When Your Church Goes Gray

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by: Anna Mitchell Hall

What does it feel like to look across the pews and see mostly elders with gray in their hair? 

Churches often get terribly worried when this happens. The conventional view says that only churches with a steady resupply of young families will grow and thrive. But when we narrowly focus on youth, are we missing the power of wisdom for a vital church?

The wisdom tradition in Christianity can be found at the beginning of everything. Sophia, or wisdom, word, spirit, was the first act of Creation . Wisdom calls us toward greater understanding and into righteousness. Sophia’s wisdom fruit is better than gold. (Proverbs 8) 

I’m not sure how we got from there to our modern focus on the new and novel as sacred above all (capitalism, maybe?), but it is time for a renewed reverence for wisdom.  

No matter the age of the people in the pews, each one of them contains wisdom to share. All of us are made in the image of God and contain God’s wisdom within. Even the youngest among us can be wise. But over our life experiences, we often learn and grow wiser. If we are open to greater understanding, wisdom can expand within us, deepening our faith. This means that older adults may have insights that are not found among those who have not seen the scope of a long life. 

In one example, elders often have deep experience with saying goodbye. It is inevitable that over our lives we will lose friends, family members, and beloved institutions. Each of these losses, while painful, brings wisdom about navigating grief and change. What wisdom can be shared by older members as younger folks in the church, neighbors in the community, and even congregations themselves go through hard changes? How can elders become guides for those who face grief and loss?

For a church of mostly elders, a shift toward wisdom-focus could mean:

  • Focusing less on the past glories of the congregation and focusing more on the learnings from those times, as well as what has been learned as things changed
  • Asking how intergenerational relationships could help those in the community, regardless of how it might help or not help congregational survival. 
  • Shifting from trying to attract people to come inside your building for worship toward wisdom-sharing with those in the neighborhoods around your building through facilitating grief groups, intergenerational parent support, etc.

If you do feel called toward nurturing and sharing wisdom as a congregation, you will need to be intentional about it. Wisdom does not generally live in our shallowest consciousness, so church programs should focus on surfacing and nurturing the wisdom present in the congregation. Here we can draw inspiration from programs known as Wisdom Schools. These gatherings focus participants on integral learning and transformation, using prayer, work, meditation, instruction, silence, and other practices to cultivate wisdom in those gathered. Pioneered by Cynthia Borgeault, Wisdom School is designed to change consciousness in such a way that it changes our presence in the world. 

Imagine what would be possible if a group of older church members took part in such a program! Returning to a congregation with a greater sense of Sophia, ready to transform lives around them, these folks could become a core of wisdom in the church and community. The focus could then shift from anxiety about aging in the church to a celebration of the wisdom possible in the collective life experiences of members. Alternatively, a church could work to begin a wisdom school of its own, so that learning and transformation takes place right in your midst. 

To read more about Wisdom Schools, visit https://cynthiabourgeault.org/wisdom-school/. If you would like a conversation partner for thinking through how to harness wisdom for church vitality, schedule a time on my calendar to talk about how we at Convergence can help. 

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