability to extend grace to others, and exhibit the fruit of the Spirit.
I am grateful to see this occurring in the lives of many older adults today; it assures me that God is never finished with us, no matter how old we might be, and that his grace is always sufficient.
Deepening in community also entails exercising one’s gifts for the benefit of the whole body. J.I. Packer, writing at the age of 88, observes that we can be tempted to “behave as though spiritual gifts and ministry skills wither with age.” “But they don’t,” he objects. While some older adults are hindered by physical limitations, others suffer from “the dull ache” of the church’s low expectations of them, as Wes Wick expresses. Wick sees this devaluing of seniors’ gifts and contributions as “a tragic waste of wisdom, time, and other resources.”
I share this concern. Hans Finzel and Rick Hicks do, too. These seasoned Christian leaders note that older adults “are the ones who have the wisdom and understanding the younger generations need.” Whether we recognize this or not, seniors play a vital role in helping the whole body be deepened in community. Thus, as Finzel and Hicks encourage, we should be actively seeking them out and listening to them. This, I’m convinced, is an integral part of what it means to “follow Jesus together” as a church of many generations.
Moving on mission
Finally, the congregation I am a part of understands moving on mission as entailing dimensions like loving our neighbors, extending hospitality, demonstrating concern for justice and mercy, having a personal sense of kingdom vocation and being able to articulate one’s story of faith.
Some older adults aren’t especially eager to move on mission. As Wes Wick notes, they instead “are grateful to move beyond many of the earlier have to’s of life.” As a result, they may be tempted simply to say, “I don’t have to volunteer at a food bank, host a small group, mentor teens. Been there, done that.”
However, Wick cautions that followers of Jesus “lose big time…if we live our final decades like we’re off the clock and free of accountability.” He adds, “These moments and years matter to (Jesus), to our peers and to those younger who need fresh examples of what finishing well looks like.”
Research into aging consistently shows that having a sense of purpose in life as we age is important. According to the gerontologist Amy Hanson, older adults in Scripture seem to have found this sense of significance through their devotion to the things of God: “Nearly every godly character in Scripture who lived into the later years was actively working for God.”
“Nearly every godly character in Scripture who lived into the later years was actively working for God.” Amy Hanson
Fortunately, this biblical pattern is not out of reach for older adults today. As Michael Apichella, author of The Church’s Hidden Asset, expresses, “Thanks to the mysterious work of the Holy Spirit in us, the more aged, weak or infirm we are, the greater the works God is able to do through us provided we are willing.”
Walter Wright, now retired from his role as the president of Regent College, notes that as we enter this stage in life, we should fully expect that “our calling will find new texture, new form, new possibilities.” However, we may be surprised by the opportunities that arise if we have receptive hearts and eyes to see them.
As Finzel and Hicks counsel us, “Be open to what God has for you. It may not be what you had envisioned but be open to God’s direction. His ways are always better than our ways.” I am excited by how I see this posture of openness being displayed among many of the seniors in my church as they strive to bless their neighbors, care for those in need, and share with about the hope they’ve found in Christ Jesus. These followers of Jesus demonstrate with their lives that the post-retirement years can be a time of meaningfully joining God in his mission in the world.
As followers of Jesus, we have been invited to participate in a lifelong journey of growing in faithfulness, fellowship and fruitfulness. One of my favorite quotes poignantly reflects this perspective. E. Stanley Jones shared these thoughts shortly before his death: “There are scars on my faith, but underneath those scars there are no doubts. Christ has me with the consent of all my being and with the cooperation of all my life…. I’m 83, and I’m more excited today about being a Christian than I was at 18 when I first put my feet upon the way.”
I think this is a beautiful reflection of what God desires for each of us: that, in him, we would grow to become the sort of people who “still bear fruit in old age.” This is certainly what I desire to see become a reality in my own life. And it is what we will continue to pursue as we follow Jesus together.