This recent Washington Post article highlights an idea foreign to the majority of us living in Western culture. Dr. Bill Thomas contends, “…there is a ‘third’ phase of life beyond adulthood that can be as rich as either of the phases that came before.” This idea has implications for the church – if only we have ears to hear.

For those interested in nurturing spiritual growth and development throughout every phase of life, and some of those who work with aging populations, these words are more affirmation than revelation. But since too many see old age (mid-sixties and up, with a hazy division between “young-old” and “old-old” hitting at about seventy-five) as a slow, Depends-dependent slide toward decay and death. Dr. Thomas sees it differently:

For the past two years, he has traveled the country on a mission to raise public consciousness — strumming a guitar and presenting a stage show that touts a “post-adulthood” period when age and experience are associated with enrichment rather than decrepitude.  

He believes that his generation, which reinvented what it means to be young, should now be reinventing what it means to grow old. “We need to get people out of hospitals, we need to create a rich set of community-based alternatives.” In essence, he argues, the goal is “normalizing the entire lifespan instead of separating and stigmatizing one part as something different.”

Instead, he sees too many baby boomers clinging to tropes that no longer serve them.

“It’s very American language — ‘You’re as young as you feel, and I feel like I’m 22 years old.’ That’s not good, that’s not right . . . and the reason it’s wrong is it doesn’t allow you to be who you are.”

Too many churches have bought what our culture is selling when it comes to the way we approach aging. I’ve been writing (andreading) about midlife issues in this space and sharing observations at Her.meneutics for the last few years. I believe a measure of the Done phenomenon has to do with people growing up and out of congregations who appear to be committed solely to cultivating and maintaining the spirituality of those in the first half of their lives. Dr. Thomas’ words and a couple of conversations I’ve had recently prompted me to visit these questions afresh.

The kingdom of God is not an age-segregated community. In the megachurch we currently attend for family reasons, everyone holding a microphone during a service is between 30-45 except the senior pastor and the occasional guest speaker. The platform folks are polished, professional, and physically attractive. Less attractive, poor, older, or disabled people are highlighted from time to time only as the objects of ministry.

Until now, we’ve always belonged to smaller churches. The extended family nature of a small church means (at least in theory) more people who aren’t polished, professional, and physically attractive have an opportunity to participate in facilitating worship services and leading ministries. This doesn’t give small churches an edge on cultivating spiritual maturity. It is entirely possible to include older people in ministry while keeping a congregation’s primary orientation one of “milk dependence”, rather than seeking to form Christ in in those at every life stage.

So what would a counter-cultural approach to aging look like in a congregation? In the church we attend, certainly one tiny but visible step would mean the commitment they’ve shown in racial diversity on the worship team would stretch to include older members. But Dr. Thomas’ words to those in our culture come weighted with a greater intensity for those of us in the church. They are calling us to do far more including a few gray-haired folks in the band of a worship team of a mega-church. He is telling us there is untapped value, the potential for growth and the expectation that those in the last third of their lifespans have something meaningful to bring to the world. Before you file these words under, “No Duh”, consider where you see this being played out on a regular basis in your experience.

And if the answer is “nowhere”, that answer stands as a big question of the one place in the world where Dr. Thomas’ words should be the truest of all – the Church.

What do you think? In what ways does your church cultivate spiritual growth among those in the last third of their lives? Or are older adults seen mostly as people on the margins, projects, or problems?