There’s much in the media today about racism and sexism but very little about the most widespread, insidious, illegal, and yet the most socially accepted of any prejudice—ageism.
Ageism is the stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination against people on the basis of their age. It is seen in detrimental attitudes towards people’s age and the aging process, discriminatory practices against people based on age, and institutional practices and policies that perpetuate stereotypes about people based on their age. Most commonly, ageism is directed at older people.
There are many examples in society of ageism against the elderly such as anti-aging products, jokes about getting old, 55+ gated communities, societal hiring practices, and attitudes concerning older people and technology. If attitudes like this were applied to a different context, such as towards a person of colour or someone from another country, it would be seen as racism. But when it comes to age, it is socially acceptable. I caught myself wrestling with this issue as I stood impatiently in a grocery line behind an older woman counting her change with painstaking slowness.
Ageism exists in churches as well. It shows up when a church is looking for a new associate pastor or worship pastor. How many times have search committees said, “We want someone who is younger”? How many times have older staff been cut in the name of stewardship? And how many churches are intentional about investing in the spiritual growth of people over 50?
Churches often boast of how many young people they have in attendance, as if this is a badge of God’s blessing. And a disparaging comment I’ve often heard is that someone doesn’t want to attend a particular church because it is “full of old people.”
The biblical picture of the church is that of a unified body, a testimony to the world of the truth of the Gospel. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female and old or young (Galatians 3:28).
God’s Word condemns discrimination of any kind, particularly among believers. Jesus reveals that the greatest commands are to love the Lord with our whole hearts and to love our neighbours as we love ourselves (Mark 12:30–31). As believers, we are all equal in God’s eyes, with everyone deserving the same respect (see Galatians 3:27–28; James 2:2–4). The Lord Himself “shows no favoritism” (Acts 10:34; Romans 2:11). The church is to be a place where older women are helping and teaching younger women (Titus 2:2–6), and a place where we are all one in Christ Jesus.
In contrast to the rampant ageism in our society, the Bible honours age because God places high value on wisdom. Wisdom is associated with the elderly and not with the arrogant impulses of youth. “Wisdom belongs to the aged, and understanding to the old” (Job 12:12). “Gray hair is a crown of glory; it is gained by living a godly life” (Proverbs 16:31). “Stand up in the presence of the elderly, and show respect for the aged. Fear your God. I am the Lord” (Leviticus 19:32). It seems that respecting one’s elders goes hand-in-hand with respect for the Lord Himself.
Paul’s instruction to Timothy was, “Never speak harshly to an older man, but appeal to him respectfully as you would to your own father…Treat older women as you would your mother…” (1 Timothy 5:1–2).
This does not mean that God despises youth or that He honours all elderly people. But a person who has lived a long life of dedicated service to God, walking in the paths of wisdom, is surely worthy of higher honour than the youth who has only just begun his or her journey.
To combat ageism, we first need to become aware of it in ourselves and those around us. We become informed by reading about aging and talking with older people about ageism. We become empathetic as we learn what people face as they grow older: friends and family are dying, occupation and its prestige are left behind, and agility and mobility may be lost. We become engaged when we think through how churches can help people deal with the depression, despair, and anger that sometimes occur as one ages.
Once you are equipped, you can help your church hold correct assumptions about aging and older adults. Here are some suggested questions to address. Are there tangible ways your church can show respect for the older people in the congregation and society and cultivate intergenerational relationships? Is part of your budget allocated to ministry to seniors? Has your church created division where there shouldn’t be any?
Finally, a word to those who are considered older. Challenge ageism when you experience it. Work against the stereotypes. Keep current with your skills and technology. Don’t be guilty of trying to act younger. It looks ridiculous and people won’t respect you. Learn what it means to age well.