Sometimes you read something that sends chills down your spine. It happened recently when I read the words of Stephen Sapp, chair of religious studies at the University of Miami in Coral Cables, Fla., and former chair of the governing council for the Forum on Religion, Spirituality and Aging:
“People in the United States don’t like old people, and church folks are not particularly different. Despite decades of awareness of ageism and strong emphasis on battling all other ‘isms,’ old people (with the exception of lawyers and politicians) remain the only identifiable group that is perfectly acceptable to disparage, ridicule and demean in ‘polite company.’”
Dr. Sapp boldly makes the case that if jokes were made about race or gender the way they are about older adults, the church would be up in arms. He suggests that one reason our youth-obsessed culture has a distaste for old people is that old people on some level confront us with what awaits most of us as we age.
Americans do not want to get old and we certainly don’t want to acknowledge that we will die. Even images of “healthy” or “successful” aging promote the idea that one must hang onto youth for as long as possible, an inherent devaluation of old age.
Dr. Sapp insists that clergy are among the worst in terms of acknowledging their own mortality. “I have encountered more resistance from clergy to facing aging than anybody else, and my colleagues who also work in the field of religion and aging all report the same experience,” he says.
Too much gerontology literature, including Christian, sugarcoats the losses inherent in aging, he says. From a theological perspective, Christians ought to be wonderfully equipped to provide real help in the area of aging, but unfortunately we have bought into the dominant American values and have trouble addressing issues about aging in a religious way.
Dr. Sapp believes we do older people a disservice when we paint too golden a picture of aging, one that few people will be able to achieve. We begin to believe what culture tells us, that being a worthy human means we have complete rationality, are economically productive and are absolutely independent—things that aging undermines if we live long enough.
When it comes to church growth, Dr. Sapp rejects the idea that attracting young families is the only answer. He expresses disappointment about the church’s slow response to the obvious demographic shift to an aging population. He points to statistics that indicate if churches did nothing but attract people 65 and older, there are enough in the pipeline from that age group to double church membership every five years for the next 40 years or so.
By the year 2040, he says, there will be more 85-year-olds than five-year-olds. He wonders how the church will attract people 65 and older when it offers so little for elders and generally doesn’t want them.
Dr. Sapp says the typical American attitude about aging frames the conversation as a competition between young and old, and he dismisses the idea that if the church is to maintain its appeal to younger people it must neglect old people. Instead he emphasizes that what’s needed is the recognition that we are all aging together. It is one thing every human being shares.
As the body of Christ, we should remember that we are all in this together, he adds. The church ought to be the one institution in our society that lets no one forget that.