Western culture idolises youthfulness and too easily the church can follow suit. We are excited by a church full of young people. We are keen to raise up young leaders and we seek to mobilize, train, mentor and encourage young Christians. That’s all good and important, but most principles of Christian living are not age-specific and the call to serve the Lord is lifelong. What we rightly want for young people, we should also want for older believers.
In Australia, we have an aging population. In 2016, 15% of the population was over 65 years old; by 2056 that will rise to 22%. Part of the reason is we are living longer. In 2022 average life expectancy is 83.79 years, up from 68.77 years in 1950. That means that if we want to reach Australians with the gospel, we will need to reach older Australians as well as younger ones. Likewise, if we want a robust army of gospel workers, we will need to recruit many older believers as well as younger ones.
But it is not just a numbers game that demands we think seriously about how to engage older believers. The Bible, reflecting very different cultural priorities from much of the West, teaches the highest regard for older people. While older age does not automatically bring wisdom, the Bible’s norm is that the longer we live the more we mature. So we are to listen to, respect and honour older believers. We are to engage them in church leadership, some literally as “elders.” We are to encourage them to invest into the lives of younger generations (Titus 2). We ought to cultivate multi-generational churches, where young and old mutually edify one another.
The Bible is full not only of the stories of great young people (like Joseph, Daniel, and the disciples when they were first chosen) but great older people as well. Abraham began his life ministry at 75; Moses was called to national leadership at 80; at the end of the Bible, we have the writings of the Apostle John, possibly in his 90s, suffering for the gospel late in his life.
Curiously, there are not a few old leaders in the world today as well. Vladimir Putin is almost 70; Joe Biden is nearly 80; Queen Elizabeth is 95! None seem to have embraced the dream of retirement.
It is that dream that needs to be challenged. If we are swept along by the cultural tide, our dream for later life is the dream of easing off, living a comfortable life with ample time for leisure activities and holidays. Superannuation funds urge us to set aside large swathes of money for twenty to thirty years of doing not too much. The brochures depict relaxation, luxury and ease.
But retirees are being sold a lie. As Simon van Bruchem says in his fine new book, Distinctively Christian Retirement, “a retirement made up of a few decades of leisure is destructive mentally and physically” (p. 3). He highlights that retirement as we often think of it is a relatively new concept, unheard of 150 years ago and never mentioned in the Bible. But things changed and “[e]ngaging in leisure for the last few decades of your life became something to aspire to, save for, and expect” (p. 13). Van Bruchem goes on to challenge the false dream in multiple ways, exposing how empty the promises really are, how unrealistic given the realities of older age, and how far they fall short of a biblical vision for older age.
Our dream, he says, is to be heaven, not retirement. Heaven is eternal while retirement is temporary. Heaven is perfect while retirement can only at best be very good. Heaven is God-focused while retirement so easily becomes a selfish goal (pp. 63–70).
The false dream begins long before retirement. It begins with our life expectations and financial planning. Young and middle-aged people, not just “oldies”, need to think hard about the latter decades of life. Similarly, churches need to think about how to encourage and mobilize this large gospel workforce. It’s not just young people who need to be challenged to radical discipleship; older believers need to be as well.
What does that mean in practice? It is worth reading Distinctively Christian Retirement for many perspectives on that, but here are some key areas the book addresses that are worth considering.
- Encourage older believers to keep working, perhaps no longer for an employer or for money, but for the Lord. With increased life expectancy, many people in their 60s, 70s and even 80s still have great strength and often quite good health, and can do much for the Lord.
- Encourage older believers to serve. This is the logical fruit of the previous point. We need to draw on the wisdom and maturity of older believers in almost every ministry area. Many can serve in local church ministries and be equipped to mentor others, engage in pastoral care, lead Bible studies or ministry areas. Some will be available for cross-cultural mission. Past professional experience can be redeployed: project managers, accountants, teachers, tradies, musicians, creative designers, strategists, and a hundred other skills once used in the workforce can be used for the good of the gospel. Some older men will perhaps finally have time to serve as elders.
- Encourage older believers to embrace their new mission fields. There’s gospel work to be done in retirement villages, on cruise ships, at golf clubs, in aged care facilities, amongst medical staff, in extended family gatherings, and all the other places where older people may now find they spend time.
- Encourage gospel generosity. The predominant emphasis in retirement planning is on saving enough now for comfort later. While it is wise and responsible to provide for the future, we can easily become selfish and indulgent. We need to talk more openly in churches about what standard of living is necessary for retirement and therefore how much can give away as well as how much we need to save. In retirement itself, the nest egg need not all be used on us; it may open up opportunity for great generosity to others. Similarly, the writing of a will can be an act of gospel love as well as a way of blessing one’s children (who by the time we die may not actually need our money).
- Encourage a deep commitment to prayer. Even if an older believer can do little else, they can nearly always pray. A ministry of prayer is powerful and effective. It may be of far greater significance than the activism of a young person. Older people may well have the time to pray much for the church, for unbelievers, for young people and families, for ministries and mission.
- Encourage older believers to value godliness as the most beautiful way to glorify God. There may come a time when an older person can give or do little. They may have little capacity to work, struggle to know how to serve, have little energy or scope for mission, and their meagre savings have been all but used up. Can such a person still live to the glory of God? Absolutely! At no point in life is our value determined by how much we give or can do. Our value is in our God-given status as his adopted children, now living for his glory alone. It is beautiful to see an older person living by faith to the end. It is a powerful example to see godliness in the face of suffering. It is pleasing to God when we live out our last days in the hope of eternal glory. As van Bruchem says to older believers, “Your witness to those around you of a faithful, contented life in the face of your struggles will have a more significant impact than you can imagine.” (p. 157).
I have the privilege of knowing many older people who are using their latter years in exactly these ways. They are an enormous force for gospel good, setting the pace for their peers and for those of us who will eventually follow them. May God raise up many more like them.
 All references are to Simon van Bruchem, Distinctively Christian Retirement: a Biblical Call to Serve Jesus Well in Older Age (Written For Our Instruction; 2022). Available as an ebook online or from Koorong and Reformers Bookshop.