“The young people are the future of the church!” I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard this phrase. It’s said of young(ish) pastors, youth, young adults, children; it’s said at conferences and in classrooms, by church members and experts; it’s said seriously and with qualification (yes, they are the future of the church, but don’t forget that they’re also the present of the church). It’s said so widely and so often that it has become cliché, and I find that I now expect Spirit-led inspiration from the younger members of our congregation – and they never disappoint! Perhaps it is just pastorly pride talking, but I feel as though I serve a particularly gifted contingent of exceptional young people.
The phrase that I’ve never heard anyone utter, not even in jest, is, “The octogenarians are the future of the church!” Sure, we expect our platinum crowned members to hold onto our history, to remind us of where we’ve been and what’s been central to our identity in the past, but how often do we look to them as our hope for the revitalization of our denomination? Honestly, I don’t think that my older members think of themselves in this way.
And I didn’t either – not in seminary, not when I started at Dickey Memorial two years ago, not when we went through New Beginnings a year ago. And then Evie fell and broke her hip. Over the months that she was in rehab, something strange started to happen. One day when I was visiting her, she had a light in her eyes and a fire in her voice that I hadn’t witnessed in her before. She said, “You should see the way they treat people here. It’s not dignified – it’s not even human! There’s no one to stick up for most of the patients, and the staff just doesn’t seem to care.” She paused and looked at me, “You know, I don’t think God’s done with me yet. I thought I was finished, but someone has to work for justice.”
“It seems like you might have a call,” I ventured, wondering what a call looked like for an 80-plus-year-old-just-had-her-hip-operated-on-woman.
Evie was quiet for a moment before she started nodding. “Yes, I think you’re right.”
Since returning from rehab, Evie has been growing into this new sense of mission. She’s got a new spark, new life, a new thirst for justice. As it is with any of us, she lives into her call in fits and starts – beautifully imperfect. But every time I see her there is one thing that pops into my head: “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams….” Your old men, your old women: they shall dream dreams.
The truth is, it is Evie (and others like her in our congregation) who gives me hope for the future of the church, not because our young people aren’t extraordinary (they certainly are), but because this was so unexpected. In Evie, God is truly doing a wondrous and new thing, giving her new energy and new vision after eight decades of faithful service to “the way things were.” Evie’s call reminds me that God works in a mysterious way – and it gives me hope that God is not finished with any of us. The truth is, the octogenarians are just as much the future of the church as the young people are. And I’m so grateful that God moved through Evie to show me that.
Jennifer Barchi is serving as the solo pastor at Dickey Memorial Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, Maryland, where she lives with her dog Cyrus.