October 31, 2020

On The Older Teaching The Younger: From Commenter Becky

Time to blog will be short or non-existent today, but this comment from
“Becky” in the “8 a.m. Mass” discussion is the best post of the day anyway. Thank you Becky, for framing what it means to be human in a beautiful and helpful way. She starts out quoting two of us, then hits the ball out of the park herself.

Jeff: “More experienced, mature Christians who should be teaching the young about and sharing with them their great Christian heritage are instead asked to ‘get with it’ or ‘get out.’”

Imonk: “I’m watching a father bring his 5 year old (?) to mass, take his hand and dip it in the water, make the cross for him, then take him to his seat and show him how to genuflect. … I am especially impressed with how a small child and an 80 year old man are functioning within the same world of thought, ritual and understanding. … I see evangelicals doing less and less that will hold anyone in the faith into their 80s. If I were 80, I wouldn’t go near 99% of evangelical churches.”

I’ve noticed that much of the discussion along these lines in this thread has tended towards the “yes, it is tragic, without older people in the congregation we are losing the wisdom of the sages of the faith” line of thought. And I would agree that is certainly true. But I wonder if it is only half the tragedy of the the picture that contains very few elderly (and even somewhat younger than outright elderly).

I wonder if the other half of that picture is that the grandpa whose brain’s speech center has been ravaged by stroke can still teach his 5 year old grandson to make the sign of the cross and genuflect. (I’m having trouble coming up with anything non-verbal in my own protestant tradition.) The grandma suffering from Alzheimer’s still has the light go on when the hymn she learned as a child is sung. The aging man crotchety from arthritis pain or the aging woman fragile with osteoporosis or the person being consumed with cancer – who really aren’t able or suitable to pal around with the youth, or teach the kid’s classes, or even help stack the chairs or take up the offering anymore – can be in the midst of the congregation, seen and heard singing the Doxology in a way that can only come out of intense struggle with the meaning of the same words over and over in the midst of long term pain and hardship.

Of course, all of the above is a form of the older teaching the younger, too. But I doubt it is the first image of “teaching the younger” that comes to mind even to those younger folk sympathetic to the idea of older folk having a role in a congregation. And, in the current situation that iMonk describes for the elderly within evangelicalism, I also suspect that the loss is not just the younger missing out on the wisdom of the older. There is also the effect on the elderly who feel rejected for uselessness or who lose contact with younger people.

With my mostly non-liturgical protestant background, I struggled to come up with the examples I gave above. Is it easier for those of you with long-term liturgical formation to come up with examples of continued meaningful participation by the elderly that you have seen in real life? Or am I just seeing greener grass on the other side of the fence in hoping there could possibly be contributing place for me in the midst of some congregation somewhere if (when?) I end up a non-sagely, non-productive, frail, and/or mentally diminished elderly (or even not so elderly) person at some point in life? From my middle-aged vantage point, I’m not seeing a happy path forward at the present time.

I have some thoughts on all of this for later. For now, it’s off to Poe’s Tavern and a harbor cruise, then Charleston market and The Hominy Grill.


  1. wow, I missed this the first time around, thanks, MONK , for flagging it: well said (if sadly) BECKY, and you bring up an interesting side-bar for the values of liturgy: it helps those of us with the diminished capacity to think new stuff up, and grounds us in the familiar when our world is becoming more and more unfamiliar (sometimes due to the effects of aging).

    No answers here for you Becky…..maybe aim for a liturgical, cross generational assisted living home ??? 🙂

  2. Many of my pastor friends relate incidents of individuals with greatly diminished capacity participating in liturgical prayers or parts of the liturgy even on their death beds.

    The one that most recently comes to mind is the brain cancer patient who no longer recognized family members but mouthed the words to the Lord’s prayer or the Apostle’s creed while my pastor recited the liturgy at his bed side.

    How do we imagine we will learn how to worship deeply if what we do changes every week?

    • How do we imagine we will learn how to worship deeply if what we do changes every week?

      this might be the best question I’ve been asked this year, or last…….THANKS, P. Kyle.

