by Rev. Dr. Anna Hall
Christianity in the US is aging. While the percentage of Christians is declining in all age groups, according to the Pew Research Center, the steepest decline is among millennials and younger. Additionally, the rate of switching from Christianity to another faith or identifying as a none is greater with each new generation. Americans who are 30 or under right now show disaffiliation rates above 30%, while those over 30 are over 4 times less likely to leave. This raises an important question – How can those of us who remain in the church as we age nurture younger generations if they are not with us in our congregations?
I have one idea – What if we were to become elders not just for our congregation, but in service to our larger community?
The concept of an older adult acting as an elder or sage is not new. Older people lead and guide in Bible stories – Solomon, the disciple Timothy’s grandmother Lois, Naomi, mother-in-law to the widowed Ruth, Anna the prophetess, and Moses who is described as a strong and vital leader up until his death. In other current and past spiritual traditions, we have the Sannyasa of Hinduism, the elders in Indigenous traditions, Hecate, and many images of the hermit or the crone. In psychology, we may think of the Wise Old Man or Wise Old Woman, or Senex archetype, as outlined by Carl Jung. In fact, Jung saw elderhood as a stage of life marked by maturity, self-knowledge, transcendence of ego, and service to society, particularly the young. The model is clear – but how do we put all this into practice?
One practical model for generative aging comes to us from the Gray Panthers, a group founded in 1970 by Margaret Kuhn, a woman forced to retire from her work at the national setting of the Presbyterian church at 65. These advocates confronted ageism, opposed wars, fought for preservation of safety net programs, protested Don’t Ask Don’t Tell which prohibited being openly gay in the military, and still speak out for the rights of seniors and criminal justice reform.
Margaret Kuhn outlined Five M’s – she believed elders have five appropriate roles to play:
- mentors who guide younger folks
- mediators who work to transform civil, racial and intergenerational conflict
- monitors, or watchdogs of government and decision makers
- mobilizers of social change; and
- motivators toward public good.
Kuhn said that “elders have all sorts of skills and knowledge, and I submit that if we got our heads together, there wouldn’t be a single problem that could not be solved.”
Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, author of from Age-ing to Sage-ing: A Revolutionary Approach to Growing Older, agrees, suggesting that “elders serve as conduits between the divine realm and the mundane world, making the abstract truths of spirituality accessible to the community by embodying them in their everyday behavior.”
If you are older, or have older people in your congregation, how will you begin cultivating that conduit today? Will you become mentors, mediators, monitors, mobilizers or motivators for your surrounding community? Or some combination of the above?
If you need help brainstorming or implementing some of these ideas in your congregation, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to learn about all the ways Convergence can help.
Dychtwald, K., PhD. (2012, July 31). Remembering Maggie Kuhn: Gray Panthers Founder On The 5 Myths Of Aging. HuffPost. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/the-myths-of-aging_b_1556481/
Nadeem, Reem. “Modeling the Future of Religion in America.” Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project, Pew Research Center, 13 Sept. 2022, https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2022/09/13/modeling-the-future-of-religion-in-america/.
Schachter-Shalomi, Z., & Miller, R. S. (1997). From Age-ing to Sage-ing: A Revolutionary Approach to Growing Older. Grand Central Publishing. https://www.amazon.com/Age-ing-Sage-ing-Revolutionary-Approach-Growing/dp/0446671770