I placed my hand on his shoulder and greeted him: “How are you this morning, brother?” His response startled me: “I’m here, but not worth much else.”
I didn’t understand how a former missionary and Bible translator of 40 years could have such a grim understanding of himself.
My short time in ministry has revealed it’s not uncommon to hear elderly Christians question their usefulness or value. In their discouragement they ask, Why am I still here? What do I have to offer? They used to serve on ministry teams, teach Sunday school, or lead prayer meetings. They can’t help but feel they were once worth much to the kingdom, but now are worth little.
As young pastors we often care for such members, but this care can feel complicated because their experiences are foreign to ours. We’re not overly frustrated with our bodies; our memory serves us well; we’re young—at least for now. So how do we care for elderly members tempted to doubt their worth? What can we say? How should we pray? Here are four principles I am learning.
1. Remind them they are made in God’s image.
Society often suggests that people’s value depends on what they contribute to society. Christians have a better story. All people, at every stage of life, are valuable not because of what they contribute to society, but because they are made in God’s image (Gen. 1:26–27). Aging Christians may not serve the church as they did in their youth, but their value does not come from service. It comes from their Creator.
Aging Christians may not serve the church as they did in their youth, but their value does not come from service. It comes from their Creator.
The church has a responsibility to communicate the imago Dei in order to contradict a culture tempted to alienate, overlook, or dismiss persons because of age or abilities. As Michael Bird reminds us in Evangelical Theology, “The imago Dei is not a quality, capacity, or reducible to a function. It is a sovereignly and divinely bestowed status by which we become royal sons and daughters of our heavenly Lord, and it is universally true of every person irrespective of age, ethnicity, gender, or ableness.”
2. Rally them around a consuming kingdom purpose.
Even as we counsel our elderly friends not to find their worth in usefulness, we can encourage them that they still have much to contribute, even in small ways. The witness of elderly Christians finishing well is a ministry to every church member to finish well after them. Their simply being present can encourage others in their progress and joy in the faith (Phil. 1:25).
Recently I was with a dear member showing signs of dementia. She began to lament, “I feel worthless. Why am I even here?”
I briefly assured her that her presence at church, her husband’s care for her, and her love for the Lord were sincerely encouraging. As I was leaving, I asked how I could pray for her. She responded, “That God’s will be done. My only desire in all this is to please him.”
I had visited this sister to encourage her, but I was the one who left most edified as she echoed the words of our Savior: “not as I will, but as you will” (Matt. 26:39).
3. Show them Christ in their breaking bodies.
The breaking bodies of elderly saints are signposts to Jesus Christ. The deterioration of their bodies and minds reminds them that this world is not as it should be. Every ache and pain suggests their earthly pilgrimage is coming to an end. Yet in that suffering they learn not only of the fall but also of their salvation.
The breaking bodies of elderly saints are signposts to Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ, God incarnate, also experienced the weakness of flesh. His body was bruised and his flesh torn as he tasted death. In the weakness of aging bodies, elderly Christians come close to him who, by dying in flesh and blood, defeated the very power of death. In their suffering, they identify with the one who suffered on their behalf so that they might never suffer again.
4. Pray with and for them.
No matter how weak the body becomes as it wastes away, God promises that our inner self is being renewed day by day (2 Cor. 4:16). We can and should follow Paul’s model of praying for our elderly brothers and sisters to be strengthened in their inner being (Eph. 3:14-19). No matter how frail their bodies, they can be strengthened to comprehend God’s immeasurable love for them in Christ Jesus.
Perhaps more than anything, this is what young pastors can do for our beloved elderly members. We cannot solve their physical ailments, but we can usher them into the presence of God in prayer so that they might “know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge” and “be filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:19). What a privilege!
Pastoral care for elderly saints cannot be learned from a book or blog post. We learn by doing. So let’s go joyfully to the homes and bedsides of our beloved elderly members with the comfort and hope of gospel grace.