      Greg R

    • When my grandfather was 90 years old and dying from a brain tumor (the tumor was technically operable, but his heart was too weak to keep him going during such a surgery, so my folks had a homecare nurse visiting daily to help with caring for him) his speech was rarely intelligible — except when he was praying. Then you could understand every word he said.

  3. I once spoke with a counselor who sees my young probation clients and he said that habits are like pathways in the brain. You do something long enough and it actually changes the brain. So it is important to establish healthy habits. If we have made it a practice to often pray alone, the very action of closing our eyes and beginning our prayer can immediately take us down that familiar path to communing with God. Likewise, familiar communal liturgy can bring the congregation together in a powerful way. We feel that we are immersed in history and that we become one with each other, with those who have gone before us and with God. Some change is for the good, but I think there is a lot to be said for not having the liturgy change a lot from year to year.

    • JoanieD-

      Good thoughts. That topic, healthy Christian habits and the science of the brain, happened to be discussed at the Jesus Creed blog yesterday.

      Your mentioning of liturgy brings up another aspect of that.

      • Thanks, Rick. I will have to check out Jesus Creed. I used to spend quite a bit of time reading there and sometimes posting, but haven’t done much of that lately. I do love Scot’s blog though and his writings.

  4. My mother suffered with Alzheimer’s for ten years. The words to the Lord’s Prayer were the last words she was able to speak. After she lost the ability to pray the whole prayer, she could still bow her head and say “Our Father” invoking the familiar words that were no longer in her mind.

  5. Wow Becky, that’s beautiful.

  6. wow – thanks for point that out – I missed that comment too… Unfortunately there are a lot of churches where these kinds of things happen all the time for folks to learn from, but there are no young people there to observe them… or at least not nearly as many. At the church my mother grew up at, the main people are still the same as 40 years ago… we found a picture of the sunday school teachers from the 60s at my grandparents house after they had both died, and other than people who had died when I was quite young, I recognized every single one of them, because they were STILL the main sunday school teachers – mostly because with the exception of a few families with really young children – there were no younger people left in this church….

    • Any thoughts as to why? It could be economics. My brothers and I all left our home town to find careers that just didn’t exist back home.

      Or it could be the older folks didn’t want to let the new up and coming adults take charge.

      Or ?????

      To the second point my father told me about when he as heading up the building committee to totally build a new church after a fire when he was 42 and getting lectured every week or so by my 82 year old grandfather about how “You youngsters are ruining the church!”. My father figured if he could run a plant that refined nuclear fuel he could head up a building committee for a church and do a somewhat reasonable job. Church is still there and seems to be thriving. 🙂

      • partially economics I would say – unlike my grandparent’s generation in the church, MOST of the folks in my mother’s generation who grew up in that church moved elsewhere, and that might very well have been an economic factor (it was an area full of factories in my grandparent’s day, but not so much by the time my parents were working, and not at all now)- otherwise I would actually suspect many of them would have still been there. They just didn’t seem to do very well at getting new families into the church. (oh and then all of my generation that was even smaller – all moved elsewhere too)

        In reality I’m sure among some of them (I can think of people) there was an adversion to the new – but my dad (who grew up in another state completely) was the favorite substitute teacher of the oldest class (the one that no longer had any men in the class, because it was full of 90 year old Avon ladies who had out lived their husbands) so I don’t think it was entirely an adversion to the new/young, though there was no question that it had a lot to do with it I am sure.

        But – for those who were there – they were a treasure I must say.

  7. The role of the ailing elderly is to receive God’s gifts. There is always a place for them.

  8. Thank you, Becky. Beautifully said.

  9. After my mother-in-law suffered a severe stroke that left her totally disabled, both mentally and physically, the only thing that she responded to was George Beverly Shea singing. She lie transfixed listening to her favorite singer as he sang the old hymns of the faith. When I changed the tape to a more modern contempory singer, she’d rip the headphones off with her one good arm, frown and stare into space. She couldn’t talk or respond to anything we said to her. She’d follow us with her eyes as we moved around the room but other than that, we had no idea what she understood…if anything.
    But the moment we put on the Shea tape, she relaxed, and closed her eyes in rapture.
    Only in the last hours of her life did she not respond to his tapes.
    We don’t know what goes on in a person’s mind in that stage, but somehow, I believe that somewhere something cognitive is occurring. And knowing her, I’m sure she had a mixture of praying and frustration not being able to communicate with us. It was in those moments that I experienced the compassion of God that I’ve never had before or since. It brings tears to my eyes now when I think of it. I never doubt what God can do with the elderly, even when they are totally absent from the reality of this world that we are able to experience.

