Older People: The Future of Our Church
Older Christians should model what God wants the next generation to become.
On October 29, 1998, the space shuttle Discovery launched with a seven-member crew. One of them, John Glenn, was 77 years old. John Glenn had been in space before. In fact, in 1962 he became the first American to orbit the Earth. To put it in perspective, the last time John Glenn blasted into the sky in a spacecraft, the towering political figures were Nikita Kruschev and John F. Kennedy. A few days before the flight, John Glenn scolded 100 reporters gathered at the launch pad for the crew's practice countdown. They were focusing too much on his age, he said, rather than the missions' scientific merits. Why the fuss about Glenn's age? As a TIME magazine piece began, "This is no country for old men." That sentiment seems to reflect the attitude of our culture. Hit age 65 and it is time to retire, to collect Social Security, to move aside and let younger, more energetic people step in.
This is an issue we have to face in the church. What roles do people play as they grow older? Should they simply step aside and let a younger generation take over? For an answer to this question, let us consider Titus 2:1–5.
In Titus the Apostle Paul issues a challenge to a church leader on the island of Crete. Paul argues that Christians must match their lifestyle to their doctrine. They need correct beliefs, but they also need correct behavior that matches those beliefs. Paul offers his instruction to four groups. He starts by instructing older men, proceeds to older women, then young men, and then slaves. Each group has a role. Significantly, Paul begins with the senior members of the congregation.
What does Paul mean by "old?" Philo, one of the world's leading philosophers who was an older man when Paul was a younger man, said that "old" meant over 60 for both men and women. Hippocrates, a Greek physician who lived about 400 years before Christ, said that "old" was 50 to 60 years old, the sixth of seven periods in a person's life. In other words, Paul is addressing those people our culture would classify as senior citizens. That's astounding because it shatters a very prevalent myth: I'm too old to contribute. If you suggested that to the Apostle Paul, he would have said, "Nonsense!" Paul singles out older people as the people to whom Titus was to focus his time and energy.
God has a role for older Christians.
You may not feel like it, but God has a role for you as a senior Christian. The question remains, when you hit retirement years, and you can't put in as many hours a day as you used to, what does God want you to do? In Titus 2:2–5, Paul indicates that your role as a senior Christian is as much to become something as to do something.
Paul gives Titus the responsibility of telling the men what kind of men they need to become. Right away there's a problem. Our senior Christians grew up with the King James Version. In the King James Version of the Bible, the first two qualities listed in verse 2 are "sober" and "grave." I don't know what those words suggest to you, but to me they suggest stern and grouchy—someone who doesn't smile or who frowns on fun. Those qualities remind me of Mr. Bellsley, one of my neighbors growing up. Whenever I'd ride my bike by his house, he would look like he was going to snap at me. He watched to make sure I didn't ride in his grass, and he always looked sour and unhappy, as if he were weaned on dill pickles. Those qualities also make me think of the famous painting "American Gothic," which depicts the slender man with weathered skin, wearing glasses with round, wire-rim frames, and his dour wife. He's sporting bib overalls and holding a pitchfork, and she's gazing off into the distance. To me, that's sober and grave. Is that what God is calling you to become?
"Sober" is translated as "temperate" in many of our newer versions, including the NIV. The word was often associated with moderation in the use of alcohol. Here it's used in a more general sense. It indicates a lifestyle that is not excessive or rash in any area. Old age tends to magnify our character qualities. Our habits and ways of responding become more pronounced. If we tend to get angry, old age makes us grouchy. If we tend to be shy, old age can make us reclusive. If we tend to have strong opinions, old age can make us excessively opinionated. Being sober means that we're balanced in our personality and personal habits; we avoid extremes in our moods, words, and behavior.
Similarly, the term "grave" doesn't mean you can't crack a smile. It doesn't mean you have to be formal and stiff. "Grave" shows up in newer translations as "dignified" or "worthy of respect." It might mean having a great sense of humor, along with a seriousness about your life. We need more people who take life and God seriously, but don't take themselves too seriously.
The next term in my Bible is "self-controlled" or "temperate." This refers to the man who keeps his passions under control. The word literally means "safe-minded." It means you think clearly enough to control your passions. I don't think it's an accident that many Bible characters failed in the second half of their lives. Noah got drunk. David committed adultery. Solomon flirted with all kinds of false ideas. Bible teacher Warren Wiersbe wrote: "As we grow older, we're confronted with temptations that we've shunned in youth, but that now look very attractive: cutting corners, eliminating disciplines, lowering standards." Paul says: Titus, tell the older men in your congregation that they are to maintain control over their lives.
Finally, older men are to remain "sound." The word means "in good health" or "in good shape." They're to do it in three critical areas of the Christian life: in faith, in love, and in perseverance.
Paul now turns to older women. Notice the word "likewise" in verse 3. That conjunction suggests that what the older women are to become resembles what the older men are to become. First, older women are to be "reverent in the way they live." The term reverent means, "fit for the temple" or "of temple quality." In other words, older women need to live like people whose lives are devoted to religious duties.
