iOS app Android app More

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors
Ryan Harper

GET UPDATES FROM Ryan Harper
 

Fount of Blessing, Fount of Youth: Age and the American Church

Posted: 12/01/11 05:11 PM ET

I write this now because it will be too late to write later. Presently, I write as the mascot of a Christian community of which I would like to be a citizen. My skin is white and unwrinkled. I am healthy: 300 pounds plus on a bench press, three hours plus on a marathon route. I drink the trendiest coffee, listen to the trendiest music. I have the resources and desire to do these things. My spouse and I comprise that "young family" for which so many churches pine. If my spouse were to birth a child, or if we were to adopt a non-African-American child, our "young family" stock would skyrocket -- the political potency of potential potency. A son of the rural Midwest, an upwardly mobile migrant to the more urban and urbane east coast -- specifically, that place Wyclef Jean dubbed "The New Jerusalem" -- I am one in a long line of 33-year-old mascots of Christendom. The city on the hill contains such uplifting possibilities for 33-year-olds from the country.

Before my knees go, my favorite music gets archived and all of this starts sounding like sour grapes, I wish to contest my mascot status. American churches should stop fawning over young people like me. The fact that I and my demographic are so idealized bespeaks a profound, if often unintentional, ageism -- one that inhibits not only senior citizens' abilities to participate fully in the life of the church but mine as well. As long as I am the church's mascot, seniors cannot be citizens of the church -- and neither can I. It is time for American churches to grow up.

Let me say at the outset that the idealization of my demographic is due to more than age. Class, race, educational level and gender are pertinent, too. In some of the largest and loudest quadrants of American Christianity, I would be a less-likely candidate for mascot were I not straight, male, white, well-educated and middle-class. But the changes afoot in American Christianity portend at least some hope for individuals outside these demographics. It is increasingly fashionable for white Christians to put ourselves in safe proximity to brown faces. As American Christianity becomes increasingly brown -- and as safe proximity accidentally produces real encounters -- the whiteness will become less normative. It is even fashionable for white middle-class Christians to put ourselves in safe, beneficent proximity to poor people of all colors. If eventually our objects of charity assert their subjectivity without assimilating the values of their putative wardens, perhaps middle-class values will become less normative.

But it is not fashionable for churches to put themselves in proximity to old people. Seniors as such are not fashionable. They are not wanted -- as mascots or as citizens. Even the sentimental softness of the real or imagined kindly grandmother -- the avatar of the truly feminine in some Christian circles -- is severely qualified by the dogmatic hardness of the real or imagined "old church lady" -- the symbol of a stodgy religiosity that even most conservative evangelicals reject. Recently I came upon the website of an evangelical church that lampooned those moribund churches in which "everyone looks like your grandma," the implication being I would not be forced to pause over such post-menopausal specters were I to attend their worship service.

Few churches are so forthrightly ageist. More common would be this attitude: "It's not our intention to exclude seniors. Seniors are welcome. It just so happens that the music, the programming, the website, the latté bar in the vestibule, all trend toward the tastes and faces of youth and young families. This is our ministry." Claiming that seniors are not excluded from a church whose entire grammar "just so happens" to be middle-aged or younger is like claiming Chinese-only speakers are not excluded from a church where "it just so happens" only English is spoken. But it is a more bafflingly short-sighted claim in the case of old age because, barring unforeseen events, all of us are headed toward old age. One day, each of us who constructed our altars to youth will realize that we preemptively excommunicated the selves we were becoming from the tabernacles we were building.

Is there a remedy for this situation? There is not a simple one, and certainly not one that I can explore here as fully as I would like. But I believe the beginning of a remedy requires revisiting one conceptual category popular in the contemporary church: relevance. American churches like advertising themselves as "relevant to the culture." But we must push for specifics. To whom and for whom is our church relevant? Doubtless, the answer varies. But judging by their programming and congregational demographics, most churches that self-consciously adopt the discourse of relevance seem to have in mind people like me. Relevance to "the culture" usually means relevance to my culture -- to people who look like me, who spend money like me, who are reading this post on a sleek, colorless i-Device like the one on which I compose it, who soon and very soon might father a child who will inherit his father's uncritical consumptive habits and with this inheritance uncritically consume his father's aging, inconsequential body: teeth set on edge, the protestant patricide on the communion table of the free market.

This version of me, like the version of "the culture" of which it is representative and by which it is constituted, is largely lifeless -- inattentive, inorganic, juvenile, hypermaterialistic, ossified in its addiction to youth. Sure, I hope there is another version of my culture and myself that has more redeeming qualities -- and that sees that it needs to be led toward fuller redemption. But a community that claims a tradition that regards the marginal (the poor, the eunuch, the alien, the orphan, and ... the elderly widow) as supremely relevant should think twice before it seeks to build on such shifting sand as me -- the young, heterosexual, white male with disposable income and functioning genitals. It may turn out that it is irrelevant for the church to be relevant to such an irrelevant population.

There may be more relevant criteria for relevance. Some possibilities: A church with no wrinkles is irrelevant. A church that has not buried a member in the last two years or so is irrelevant. A church that advertises itself as "not your grandma's church" is irrelevant. A church that is staffed exclusively by guys who look they were pulled out of a Decemberists audience is irrelevant. A church that claims it must grow or die is irrelevant. Such a church is more irrelevant than poor, "dying" churches that cannot perpetuate themselves through time by birthing new members. After all, the ageless local congregation existing in earthly perpetuity is no less an illusion than is the ageless individual existing in earthly perpetuity. Imminent institutional mortality may better equip people to deal with eventual personal mortality. No robust Christianity can exist where death is absent. It is time for American churches to learn how to die.

While I believe Christian communities have a special duty to include and respect old people in their communions, I am not recommending the idealization of seniorhood solely for seniors' sakes. It will not do to replace young mascots with old ones. I believe the (re)turn toward old people is also necessary because young people need to be in community with people of different generations -- particularly the generations older than they are. If I am to be a citizen of my church rather than its mascot, I need to learn how to hold accountable and to be held accountable by other citizens with whom I may not identify immediately, with whom I may have serious disagreements traceable to generational differences. I need seniors, among others. Moreover, if I am to learn to be a senior citizen of a church one day, how else am I to acquire the habits of senior citizenship but by being in relationship with current seniors? Without these relationships, my Christianity and the Christian community I seek to build will falter. Christians idealize a Messiah who was killed, supposedly, at 33. American Christians may well end up killing the faiths of those idealized 33-year-olds in whom they place such messianic hope.