  10. I think it is similar to the discussion about children in service. Elderly should be invited and brought to service, if they are able and desiring. Their presence alone is a witness. With worship as a beauty pagent of the healthy, wealthy, and pretty, this may be a problem. There again is the irony about modern worship. It claims to be more inviting and personally involving, but the performance aspect makes it dehumanizing. Liturgical worship turns out to be truly humanizing. Go figure.

    I like JoanieD’s comments about worship changing our brains. I saw a similar comment on Daniel McLain Hixon’s Gloria Deo blog ( http://www.gloria-deo.blogspot.com/ ). Repetition asside, turning worship into an endorphine rush I think has consequences of its own, creating highs and lows which may cause or worsen depression.

  11. Larry Geiger says

    We have all of these rules and ways of doing things and every thing is just so to a younger person. And then, the pastor takes the bread and wine, steps down from the altar, and carries it out into the congregation to a person no longer able to go to the rail. The child/young person watches, calculates, thinks, and learns something about life. Learns something about where life is heading.

  12. My mother has Alzheimer’s and is confined to a nursing home, unable to participate in her former church life. She does, however, go to the Lutheran church services there each week and loves to sing the old hymns. As a girl, she was raised in the Lutheran church, but had been a member of an RCA church during the 62 years of her marriage. Now, the liturgies of her childhood are the thing to which she can still relate.
    I wonder what the scene will be 40-50 years from now for the children raised in our Evangelical churches. Will they still “worship” to Veggie Tales sermons and wall songs?

    • good point…. (though personally I have always felt that most of us adults liked the Veggie Tales better than any of the kids I’ve known – I certainly know more adult Veggie Tale fans (and ones who were teens or adults when they first came out) than children who love them)

      there will still be music that is associated to individuals I think – though not nearly to the extent in the past. Praise and Worship music has just changed so much in the last 15 years or so – the songs that we ran into the ground at youthcamp in the 90s are already so far in the past that the college students I work with today don’t know them… With the speed that it is all changing – and with it not being anything that people continue singing for years and years and years of their life… maybe it won’t after all… but considering I can still remember the first solo I ever sang in church at age 4, despite having NEVER heard the piece again in the last 23 years – I don’t doubt the ability for music to remain with us for a longer than we would realize – if a song sang once is remembered for 23 years, how much more songs that were sung every sunday for even 4 years of someone’s life?

  13. What the trends are showing is that in evangelical circles, we are not much farther from pyrotechnics, holographic congregations, and having a mac on the back of every pew…did I say pews? I meant space-age hovering La-z-Boys. A Catholic Mass isn’t the way for me, but I do agree that we need to go back to the simple days of the early church. Imagine Paul, in one of his 6 satellite churches, broadcasting himself in holographic form, trying to get a few more believers to come to the Fall Rush at youth group…I hear they’re giving out xbox 360s! I’m so there.

  14. Tonight my wife, my 3 month old daughter and I will go to prayer meeting at a church downtown. There will be about 6 people over 70, 4 people over 60, 4 people in their 40’s a few of us in our thirties (my wife and I and a few more) and a smattering of others. The elderly ladies will argue over who gets to hold our daughter, and it will be a blessed time of prayer and fellowship with these saints who have so much more experience than we do.

    We love these “senior saints” and they love us. We are teaching our daughter the importance of loving and knowing and fellowshipping with those who have that gray crown and the wisdom that goes along with it.

    • SearchingAnglican says

      I was just thinking along those lines as well about how lovely my women’s group is for many of the reasons you describe.

      I have the pleasure of leading this group, with 2 ladies n their 80’s, 4 in their 60’s, 3 in their 50’s and 2 of us in our late 30’s. We bring such a diversity of experiences, perspectives and practices to the table, but when you scratch beneath the surface, we are certainly more alike than we are different.