Next, Paul cites two negative qualities that women must avoid. They are not to be slanderers or addicted to wine. From what we know, life on Crete was tough. Back in Titus 1:12, Paul cited a statement made by Epimenides who was to the Cretans what Abraham Lincoln is to Americans. He said: "Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, and lazy gluttons." In this environment, some of the women on the island became bitter and withdrew. Instead of facing problems, they escaped through alcohol. Instead of participating, they stood on the outside and created havoc with their gossip. In contrast to this, the end of verse says that their role is "to teach what is good."
In verse 4, we come to a purpose statement: "then." The word Paul uses signals a purpose, and could be translated "in order that." Women are to behave in these ways, "in order that they can train the young woman." They are to learn from you how to love their husbands and their children. Wives, I'm sure it comes as a shock to you that your husband can be a pain to put up with sometimes. It's tough, too, when you're husband is working long hours, and you're with your kids all day. You love them, but sometimes you want to scream. You need the example—and maybe the advice—of someone who's "been there, done that."
Older women are also to train the younger women how to be self-controlled, pure, and busy at home. This statement recognizes that the center of a woman's life is to be her home—that is, her family. It doesn't mean that a woman can't work outside the home, or that she must stay inside the four walls of her home all day. I can say that with confidence based on Proverbs 31. Study the profile of the virtuous woman, and you'll find that her home was the base of her operations and the goal of her operations. She ran a small business, she was a craftsperson, and she was involved in a community service. But everything flowed into and out of her home.
Furthermore, the older women are to train the younger women to be kind and to be subject to their husbands. That is, they are to model how to respond to their husband's leadership in the home. The desired result, at the end of verse 5, is that the Word of God will not be dishonored or shamed. Understand the big picture: Older women are to live a lifestyle that enables them to train or encourage younger women.
Older Christians are to model what the next generation is to become.
Paul emphasizes the role of women in teaching the upcoming generation more than that of men. He did so simply because Titus, as a man, would work more closely with men. It would be more appropriate for older women to mentor younger women than to have Titus do it, for obvious reasons. In 2 Timothy 2:2, Paul instructs another leader, Timothy, to entrust what he had been taught to "reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others." God calls older Christians to pursue the kind of behavior that matches correct doctrine. As they do this, older Christians display the kind of lifestyle younger Christians need to pursue. The role of older Christians is to model what God wants the next generation to become.
I imagine some of you are thinking, I'm not sure I'm qualified to fulfill this role. I'm not sure I'm the kind of Christian a younger Christian ought to imitate. Before you give up, this text suggests a requirement that will enable you to carry out your role of modeling what God wants the next generation to become.
Older Christians must continue to learn.
In Titus 3:1, Paul tells Titus, "You must teach what is in accord with sound doctrine." The first people Titus must teach are older people. To assume the role of modeling what God wants the next generation to become, older Christians must continue to learn.
What Paul says to Titus shatters the myth that people become too old to learn. In his instruction to Titus, Paul assumes that older people can continue to learn. Friends, as soon as you quit learning, you will quit making an impact; you will quit living a productive life.
Howard Hendricks tells a story about a friend of his—a lady who lived for 86 years. He said that her attitude in her 80s was: Let's not bore each other with each other. Let's get into a discussion, and if we can't find anything to discuss, let's get into an argument. The last time Hendricks saw her alive, she said: "Well, Hendricks, what are the best 5 books you've read in the past year?" When she died in her sleep, her daughter found that she had just finished writing out her goals for the next ten years. This woman knew she was never too old to learn.
I've been talking to older folks, but I want to say a word to our younger people. Don't forget that older people are the future of our church. We need to look to their example, and we need to seek their wisdom. In other words, young people need to do three things: First, get to know the older people in your congregation. Invite them to your home; take time to visit with them before you leave church on Sunday. Second, encourage and affirm the older Christians. Some of them may be lonely; some may feel like they don't have much to contribute. Let them know how important they are. Third, realize that you're going to get old some day. Determine that Titus 2:1–5 describes the older woman or man you want to become.
As for seniors, I want you to know that I marvel at what you have to put up with. Life has changed so drastically in your lifetime. Even church life is different. I want you to know that you are important to the future of the church. God is not done with you, so neither should the church be. We owe it to you to let you relax a bit, to maintain a more flexible schedule. But we need you. This is where the "grandparent factor" kicks in. Have you ever noticed how some people will listen to their grandparents quicker than they will to their parents? I think that happens in our church family. You may be the difference in some younger Christian's life because they see in you what God wants them to become.
Several years ago, I spent a few days in Gardiner, Montana, working with a crew that built a fence around the fuel tanks for Kremer Exxon. One day during lunch break, I visited with an older gentleman who had a small home and a big garage just across the alley from where we were working. I noticed a few Chevy Corvairs parked outside his garage, and I asked him about them. The man told me he had one from every year they were produced, and he planned to restore them all. I almost chuckled, because he was in his early 80s. But I learned something that day: you've got to have something to look forward to—a purpose or a responsibility. You've never too old to have goals. You're never too old to make a contribution. Seniors, you are the future of our church. Your role is to model what God wants the next generation of Christians to become.
For the outline of this sermon, go to "Older People: The Future of Our Church."
Steve Mathewson is pastor of the Evangelical Free Church of Libertyville, Illinois, and teaches preaching for the doctoral programs at Denver Seminary and Western Seminary, and the Master of Divinity program at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.