I found myself both saddened and irritated recently when, in conversation about congregational needs, a pastor near retirement intoned with what seemed to me an excess of deference, "Well, I think we should hear what the youth have to say." Since I work with them all week, I hear a great deal of what "the youth" have to say. And indeed we should hear it—especially those of us whose ministry it is to teach, coach, or counsel them. As many have pointed out, the world our kids live in is more confusing, complex, and hard-edged than older folk imagine.
But, and I seem to hear this reminder less frequently these days, they also need to hear what we have to say—"we" being their elders. The ancient and venerable concept of the "elder" has shrunk to something as pathetically vestigial in American churches as in American culture. The elders of the tribe who sent young men on vision quests and guided young women through rites of passage, the councils of elders in traditional cultures who gathered to pool their collective wisdom, the elders of the early church who oversaw and guarded the teaching ministries of the community and safeguarded doctrine and discipline, and even the mannerly notion of "respect for elders" that once automatically prompted young people to rise and offer their seats to the white of hair, have receded into remote memory. They have been displaced by the ubiquitous cultural icons of smooth-skinned, athletic, exuberant youth as arbiters of taste, executors of social and economic power, and often critics of their parents' folly.
There's a reason why the commandment to "Honor your father and your mother" is not reciprocal. Respect, honor, obedience, and reverence are not owed to children in the way children owe these things to their elders. The job of elders is to care for, counsel, guide, protect, teach, encourage, and enable the youth. But when, on some false egalitarian premise, elders fail to claim the respect and honor due them, when they give away their authority and concede the floor to the kids, they do both themselves and the young people they care about a serious disservice. In functional cultures and functional families, children don't need to challenge their parents' place because they are secure in their own, and elders don't need to court or coax young people because they are secure in the legitimacy of their authority.
We get no help from popular culture in maintaining respect for elders. "Ageism" abounds. Few of the older people who make a rare appearance in film are wisdom figures. "Little old ladies" who feed the birds, be whis kered and benevolent grandpa prototypes, or curt and curmudgeonly old neighbors serve as foils in their amusing or pa thetic irrelevancy for the presumably more interesting es ca pades of "the youth." There are exceptions, of course—Alec Guinness as Obi Wan Kenobi, for instance, or Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption—but as exceptions they serve most ly to prove the rule: old is not interesting.
My grandmother wouldn't have stood for such foolishness. I don't think it occurred to her as she held court among laughing visitors, interviewed my boyfriends, or reminisced or opined at the dinner table that she didn't have a natural edge on the younger lot by dint of her many years of teaching, trailing my wandering grandfather around the country, surviving three wars, a depression, relative poverty, and the social upheavals of the '60s without losing faith in God or her own resilient self.
Her sense of humor helped. She did not suffer fools gladly, or tolerate incorrect grammar or slovenly habits. She expected to be greeted when she entered the room, and taken leave of properly. She taught me to read when I was 4, to recite the 23rd Psalm, to shell peas and peel apples, and to laugh over the catalogue of human foibles in Winnie-the-Pooh.
She also served as one of four adults in our three-generation household who together provided safe space and boundaries for my brother and me as we grew up. Sometimes all that adult correction and scrutiny seemed burdensome. More often it provided us with usable models of problem-solving, relationship maintenance, and worthwhile conversation. What we had to say at the dinner table was heard and taken seriously, but we were never led to believe that what we had to say was necessarily of equal value to the more informed, seasoned, or nuanced reflections of our elders.
However I felt about this at the time, I remember that circle of elders gratefully, and not, I think, from simple nostalgia. I am grateful for the salutary humility that arose from an awareness that I had much to learn, for the security that came from kindly correction, and the ability to distinguish authentic respect from the nervous concessions of adults who traded their authority for the grudg ing acceptance of the young. When my own life moved me into parenthood, I found myself repeatedly appalled at how frequently parents I knew seemed unable to set limits, say no, or hold the attention of children whose demands seemed to frighten and bewilder them. The church can help with this failure of authority.
One of the many gifts we need from one another in the body of Christ is a village to help raise the child. Our kids don't need us to shower them with false praise, to donate pulpit time so they can tell us how camp was "really, like, in cred ible," to dignify every unschooled utterance with applause. They need elders who will tell their stories, communicate, and demand respect, give them something to rise to, offer compassionate correction, and laugh at the inflations of the immature.
Elders who have received and reflected on the gift of life with all its hard edges are in possession of something precious that needs and deserves to be shared—elders like the woman at a prayer retreat I once attended who, when asked to consider what might be her gifts to the community, pondered silently for a minute and then responded, "I've been through things."
It may be that one of the best things the church can offer its youth is the active and assertive presence of those who have gone before them, been through things, and are willing both to share and to listen, but not, in false kindness, to abdicate the authority that gives value to the gift they bring.
Marilyn Chandler McEntyre is a professor of English Department at Westmont College.
Leadership, a sister publication of Christianity Today, ran a 1997 article, "Senior Enlisted Troops," urging churches to stop recruiting boomers and busters for service, and instead focus on retired adults.
Other Christianity Today stories on elders include:
How Sharon Baptist Discovered Welfare Ministry | Older women are essential to job partnership program. (June 14, 1999)
Gambling Away the Golden Years | Casinos are seducing an alarming number of seniors. Where is the church? (May 24, 1999)
Finishing Well | After achieving success, early retirees are finding significance in second-career mission assignments. (Oct. 5, 1998)
Retirees May Become Ministry Cutting Edge | A genteel uprising surfaces to overthrow America's cult of youth. (Jan. 16, 1997)
Stories from other sources about respect for the elderly are available from:
Young Boss, Older Worker, New Problem—The San Francisco Examiner (March 7, 2000)
What Shall we Do with Mother?—Books & Culture (July/Aug. 1999)
The Responsibilities and Privileges of Being an Adult—The Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune (July 19, 1999)
Writing the Story, Saving the Past—The Seattle Times (March 5, 1998)
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