      In my 20’s, fresh out of college ministries, I don’t think I could have imagined how wonderful it could be to study, fellowship and pray with people in such vastly different stages of life. Perhaps it’s a matter of my own age and maturity.

  15. One great influence on me growing up in church was an elderly blind man who played in the church orchestra—he played a set of chimes which had the names of the notes in braille up on the top that he felt. I was impressed that everyone participated in worship, no matter how old, how handicapped. Of course, that meant that worship/singing had to be of a style/tempo/rhythm that a blind man playing chimes could meaningfully participate in. It was sad to me when a chorus or something came along that he didn’t know and he had to sit it out. Anyhow, even though he wasn’t directly “sharing his wisdom” teaching me, his influence (which he never even realized) on me was immense (I’ve been a church musician myself since I was a boy).

    • Incidentally, that was in an Assemblies of God church—old style Assemblies before the shift to “contemporary” worship in the late 1970s. Although I now prefer “high” church, liturgical worship, my experience in the AG particularly with everyone (old and young, in whatever condition they could) participating with a genuine spirit has informed my musicianship even in the “stuffiest” high church congregations.

  16. Thank you Becky and Patrick Kyle. Very tough and important questions that need to be answered.

  17. I haven’t read all the comments, but the post immediately made me think of a friend’s Grandma, who had Alzheimer’s. Even when she could no longer recognize her children and grandchildren, she could connect and participate in the prayers that she had known all her life.

    • To add another Alzheimer’s/senility story, when I was a volunteer hospice visitor I had a woman who was at the mostly silent staring stage of senility. I would usually just check her for comfort issues, try and engage her a little, and then at the family’s request, pray “with” her. The first time I leaned over and quietly said a Hail Mary in her ear, she chimed in with the Amen right on cue.

      The only words I ever heard her say were “Amens” at the ends of familiar prayers.

      If I had prayed spontaneously in her ear, she would not have responded. God would have heard ME, but she would not have been the same part of it. Instead, she had to hear the familiar rhythms of the Glory Be, the Our Father, the Hail Mary, the Magnificat. I believe her body and dying memory WERE praying, even though her intellect was no longer engaged.

  18. For many years now it has been my goal to be like Anna,who, in her old age spent her days in fasting prayer. When this body and/or mind no longer seem of value to this world, I can fast and I can pray. That place will always be available for us as we age. Indeed, the elderly may be the only ones who will take the time to serve the church in such a manner.

  19. Wonderful post, wonderful comment, Becky.

    For quite some time I’ve been pushed by the Lord toward an increasingly formal, traditional model of worship. Mine was never the Evangelical “tonight show” approach, but for a time I was a terribly informal Independent Baptist. Every year, I’m looking more like a Reformed Baptist trying to get in touch with his inner Lutheran. And more and more, I’m beginning to see why. Not everyone with me now may come with me, but when I get where I’m going, I will be meeting a growing need.

  20. It’s also important to remember that faith is something God works in us, and there doesn’t necessarily have to an outward sign of Christian belief in order for that person to be just as steadfast of a Christian as any of us. So when we see the severly mentally disabled like those with alzheimers or someone whose IQ never surpasses that of an infant, let’s remember the message of Christ is just as much for them as for us.

  21. Scott Miller says

    That was an excellent comment by Becky. I have been to many evangelical churches where truly hurting people (and old people) are clearly not welcome – it is difficult to shake hands and give the “how are you – everything’s fine” pleasantries.
    My wife has bipolar disorder. She has no significant problems with her current medicine. But I am still amazed to hear Christians and pastors who look at us funny, or even make some comments about demon oppression (my doctor actually suggested that she come in for deliverance, or perhaps she has mercury tooth fillings that are causing it!).
    So this is a dirty secret at church. We don’t talk about it and hope that no one finds out. It’s sad.

