30 September 2022

What are old people for?

Andrew Wileman

A grandparent with their army around their grandchild in a worship meeting

Ahead of the International Day of Older People (1 October), Andrew Wileman heralds an age of new possibilities for the Army’s work and mission.

Not only is the headline of this article the title of a great book by Dr William Thomas, it is also perhaps one of the most important questions facing The Salvation Army and the wider Church.

The UK Census of 2021 found that more than one fifth of the UK population is aged 65 or over – and this figure is projected to grow to about a quarter of the population by 2041. In the next 25 years, the number of people older than 85 will double to 2.6 million. A combination of falling birth rates and improved survival of people in later life is leading to a marked change in society. The world is going to be greyer, older and with a larger number of older people and an increasing number who are dependent on others for care.

You might be thinking, ‘How terrible!’ But this is an age of new possibilities and opportunities that are fundamental to the Army’s future mission.

The biblical narrative is one in which old people are both celebrated and venerated. ‘Grey hair is a crown of glory, it is gained in a righteous life’ (Proverbs 16:31 English Standard Version). ‘Stand up in the presence of the aged, show respect for the elderly and revere your God’ (Leviticus 19:32). ‘Wisdom is with the aged and understanding in length of days’ (Job 12:12 ESV).

And yet corps and other churches seem to have a relentless focus on young people and young families. A youthful, trendy image seems to be paramount – we want to be energetic, informed and in touch with society.

Unfortunately, the rows of senior citizens in many corps don’t seem to quite fit that image. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Perhaps the pervasive ageism we find in the secular world is merely being replicated in corps and churches.

Of course, young people matter. The mingling of youthful zeal and the wisdom of older saints is part of the point of God’s multigenerational Church. However, when all generations are present, we must acknowledge that all perspectives are necessary to truly be the Army that God has commissioned to reach and love the world.

Two older people wearing Salvation Army uniform with headphones sitting at an AV desk

How foolish it would be to ignore the wisdom of those in later life. I suggest that we need an active, ongoing conversation about the gifts and callings of older people.

Here are four biblical ways they can impact the Army’s local mission in the 21st century:

Custodians of families

In Leviticus 19 we read that the primary role of elders was forming community by expressing love, wisdom, memory, authority and example.

Offering life wisdom in a non-judgemental way can be an antidote to the simplistic, black-and-white perspectives of much public discourse. The experiences of going through deep waters of suffering, failure and bereavement can provide resources of wisdom to pass on.

Servants of God

In 2 Corinthians the apostle Paul outlines a series of setbacks and sufferings. The words are a note in a season to those who are older: ‘Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day’ (4:16).

The role of older people in our corps can prophetically counter any obsession with outward things. Whatever they might happen to be in a local context – buildings, programmes, budgets, etc – we need those who go before us to show us how it can be done with grace and humility.

Ambassadors of the lifelong journey

Investing in the next generation through deep intergenerational friendships in a society increasingly segmented by age can seem to be unusual. But Christian history shows the profound importance of intergenerational friendships in growing the next generation of disciples.

The Spanish philosopher Unamuno reminds us we have a choice of ‘seeing life from the balcony’ looking at life as spectators or else we choose to ‘live on the road’ as pilgrims making progress.

Reflectors of prayer and purpose

As a younger person I was so grateful and moved knowing there were older saints who were praying faithfully for me. The challenge for those of us who are older is to take up that role for the next generation.

Paradoxically, as the opportunities open to us start to narrow down, we can discover afresh the wonder of simply being alive and the smaller and frequently ignored blessings of creation, family and friendship.

Written by

Andrew Wileman

Andrew Wileman

Assistant Director of Older People's Services

Discover more

Andrew Wileman shares three examples of how older people have a role to play in God’s mission.

Resources to help celebrate the older members of our congregations.

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Resources to support older people and those that work with them.