By: Charles B. Hardwick
“We need more children in the pews. After all, children and youth are the future of the church.”
If church staffs had a dime for every time they heard a sentiment like this, the Christian education budgets would grow in churches around North America. Of course, on one hand, it’s true. Children in the pews mean parents in the pews. Parents in the pews mean more stability. More stability means more hope for the future of the institutional church.
On the other hand, the statement that “children and youth are the future of the church” leads us away from a more important fact. Children and youth are not the future of the church; they are already the church—the present of the church, if you will. After all, the church itself is not just the institutional body on your corner that relies only on the adults who fill up the offering plates. The church is, more importantly, a group of Christians who participate in God’s mission to transform the world.
There’s no reason to wait until children grow up to engage them in this mission. In fact, many of the young people I know are already eager to take part in it. One young woman in the church I served in central Illinois tragically lost her best friend due to heart problems. It was devastating for Sarah, and it continues to be. Her Facebook feed still features periodic references to Kirbie and how much she misses her.
Sarah was so grateful for the ways the church ministered to her in the midst of her grief. Her church family joined God’s mission to care for her in her grief. And yet, Sarah’s faith in Jesus Christ led her to respond in an unexpected way. She also joined God’s mission. She was a founder of Kirbie’s Team, a group of fellow students who raised money for a medical charity in their friend’s memory. Sarah and her friends worked toward the world as God wants it, a world where children live long, full lives, and where there are no more tears and sadness (see Isaiah 65). We won’t experience that world fully until Jesus returns, but the work of Sarah and her friends gave their community a glimpse of it. In all of this, Sarah was not waiting around hoping that one day she would be the church; she lived out her faith in the moment. Sarah is not the future of the church; she is its present.
“I don’t know why I’m still alive. All of my friends and family are gone. When is God going to take me home?”
It’s not unusual to hear these words when teaching and ministering to older adults. The grief is normal. So much of life changes as we age; so many of our lifelong partners and friends pass away before we are ready for them to be gone. Widows and widowers find themselves needing to fill hours that were once dedicated to spending time with and caring for a spouse. Add in the aches and pains of aging, and it’s no wonder that my grandmother would regularly quote Bette Davis, who said, “Getting old isn’t for sissies.”
And yet, many of those who wonder why they are still alive have been active members of churches for their whole lives. They have lived their faith in hundreds of ways. They have befriended the lonely and comforted the grieving. They have fed the hungry and prayed for their enemies. They have taught the young and cared for the sick. They have joined God’s mission to the world, day in and day out.
Yet as they get older and frailer, it is a consistent temptation for older adults to think that the time for living out their faith has come to a close. They might not put it in these words, but it is seductive to believe that they are the past of the church. All they could have done they have done, and there is nothing else they can do, due to the limitations that now face them.
It might be true that it is difficult for them to contribute to the thriving of the institutional church, given the challenges they face in attending regularly or giving generously. Yet there is no doubt that they can still participate in God’s mission to transform the world. They are not the past of the church; like children and youth, older adults are the present of the church, whose day has not passed them by.
Sally is a member of a church I served in Atlanta. She will turn 100 later this summer. One Sunday, we had an ice storm that prevented many members from coming to worship. I called to check on Sally. I should not have been surprised when she told me that she didn’t have any power, but her phone still worked, so she decided that she would just start calling the shut-ins to see if they were okay. I was lucky to have gotten through when I did.
Sally was not and is not the past of the church. She is its present. Sarah is not the future of the church. She is its present. You are not the church’s past, or the church’s future—you are the present of the church, whenever and however you join God’s mission to the world.
Charles B. Hardwick has served as the director of theology, worship, and education for the Presbyterian Church (USA) since January, 2012. Chip most recently served as pastor of Second Presbyterian Church in Bloomington, IL, a congregation of 1700 members. His M.Div. and Ph.D. (homiletics) are both from Princeton Theological Seminary.