  22. Thanks Becky, I think you’ve addressed a very important issue for evangelical-style churches (and probably for churches of any brand or variety). As far as whether the grass is greener in highly liturgical churches, I couldn’t say. I was raised Southern Baptist, drifted away (far, far away) from the church and God in my early 20’s, then rediscovered faith in my late 20’s. Since then, I’ve been involved in an ever-transforming church fellowship that would make even most non-denoms seem highly liturgical.
    But even with all the loud worship music and crazy church experiments we’ve subjected people to through the last 15 or so years, we’ve managed to maintain a sizable, extemely active, and highly dedicated group of elderly persons (believe it or not). Certainly, when it came to music and the way we conducted services (back when we had a building and and what one might call services), we definitely catered to a young demographic. But relationally we embraced our elderly as spiritual grandparents, and they embraced this motley group of young religious rebels as their spiritual grandchildren. We showed them love and respect. Their lawns got mowed, and their needs were met. In cases when one of them was dealing with longterm illness and unable to attend services, we often brought the church (or a sizable chunk of it) to them and held a little mini-service in their home. We went out of our way to make sure that they had a voice in the church and that their contributions and involvement were both needed and appreciated, and we gave them full permission and support in organizing and conducting activities and programs more geared toward their age group — which were priviliges and freedoms many of them admitted that they didn’t have in the religious traditions they grew up in. And in return, they put up with our faddish, “cutting edge,” highly disorganized and untraditional way of doing things (and, for the most part, without complaint). I think some of them even came to like our style of worship music, and they would occasionally teach us some old hymns — though the worship team usually found a way to rock them out.
    I guess all that is to say that I don’t think the primary cause of isolaton and neglect of the elderly in many churches is new-fangled worship styles or a departure from traditional forms — though these may certainly be contributing to the problem. I think the main culprit is a lack of real, loving, Christ-centered relationships, both between the generations and among church members in general.

  23. I struggle here. I’m a 26 year old associate in a Church of God, Anderson who has been pretty intimately involved in the music ministry of our church. I was the interim music leader for a time and have been a member of the music team for my entire time here. Before I arrived the church voted and decided to move towards a more contemporary style of music with the hope of being more “attractional”.

    This was about three and a half years ago. The older Christians of our church have began to rise up in force recently and in some moments have gotten hostile. They hate drums, they want hymns. And by hymns I don’t mean contemporary versions of hymns – they want full on organ driven hymns – they want to hold the hymnals in their hands.

    I’m young and wans’t raised in the church. I’m not at all sold on the idea that the style of music we have is that important and I’m mostly convinced growth due to music is superficial and not anything I’m interested in.

    I want to share in the faith of these older saints, but I also want them to be able to find joy in the way that younger people experience praise and worship through music. Our church is almost anti-liturgical (which is really sad to me) so the music is vitally important to the faith of this older generation. As a musician I understand how powerful music can be in shaping people’s spirituality and religious experience.

    How can our church be faithful to those who have come before us without sacrificing what has been deemed important to our staff and leadership team?

    • Greetings in Christ, Joey,
      You mentioned that your church’s seniors said that they hate drums. Part of the reason for that may be that the drums are actually overbearing, and not just for older ears. If you have an acoustic drum set, you might want to consider investing in an electronic set. Acoustic drums tend to be overpowering in anything but the largest of enclosed spaces, especially if your drummer is a bit overzealous in his playing. With electronic drums, the sound man can control the volume level and create a more balanced sound.
      And it might not be such a “sad” or bad thing that your church is nonliturgical. It gives you room to manuever and make modifications when it comes to your services and programs in ways that (hopefully) might please more people from different age groups.
      One way that my church fellowship found to make traditional hymns more relevant to young people is to preface the singing of the hymn with either the historical back story behind it or a discussion of the scriptural truths related by the hymn. By the way, “It Is Well With My Soul” has an amazing back story, if you care to research it. And some contemporary worship songs do have really cool stories behind how and why they were written, and some even have some theological depth that can be explored.
      On a relational level, you might consider organizing some activities or programs pairing up the seniors with the youth — if you can find something they both enjoy or are interested in — or you might even have some kind of senior/youth retreat or anything that woud encourage the devlopment of real, person-to-person relationships between old and young members. It’s easy for those at both ends of the generational spectrum to seperate into antagonistic camps, viewing each other as old fogeys or young whipper snappers. Cross-generational relationships make that a lot less likely to happen.
      First and foremost, I advise you and your fellow church leaders not to just sweep this matter under the rug and hope that the problem will go away. It won’t, and, if not addressed, it’s likely to get worse. I’ve seen churches split wide open over much less. If your church is open enough, you might go so far as holding a full congregational meeting where everyone is given a chance to discuss the issue and put their two cents in in an open format — rather than just complaining in private to church leaders or each other. I know it sounds scary, but I’ve seen it work and actually resolve issues — or at least clear the air and relieve the tension enough to where the church can start working toward a resolution.
      God bless you, Joey, as well as your church family. I hope that something I”ve said here might help.

