A recent move by the Grove United Methodist Church in Cottage Grove Minnesota has made national news. In an attempt to reach their growing community, the declining church with an average weekly attendance of 25 is being asked to close its doors for an intentional relaunch and replant. But, that’s not the reason the church made national news.
In a message sent to the members, they were given an opportunity to attend another Methodist church some 15 miles away during the process. However, they were also informed that when the church relaunched, it would be different and the changes were intended to reach a different group of people in their community. Specifically, younger people.
The church’s memo sent to the older members asked them to stay away for a period of two years and then seek permission before returning to their previous church. This is their strategy for connecting with the younger families in their community—by keeping the older families away. Jeremy Peters, the new 32 year old pastor explained it this way:
It’s a new thing with a new mission for a new target,” said Peters, “and a new culture.”
Some of the vocal church members are calling it age discrimination. At best, it’s one of the clearest examples of pragmatic church growth techniques of our era. In short, the leadership of the church cannot figure out how to reach their community. They’ve abandoned the sufficient Word of God and turned their back on the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
However, as we consider such a desperate move by the leadership of a local church —we must think critically about the emphasis that’s often placed on the youth within the church. In many evangelical circles, massive percentages of church budgets are consumed with strategies to attract youth and young families. In a neighboring town where I serve here on the west side of Atlanta, a Baptist church spent loads of money on gaming systems for their youth room. Meanwhile, many of the elderly are overlooked. They’re expected to put their tithe check in the offering plate each month (typically the first week of the month), but beyond that—the church growth strategy doesn’t include them in the slightest degree.
In the church planting world, many young church leaders put a great deal of emphasis on attracting millennials and specific demographics that do not have gray hair or need assistance getting from their car into the building on the Lord’s Day without stumbling. When a church overlooks the elderly, it can cause several big problems within the church family.
A Church Without Wisdom
God’s plan for the church is that it would pursue wisdom. One of the ways that a church gains wisdom is by one generation passing it down to the next generation. This is what we see put on grand display in Titus 2. The older training the younger. So, exactly how much wisdom is found in a church full of coffee snob millennials who are discipling one another—where no gray hair can be found in the building?
If I were involved in a church planting project, I would balance it between younger and older members in order to have wisdom and zeal mixing it up together. This keeps the older young and enables the young to grow stronger along the journey of faith. When we look at the institution of the family, there’s a reason why God didn’t create everyone to be the same exact age. Parents are older than their children for a reason—and that is the core of discipleship.
Proverbs 16:31 – Gray hair is a crown of glory; it is gained in a righteous life.
A Discriminating Mission
Sure, statistically and practically it makes perfect sense. If you want to attract younger people, keep the older people away. However, that’s not what Jesus commissioned his disciples to do. He didn’t say, “Go and reach young families…” He said, “Go and make disciples” (Matt. 28:16-20). A disciple is someone who follows Christ.
One of the sad realities is that statistically older people are closer to eternity (according to the numbers and based on the mere scale of the average life expectancy rule). When you consider how many elderly unbelievers make up a single community, it should cause us to weep that they’re rarely targeted with the gospel. They’re more often overlooked and forgotten as local churches do everything under the sun to reach younger families.
Within the church, the elderly are given the command to persevere in the faith to the very end. Yet, far too often local churches are looking for ways to attract new younger families while forgetting that the elderly people among their local church need help and encouragement as they seek to finish well.
A Church with a Lack of Funerals
What happens when a local church targets younger families or plants exclusively with young people in mind? Such churches learn how to celebrate at weddings and the birth of new babies, but they rarely watch an older member persevere in the faith to the very end. They know what it’s like to dance at a wedding, but they don’t know what it’s like to weep at a funeral of an old man who spent much of his life serving the Lord in the life of their local church. They don’t know what it’s like to stand over the casket of a man with deep wrinkles and gray hair and praise God for his faithfulness.
In an age where youthfulness has nearly been turned into an idol—the church of Jesus Christ should reject such ideas. The value of older members must be something that is instilled into the minds of the young children among us. We must disciple them well and teach them the value of learning from the older members among our family of faith. An immature church is one that ignores the elderly.
Dear church—don’t overlook and undervalue the elderly among you.