The prophet Zechariah reminds us that there was a time when many Jews longed to worship again in the temple. The Exile had lasted about 70 years. Cyrus, king of Persia, had conquered Babylon in 539 B.C. and shortly set into operation a policy permitting displaced persons to return to their homelands.
Yet, years later, only a few people had returned to Jerusalem. Many people had grown accustomed to their new home and decided to stay. Thus, the work of rebuilding Jerusalem and reconstructing the ruined temple was slow.
It was in this time that Zechariah began to prophesy. He proclaimed these encouraging words, “Thus says the Lord of hosts: Old men and old women shall again sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each with staff in hand because of their great age” (Zechariah 8:4).
Due to factors such as better health care, nutrition, job safety, physical fitness, and medical technology, more people are living longer today. As people live longer and retire earlier, the post-retirement period can last 30 or more years. Growing older is no longer synonymous with death. Surely, God has some purpose for adding years to our lives, but how can we add life to our years?
Dr. George Vaillant in his book, Aging Well, writes that older adults play an important role as Keepers of the Meaning. Vaillant believes older adults have the responsibility for focusing on conservation and preservation of the collective products of humankind. He writes:
The generative individual cares for an individual in a direct future-oriented relationship – as, for example, a mentor or teacher. In contrast, the Keeper of the Meaning speaks for past cultural achievements and guides groups, organizations, and bodies of people toward the preservation of past traditions.
Erik Erikson, an American psychoanalyst known for his theory on psychological development of human beings, suggested that tensions exist with every developmental task — intimacy vs isolation, generativity vs stagnation, ego integrity vs despair. Likewise, Dr. Vaillant maintains that with Keepers of the Meaning, the danger is rigidity. In other words, older adults can be — if they are not careful — too rigid in maintaining tradition. They may desire to maintain tradition whether or not it holds any real significance or value.
Our society has long complained that older adults are:
- Too conservative
- Never wanting change
- Unable to learn new things
Quite frankly, these myths about older adulthood bore me. In reality, older adults have — out of necessity — experienced numerous changes over the years.
Think about all the changes that have taken place in the last 75 years. Older adults are survivors. They have lived through a host of changes — technological, political, economic, cultural, personal, and religious. Perhaps the adage often credited to the late actress, Bette Davis, is correct: Aging isn’t for sissies.
What, then, are we to make of this new understanding in the role of older adulthood? What does it mean for our faith, church, and ministry to understand older adults as Keepers of the Meaning?
It is important for the Church to address this issue, particularly since change is everywhere and continuous. What might God have in mind as more and more people experience God’s gift of longer life?
Older adults have a vital role in helping preserve the traditions of the Church: faith, worship, and teaching. Yet, as Christians, we must discern carefully between preserving that which is truly the will of God and that which is our own fancy.
It’s important for older adult ministry leaders to lift up older adults as Keepers of the Meaning and to help congregations understand and appreciate this unique role. However, it’s equally clear that the Church is to call into question preserving traditions when God’s call is for change.
Older adults should not become too oriented to the past or long to go back to the good old days. Older adults can, as Keepers of the Meaning, model what it means to be people who learn, grow, and change, and do so successfully. They can help the Church preserve what is good, just, and loving. They can also help the Church live a Christ-centered existence because they are helping maintain and preserve the love of God within the community.
When older adults are open to God’s will and are engaged in learning and teaching people, they are better able to be faithful to the task of Keepers of the Meaning. We must not allow the wealth of wisdom, experience, and faith that often abound in older adults to be lost or go underutilized.
Dr. Richard Gentzler, director, oversees ENCORE Ministry’s mission of providing older adult ministry resources, leader training, and consultations. For more information, email Gentzler at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 615-400-0539.