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Is Your Church Ageist?

Imagine you are part of a worship planning team. You have been given responsibility for planning the worship service on a regular basis. Instead of using traditional hymns from The United Methodist Hymnal, you decide to make changes and sing only contemporary, praise songs. After a few Sundays, you learn that some adults are complaining that the church is no longer singing any of the beloved, familiar hymns. As you hear the complaints, you check to confirm your impression. And, if you are like many people, you nod approvingly at your foresight when you realize that the people complaining have white hair.

There is, of course, some basis in fact for the impression you formed. However, the ease with which such incidents confirm people's expectations o folder worshipers and the equal ease with which they ignore counter instances — older adults who enjoy singing contemporary, praise songs or young people who don't — reflect that set of attitudes, beliefs, and stereotypes known as ageism.

Ageism is defined as prejudice or discrimination against older people because of their age. In reality, we have not moved very far in overcoming the prejudice against older people since the 1960s when the term "ageism" was first coined by Dr. Robert Butler (the first director of the National Institute on Aging).

In a recent article written by my friend, Herb Bowman (Western Jurisdictional Representativeto the UM Committee on Older Adult Ministries), said: "All of us who are 65 and older have experienced some form of ageism — even though we perhaps have not been aware of it" (Chariot, Littleton UMC Senior Adult Magazine, February 2006, Vol. X No 1, Littleton, Colorado).

Ageism — and its personal impact — is a reality shared by almost every older adult, although many people are socialized not to recognize it. Based on adeeply ingrained, negative stereotypes of what old people are really like, ageism is used to rationalize discrimination and to confuse our discussions about rights and privilege.

Unfortunately, ageism is widespread not only in the marketplaces but also in religious circles. We hear words such as, "The church is dying because we have so many old people in the church." "If old people would just get out of the way." "If older adults just accepted change." "Either older adults should get with the program, or they should leave the church."

Negative images of older adults are often reflected by the stereotypic oldsters who are the butt of greeting cards and popular jokes. Like "racism" and "sexism," ageism demeans and devalues people. It is manifested in our society's worship of youth and our anxiety over wrinkles. It diminishes the church's witness and mission. Bishop Kenneth L. Carder said, "It hurts to be rejected on the basis of age as surely as it hurts to be rejected because of gender or race or any other unavoidable trait" (UM Connection, May 17, 2000).

With ageism, the interests of one age cohort are pitted against another. Instead of synergizing people at various stages of the life course, ageism separates and divides people. Yet, in the Scriptures we read, "Young men and women alike, old and young together! Let them praise the name ofthe Lord," (Psalm 148:12-13a).

How we age often depends on the way we internalize society's images of the old. When older adults see little interest directed at them by the church, they gradually lose their sense of themselves as having value and worth, which dampens and diminishes their faith development. Ageism prevents many people of all ages from seeing that potentials are as bountiful as problems among older adults. It is important for congregations to recognize that they aren't an "old" church; rather, they are blessed to have many older members.

What attitude are you communicating with the older members in your congregation?

What evidences of "ageism" have you become aware of in your church? Is your church reaching and inviting people of all ages to develop and grow as disciples of Jesus Christ? What are ways your church can use the giftedness of older adults for meaningful and productive service to others?

Examples of Ageist Behaviors and Attitudes in Many Congregations:

  • When older adult ministry is planned without the involvement of older adults, that's ageism.
  • When a church believes that the only way it can be innovative and growing is to have older adults step aside, that's ageism.
  • When a church fails to make its facilities accessible, that's ageism.
  • When a church hires staff for other age-group ministries or provides them a budget but ignores ministry with older adults, that's ageism.
  • When church leaders believe they know what's best for older adults without consulting them, that's ageism.
  • When church leaders regularly ignore issues of aging and older adult concerns in their sermons, hymn selections, and prayers, that's ageism.
  • When church leaders focus solely on young families and ignore older members who have supported the church over a period of many years, that's ageism.

This article appeared in the fall 2006 issue of Center Sage.

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