What are old people for? Not only is that the title of a great book by Dr. William Thomas, but it is perhaps one of the most important questions facing The Salvation Army and the wider church.
Why is that you might ask? The number of older people in the world is growing inexorably and future projections are startling. The latest census in the United Kingdom, where I am the assistant director of older people’s services for the United Kingdom and Ireland Territory, shows that more than one-fifth of the population was 65 or over in 2021, and this is projected to grow to about a quarter of the population by 2041.
The combination of falling birth rates and people living longer is leading to a marked change in our society. The world is going to be older and greyer, with larger numbers of people who are dependent on others for care. So, what do these changing demographics mean for our Salvation Army? How do we respond to “What are old people for?”—because it seems as though God is going to give us an awful lot of them!
In the biblical narrative, old people are celebrated and venerated. “Grey hair is a crown of splendour; it is attained in the way of righteousness” (Proverbs 16:31). “Stand up in the presence of the aged, show respect for the elderly and revere your God” (Leviticus 19:32). “Is not wisdom found among the aged? Does not long life bring understanding?” (Job 12:12).
And yet, the pervasive ageism we find in the secular world seems to be replicated in the church. We have a relentless focus on young people and young families. A youthful, trendy image is paramount. We want to be energetic, informed and in touch with society. Unfortunately, the rows of senior citizens in many corps don’t quite fit the image. After all, the endless pursuit of youth epitomizes energy, vigour, flexibility and the future, and old age represents fatigue, rigidity, old-fashioned thinking, dependence and the past, right? But it doesn’t have to be this way.
Of course, young people matter. This mingling of youthful zeal and the wisdom of our older saints is part of the point of God’s multi-generational church. However, we must acknowledge that all generations and perspectives are necessary to truly be the corps and churches that God commissions to reach and love the world. I suggest that we need wisdom to understand the season of life we are in as The Salvation Army, and we need an active, ongoing conversation about the gifts and callings of our older people.
Here are four biblical ways that older people can make an impact on our local mission in the 21st century.
Custodians of families. In Leviticus 19, we see that the primary role of elders was to form community by expressing love, wisdom, memory, authority and example. Offering wisdom in a non-judgmental way can provide an antidote to the simplistic black and white perspectives of much of our public discourse. The experiences of going through deep waters of suffering, failure and bereavement can provide resources of wisdom to pass on.
Servants of God. In 2 Corinthians, the Apostle Paul outlines a series of setbacks and sufferings. The words are a note from a season that can also apply to those who are older: “Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day” (2 Corinthians 4:16). The role of older people in our corps can be to prophetically counter the obsession with outward things, whatever they might happen to be in our local context—our buildings, programs, budgets, etc. We need those who go before us to show us how it can be done with grace and humility.
Ambassadors of the lifelong journey. Investing in the next generation through deep intergenerational friendships in a society increasingly segmented by age can seem unusual, even suspect. But Christian history shows the profound importance of intergenerational friendships in growing the next generation of disciples. The Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno reminds us that we have a choice of “seeing life from the balcony,” as spectators, or we can choose to “live on the road” as pilgrims making progress.
Reflectors of prayer and purpose. Simeon and Anna, whom we read about in Luke 2:21-38, were not high profile. They didn’t need to be. We don’t need to be. All they did as older people in the temple was herald the baby king Jesus. They recognized Jesus as Lord and lived such godly lives that what they said about him was considered true beyond doubt. As a younger person, I was so grateful and moved to know there were older saints who were praying faithfully for me. Now it’s up to us who are older to take up that role for the next generations.
Our older people are both map-readers and map-makers of the ways of God. These days, we can buy a map cheaply or even access it via an online app or GPS. However, the original map-makers were explorers who gave their lives to survey unknown territory, and one by one they charted new horizons.
Today, we inherit all those achievements. How foolish it would be for our youth-obsessed contemporary culture to reject the past, forget our map-makers and ignore the wisdom of those in later life.
Andrew Wileman is the assistant director of older people’s services for the United Kingdom and Ireland Territory, based at territorial headquarters in London, England.
This is the second in a series of three articles on aging. Read the first article, The Gift of Years by Major Shirley King. Look for the final piece in our May/June issue.
Songs of the Faith
In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Andrew Wileman’s ministry team wrote and posted daily devotionals on their Facebook page for older Salvationists.
“We wanted to provide some hope, encouragement and inspiration,” he says. “I’d highlight the stories behind some of our great hymns and songs, particularly those found in the Salvation Army song book, and link them with themes of encouragement or challenge.”
These devotionals became the inspiration for the book Songs of the Faith, which contains 52 entries, each focusing on the background or themes of a hymn. The book is intended as a guide for personal discipleship or for small groups.
“We hope it will bring to life stories written by ordinary people through history, often facing some of the challenges that we face in our lives,” says Wileman.
For more information, visit salvationist.org.uk/articles/andrew-wileman-daily-facebook-posts-publishing-book. Songs of the Faith is available for purchase atsps-shop.com/101892.
Photo: Halfpoint/iStock via Getty Images Plus
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