Last fall, I was standing in the narthex of a church where I had just given a sermon as a guest preacher when two parishioners walked up to me and introduced themselves as new members to the UCC. With a little more conversation, they shared that they had been members of the Missouri Synod Lutheran denomination for the first 85 years of their lives. When I commented about that significant theological move, they told me there were multiple things they could no longer believe and how happy they were to have made the change and found their new church home. This is anecdotal, I know. But research about the brain suggests a far different view than the prevailing narrative that when people age, they cling to the past because they don’t want change.
In a November 2017 article in the Washington Post, researchers at Yale reported the findings from their study about the correlation between personal feelings of safety and political attitudes. According to the study, if an individual feels safe and danger is portrayed as being manageable, that individual tends to support more liberal candidates. The study drew from previous research that had already begun to compare immigration to viruses, citing the centuries-old political tactic employed when leaders refer to minority groups as “germs or bacteria that seek to invade and destroy their country from within.”
The 2011 Yale study researchers reminded the participants about the threats and danger of the H1N1 flu virus before then asking the participants to share if they had already gotten the flu shot or not. Those who did not yet have the flu shot and were feeling threatened expressed negative attitudes about immigration. Those who had received the flu shot were already feeling “safe” had more positive attitudes about the issue.
In an additional study, hand sanitizer was offered following the warnings about the flu virus. Those who had not been vaccinated, but who were then offered Purell, changed their minds. They not only felt safe about the virus, but their responses about immigrants improved as well. The study’s conclusion: “We….need to recognize how much (our social and political attitudes) can be influenced subconsciously by our most basic, powerful motivations for safety and survival.” Could there be a similar correlation to one’s theological and faith beliefs?
I believe there are a combination of factors for older adults and how they approach their spiritual journey. The first has to do with whether or not their church is a place where they feel safe to explore and grow. I believe there is also a factor related to whether the church and its leadership is responsive to the physical needs of older adults, particularly as they age in their own homes. Do the words and attitudes of the church perpetuate the negative narratives from the larger culture about aging, or does the congregation truly embrace positive and supportive opportunities across all generations?
Following a recent presentation introducing The UCC Age Friendly Congregations Resource, one colleague noted how negative the conversations were in the community in which his mother lived. He observed that his mother and her neighbors repeated the negative perceptions about old people, essentially, putting themselves “down” in the process. As we talked about ageism and its pervasive reach in our culture, he realized that perhaps they were just fulfilling the only image they knew about what life should be like when one reaches their eighth or ninth decade.
Could we help older adults change their own outlook if we in the church respond to their needs for safety and security? And could we help them envision a positive, alternative narrative to growing older if we shared the good news that aging is not a disease, but a God- given gift?
Those who are retiring today are the most educated, wealthiest generation to enter this period of their lives. They could possibly have another 10-20 productive years ahead of them. Most have come to the point where they are finished with their high-impact careers and are looking for ways to volunteer, impact their local communities, and meet their own passions. They are concerned about the younger generations. They have life experience and expertise that could be shared in new settings. They are asking questions about the meaning of life. They are facing their own mortality. (Growing Older, Thinking Younger, by Keith Hammelman)
They are not going to be interested in participating in communities of faith that only perpetuate our culture’s ageist narratives. They are not going to join congregations that do not value the spiritual journey that honors the entire life span. They are not going to contribute to organizations that pit their needs against the needs of younger generations—they are very interested in inter-generational interactions. Their needs will change and they are going to want to and need to be in community where their needs are taken seriously and where they can give and receive the gifts that come with interdependence.
The question is this: will churches be supportive agents of change and benefit from the expansive thinking of our oldest members? Or will our oldest members leave the church altogether, in search of a community where they feel valued and supported? I hope for the latter.
Rev. Beth Long-Higgins serves as Executive Director, Ruth Parker Center for Abundant Aging at United Church Homes in Marion, Ohio, a member organization of the United Church of Christ Council for Health and Human Services Ministries.