  24. Henri Nouwen referred to this in his interview (and transcript) called “Beloved”. He talks about redeeming loneliness, particularly for those who are alone unwillingly – the elderly, widowed, etc. – and the ministry that they can have through prayer and mentoring. When our loneliness can be redeemed into solitude, it opens us up for a deep and transforming relationship with God, no matter what our age.

    I have recently started attending another church’s women’s Bible study; our church demographics skew to mid-thirties, new Christians, professionals. This other church includes a sizable number of retired Christian workers (missionaries, seminary leadership, etc.) who have an incredible wealth of experience in studying the Scriptures, prayer, and deep, deep faith borne from a lifetime of working it out. The church as a whole is a poster child for the coming Evangelical collapse and I couldn’t see myself attending on a weekly basis, but these dear women inspire me to self-discipline and devotions in a way that my peers cannot.

    • “When our loneliness can be redeemed into solitude, it opens us up for a deep and transforming relationship with God, no matter what our age.”

      (I’m not directing this comment/rant at you, specifically, Heidi. Just bouncing off what you said. There are are couple of other comments further up that are similar, and it just kind of accumulated by the time you said anything.) I think there is a dangerous fine line here. If someone wants to talk about how loneliness and solitude and transformed relationship with God has played out in their own life, I’m fine with that. But I get really uncomfortable when the non-lonely or non-isolated or non-sick or non-frail or non-whatever start prescribing it as the normal course for the lonely, isolated, sick, frail, whatever. It seems way too easy to use that line of thought to make ourselves feel better about ignoring someone else’s (or a whole group of someone else’s … like the elderly or those who struggle with mental illness or other chronic illness or whatever) difficult situation that would be difficult, uncomfortable, frustrating, and time consuming to get involved in.

      • Read Nouwen. He’ll blow your mind. He spent years working as the chaplain at a home for mentally handicapped adults, and years beyond that in deeply compassionate ministry borne out of his own loneliness and depression (he died in 1996). I’ve never read anyone who understands the struggles of the marginalized better than he does. I understand your concern, and recognize much of myself in that dangerous line of thought. Nouwen inspires me to try harder.

  25. That was an excellent comment by Becky. I have been to many evangelical churches where truly hurting people (and old people) are clearly not welcome – it is difficult to shake hands and give the “how are you – everything’s fine” pleasantries.
    My wife has bipolar disorder. She has no significant problems with her current medicine. But I am still amazed to hear Christians and pastors who look at us funny, or even make some comments about demon oppression (my doctor actually suggested that she come in for deliverance, or perhaps she has mercury tooth fillings that are causing it!).
    So this is a dirty secret at church. We don’t talk about it and hope that no one finds out. It’s sad.

  26. This is my first time making a comment on your blog. All the comments on this subject are great,
    and I will try and not make myself sound like a total mushroom. First let me say this blog rocks( Is that still a cool word?). I thought of my mom, who will be 72 or 73 this Sunday. She is a lay eucharist minister at the Episcopal Church in Annapolis, Maryland where I grew up. I thank God everyday for her continued good health (even after the car crash five years ago). When I visit no son could be prouder to look up at the altar and along with the priest watch my mom give communion.I also pray that at that age, I am 55 now, that I can still be an effective witness of God’s grace and love. You all have hit the nail on the head because I am in an evangelical church now, my prayers and worship even though it is different from my Episcopal Church days, my mind echos the Nicence Creed , the Apostles Creed and the confession. My mind automatically converts to the Book of Common Prayer. Maybe my years as an acolyte.