Many years ago, when I was in my 20s, I had the opportunity to travel with a student group in Europe.
On that first trip, I attended worship services in many of the famous cathedrals and noted that the small number of people present were usually quite elderly. I remember wondering how many years would pass before these churches would be completely empty.
For many years after that first trip, my wife and I were blessed with the opportunity through Franklin College to continue taking students to Europe. On every trip, I would attend worship services in these same houses of worship and notice the same phenomenon. The worshippers might have been small in number and elderly, but they were always there.
I realized over time that these churches would not close as I had feared; rather, every generation of elderly worshippers was being replaced by a new generation of seniors. Something was clearly drawing older people back into houses of worship, but what the attraction was eluded me.
Now that I am entering that older age group myself, I have a better understanding of why seniors find their way back to houses of worship.
One factor is likely that many older folk, looking back over a long life, realize how much they have to be thankful for. A friend of ours, only middle-aged himself, responds to the everyday question “How are you?” with this insightful comment— “Better than I deserve.”
Many older folk could agree with that response. Their lives have not always been easy, and most of them have known tragedy, but they also know that they have much for which to be grateful. There have been unexpected blessings.
They can also remember troubling situations that could easily have descended into tragedies but didn’t.
A house of worship is one of the few places where we can sit in the quiet and thank the God who has given us our lives for our lives.
Of course, there is a flip side to gratitude, and that is worry. Those who are older look at the numerous issues facing their families, their communities, their nation and their world and wonder if such massive brokenness can ever be healed. As their ancestors did, many who are older feel guilty for passing on to their children and grandchildren a world beset with so many problems. They want to hand over a world more compassionate and just, but that is not the world they are leaving behind.
Once again, a house of worship is one of the few places where people can kneel or bow their heads and share the weight of those burdens with God. Many attest to often coming into worship feeling hopeless only to experience what seems a great mystery or miracle. Although they cannot explain what happens, they leave worship with renewed hope and added strength to meet the needs of others.
The older I become, the more I feel that there is yet another reason why people of my age group worship. I was taught from an early age to pray to God, and in seminary and graduate school, I learned that God does not need our prayers. It is we who need to pray to God.
Over the past 10 years, I have rethought this view of God. Perhaps it is one of the gifts of aging that I now believe that we can not only pray to God but pray for God. In the quiet of houses dedicated to God, we who are older find it easy to empathize with a God who loves us beyond what we can imagine and only asks one thing in return — that we love God by caring for one another.
But caring for one another is what we as humans rarely do. We who are old enough to have lived through the 20th century know the terrible damage that we humans have unleashed on the world. And so we who are older can share God’s sorrow for the stubborn “No” that humanity tends to give to the ancient question “Am I my brother or sister’s keeper?”
Being God over this unruly planet cannot be easy, and so we who are older pray for God to have patience with us wayward children, even as we had to learn patience with our own children. Secondly, we who are older pray for God to help us accept the opportunity that humans have, for the first time in human history, to feed and care for every person on earth.
But most of all, those of us who are older pray for God not to give up on us, especially in believing that we can change. We are slow learners, but the patience and love of God are proven by one undeniable fact — that God provides chances for all of us every day to become the persons we were created to be.