Sitting in the coffee shop, I overheard two women at the next table talking politics. I expected to hear the typical red versus blue partisan talking points, but I was wrong. They were talking about age.
“I don’t ask for much,” said one woman with a sigh. “I just hope whoever’s hand is on the Bible at the end of it all isn’t wearing a MedicAlert bracelet.”
I don’t know whether these women were Democrats, Republicans, or Independents. They didn’t give away who would get their votes. They were just lamenting the fact that the frontrunners of both major parties are hovering somewhere around 80 years old.
By the end of the next presidential term in 2028, current president Joe Biden, who announced his reelection campaign this week, would be 86, and Donald Trump would be 82. The woman sighed again, asking, “Don’t we have anybody younger than these two?”
Her question applies to far more than a presidential campaign. Democratic senators are concerned about the prolonged absence of 89-year-old Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), some of them speaking on background about what they perceive as her cognitive decline.
Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), a dean of the Senate who was reelected in 2022, is also 89. A few years ago, when I brought a group of Southern Baptist pastors to meet with some senators, Grassley kicked things off by complaining about how loud the drums were at his Baptist church back home.
Despite polls showing that most people agree with the two women in the coffee shop, next year’s campaign does seem—barring a health event—to be about choosing which octogenarian will lead the country for the next four years.
While not much can be done about that as a country, the situation should prompt us to reflect on how to avoid a similar scenario as a church.
One primary concern people whisper to me (but won’t say out loud) is how badly generational transfer in the church is going. The congregations I’m most concerned about are not those that struggle to pay their bills. Rather, it’s the congregations whose pews are still full and budgets are met but whose attendees are mostly baby boomers. For those churches, the coming collapse will be sudden, based simply on human biology if nothing else.
Ironically, some of this is due to the way we’ve devalued the elderly. How many times have we seen church leaders, well beyond retirement age, cling to their positions, sometimes with life-or-death desperation?
At times, this stems from their egos, of course—from the idea that they are indispensable to the work. But more often, the struggle to stay feels like life or death to them. For many, their entire sense of worth is anchored in their relevance, so they see the end of their ministries as an end to their purpose. To them, retirement feels like death.
In many cases, this is because we’ve conformed to a modern culture that defines people by their perceived usefulness. As the poet David Whyte once observed, we tend to notice only the people who are running at the same velocity as we are.
That’s quite a difference from a biblical view. Take the life of Jacob alone: a storyline that starts with his scheming to steal a blessing from his dying father and ends with his blessing his own sons and grandsons (Gen. 27; 48–49).
This hardly makes sense, even to those of us who are committed, longtime Christians. We think of blessing merely in psychological terms. While we’d like to have the previous generation’s affirmation, it’s hardly worth dressing up in goatskins to seem like a hairy brother. In the biblical account, though, blessing matters immensely. Even in their dying moments, elderly fathers and mothers were not has-beens but an essential part of building up the community for the years to come.
When we lose that mindset, those who are afraid of being has-beens will do almost anything to keep being “still-ares.” In many cases, what they want is not to hold onto a position itself but to be seen at all—to still count by having something to contribute. Paradoxically, the marginalization of the old leads to a form of gerontocracy.
A second reason for our awkward generational transition in the church is the reverse: the way we’ve devalued the young.
I’m on multiple college and university campuses in any given week. Even when most of my time is spent with students of no religious affiliation, I seek out my fellow evangelical Christians from among the student population, often in various campus ministries. Usually (like we did about five times just in the last week), we have wide-open question-and-answer times. And without exception so far, I can predict exactly what the questions will be.
The students rarely ask me Christian worldview questions about various culture-war skirmishes. They virtually never ask me theological boundary questions such as Calvinism versus Arminianism or complementarianism versus egalitarianism. The questions they ask most often generally fall into two categories: (1) How do I pray, and (2) how do I read the Bible?
On the one hand, this is immensely encouraging. After all, Jesus’ first disciples asked him these same questions—and he was eager to answer them. What we call the Lord’s Prayer was a response to the first query. And Jesus’ conversation on the road to Emmaus, immediately after his resurrection, was a response to the second.
These two questions are foundational, and the next generation wants to know the answers. They want to be followers of Jesus.
But on the other hand, such questions often reveal that these young Christians feel they have no one else to ask. Many say that they want mentors but don’t know how to find them. “It’s just awkward,” the young Christian might say. “Walking up to someone and saying, ‘Will you be my mentor?’ feels like asking, ‘Will you be my friend?’”
Over the centuries, the church has had (but in many ways has lost) the mechanisms to keep mentorship—and, with it, generational transfer of leadership—from being awkward. Indeed, much of the New Testament epistles deal with precisely that: how an older generation can pour itself into the next. No matter how you translate the Hebrew and the Greek Scriptures, the words “You kids get off my lawn!” just aren’t there.
When it comes to leadership, we seem to have fallen into a pattern of overreacting to the last bad thing.
For years, right alongside their pleas for people to come to faith or to “rededicate” their lives to Christ, many church services included appeals for people to say whether God was calling them to “full-time Christian service.” As some have argued, this could make it seem like the only “really serious” Christians were those who became pastors or missionaries, leaving out the breadth of ways people can serve the Lord in “secular” vocations. That’s true enough.
But when is the last time you heard a church specifically ask whether God might, in fact, be calling someone there to preach the Word or carry the gospel to the nations?
Questions like that do more than just prompt younger people to ponder whether they are experiencing such a call. They also spark the rest of the congregation to realize that all of us are mortal—that the way God’s kingdom advances is by one generation equipping the next, empowering them for the task.
Just as with parenting a new generation, this means that we allow for manageable crises. A new generation learns partly by messing things up—and by then having older men and women around to help them learn the reasons for the mishaps, to get up, and to do better the next time.
Generational transfer is seldom smooth and direct. God disrupts. And consider Jacob, who reversed the blessings of the first- and second-born when speaking blessings over Joseph’s sons, Manasseh, and Ephraim.
Every generation includes those who are suddenly changed, who shake up the advance of the community all for the better. Yet even then, the apostle Peter needed Cornelius; Augustine needed Ambrose; C. S. Lewis needed the other Inklings.
To revalue both the old and the young, we must start the same way: by learning to say to both, “We need you.” And we do.
The country cannot do much about whether the next president will be 80-something. But not so with the church. We can avoid becoming the sort of place where the only ones who remember how to move forward are those afraid of being replaced.
A church that knows how to trust a new generation is a church that knows how to trust the faithfulness of a promise-keeping God. The everlasting arms still hold us up—and there’s no MedicAlert bracelet on them.
Russell Moore is the editor in chief at Christianity Today and leads its Public Theology Project.