Will Willimon – Growing older – Rising Previous in Church – Evaluate
We cannot withdraw from discipleship
A functional check by
Growing old in the church
(Pastoring for Life: Theological Wisdom for the Service of Well Rows)
Paperback: Baker Academic, 2020
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Reviewed by Michelle Van Loon
A steady stream of articles, books, and conferences (so many conferences!) In recent generations, church leaders have encouraged them to focus on attracting young families as a safe way to grow their congregations. There are a few good reasons for this. Young families fill a church with activities, create many programming opportunities that promote contact with friends and neighbors of these young families and offer the opportunity to influence the spiritual life of two generations at the same time.
However, a strong emphasis on a population group often expresses other members of God's family, including singles, the disabled, people with chronic illnesses and the elderly. (And it's not worth it that the latter category overlaps strongly with the previous three.) There are hopeful signs that the mechanistic formulas of the church growth movement are fading. If we say that we believe that every person in a church is necessary for the healthy functioning of the local and universal body of Christ, a renewed focus on intergenerational service can emerge in his place.
Baker Academic has launched a series for church leaders that focuses on providing practical pastoral theology for various life cycle issues such as birth, friendship, addiction recovery, and aging. I had the opportunity to review Will Willimon's contribution to the series called Aging: Growing Old. Willimon, a retired United Methodist bishop, was a professor at Duke Divinity School and dean of Duke University's chapel for twenty years. He is in his seventh decade and writes with honesty, humility and grace both about the spiritual tasks of aging and about the gifts and challenges of pastoral care for those in the final chapters of their lives.
His thesis is clear: “We can withdraw from our careers, but not from discipleship; The Church has a responsibility to equip us for discipleship in the last years of our lives. Although aging usually involves some painful events, Christianity can enable us to survive both the joys and the agony of aging with confidence and hope. "
Seven chapters deal with the issues of aging throughout Scripture, the upheavals of aging, retirement, aging, past life development, what it looks like to grow old in the Church, and end-of-life issues. Pastor Willimon has a lifetime of excellent anecdotes that are well reconciled with expert quotes from contemporary research and a deep source of knowledge and application of scripture.
And he's not afraid to challenge popular voices that have spoken about aging in the life of the Church. For example, he questions some thoughts from Father Richard Rohr, who has greatly influenced the discussion about the second half of life, and observes: “Rohr paints a rosy picture of the second half of life as a quiet time when we wise and generous people let our basic goodness prosper and leave behind the acidic elderly who have a bad attitude, ”he writes. "It's easier to think of age as the crowning glory of life when you're not entirely dependent on the charity of the social security system." The truth is that many find it difficult to wear this crown if they simply don't have the resources to buy polish to maintain it.
Willimon urges pastors to face the temptation to marginalize older members and to fully integrate seniors into the life of the Church. This challenge works in both directions. As part of the ongoing pastoral work for those who work with the elderly, it must be recognized that the Church must serve as an antidote to the tendency to romanticize the good old days. Instead, he urges pastors to recognize that the Church can help "control some of our selfish, deceptive nostalgia."
The book's subtitle is "Growing Old in the Church," and the focus is consistently on "growing," not aging. Willimon urges older members to willfully withdraw from some of their leadership positions so that younger members can thrive. And he calls on the church communities to create meaningful opportunities for lifelong learning and worship and to build social connections in the context of spiritual education for all. While asking some churches to find people willing to serve as senior advocates, every church member, regardless of age, would become those advocates if each leader took his excellent advice to heart.