March 31, 2023 • Article, De Pree Journal, Third Third, Third Third Journal
I’ve been reading a fascinating book. Time of Our Lives: Celebrating Older Women was written by Dr. Maggie Kirkman, a psychologist and senior research fellow in women’s health at Monash University in Australia. The main portion of her book is a collection of stories of older women living full, fruitful, and inspiring lives. Kirkman does not shy away from the challenges and losses that come with aging, but she shows how 19 women are flourishing in many different ways during the third third of their lives. Though I am neither a woman nor an Australian, I find Time of Our Lives to be immensely engaging and encouraging.
The concluding chapter of Kirkman’s book is called “It Takes a Village.” Her main point is: “It’s not a new discovery: it takes a village to promote well-being not just in children but in people of all ages.” As you may know, the saying “It takes a village to raise a child” became popular 25 years ago, especially after the publication of Hillary Clinton’s book, It Takes a Village: And Other Lessons Children Teach Us. “It takes a village to raise a child” emphasizes how much people outside of one’s inner circle of relationships are essential for child-rearing. Yes, parents and immediate family are essential. But raising children requires wider community involvement and investment. Kirkman would say the same is true for flourishing as we get older.
The United Nations Decade of Healthy Aging
The United Nations agrees. Did you know we’re in the UN Decade of Healthy Ageing? It began in 2021. It ends in 2030. The Decade of Healthy Ageing is a “movement to transform the world to be a better place to grow older.” The UN’s Decade focuses on four actions:
- Combatting ageism.
• Creating age-friendly environments.
• Providing integrated care.
• Ensuring access to long-term care when we need it.
From the perspective of the UN, the whole world is the “village” that can help older adults to flourish.
It Takes a Church
Inspired by the popularity of the phrase “It takes a village,” my friend and Fuller colleague Tod Bolsinger wrote a book called It Takes a Church to Raise a Christian: How the Community of God Transforms Lives. This book, which received an Award of Merit from Christianity Today, shows how the very nature of God points to the essential role of Christian community in spiritual formation. It Takes a Church, which has been around for almost two decades, has had a profound impact on my life and ministry . . . including how I think about flourishing in the third third of life.
Drawing from the wisdom of Time of Our Lives and It Takes a Church, I would propose that it takes a church to flourish in the third third of life. If you want to live fully, fruitfully, and faithfully as you get older, you cannot do it alone. You need sisters and brothers in the family of Christ. You need the encouragement, worship, prayers, fellowship, and teaching of the church. Yes, you also need the support of your secular “village,” the wider community in which you live. But, for the Christian, flourishing depends on the “village” of your church.
How can the church be such a “village”? Let me offer one example, based on part of the UN’s Decade. As I noted above, one of the main areas of focus for the Decade is combatting ageism. It affirms that “changing how we think, feel, and act around age and ageing is crucial to foster healthy ageing.” I’m glad to have the UN, through the activity of the World Health Organization, fighting this battle, especially since WHO’s Global Report on Ageism found that half of all adults on this earth are ageist against older people. We need all the help we can get when it comes to overcoming ageism.
The Bible vs. Ageism
But I believe the church is well-suited, perhaps even uniquely well-suited, to confront and quash ageism for the benefit of its members and its neighbors. Why do I say this? Because we have so much in Scripture that affirms the value, dignity, and potential of all human beings no matter our age. After all, every human being – including every older person – reflects the image of God (Gen 1:27). Every one of us has been instructed to “be fruitful and multiply,” without any aging out clause (Gen 1:28). Jesus said that those who abide in him will bear much fruit, thus glorifying the Father (John 15:4-8). He didn’t say that we should retire from this fruit-bearing enterprise on our 65th birthday.
The Bible is also full of examples of God using older people for extraordinary purposes. Think, for example, of Moses, Aaron, Miriam, Abraham, Sarah, Zechariah, and Elizabeth. Of course, God also uses younger people such as David and Jesus. Ageism in any direction is ruled out by Scripture.
Then we have passages of Scripture that affirm the potential of older adults to flourish, such as Psalm 92:12-14:
The righteous flourish like the palm tree,
and grow like a cedar in Lebanon.
They are planted in the house of the LORD;
they flourish in the courts of our God.
In old age they still produce fruit;
they are always green and full of sap,
showing that the LORD is upright;
he is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in him.
Scripture also acknowledges some of the struggles of aging (Eccles 12:1-8). But one cannot derive from Scripture any support for ageism of any kind. On the contrary, the Bible teaches us to value all people and recognize their potential to flourish.
Knowing and Living the Truth in Community
No matter how well we study the Bible on our own, however, it will only become fully formative for us in the community of other believers–that is, in the church. Here we not only read and teach biblical truth, but also shape our common life, longings, loves, and language by this truth. In our life together as the people of God, we have the opportunity to celebrate the value and contributions of older adults. We can learn from them how to live well into our 70s, 80s, 90s, and beyond. We can work together on “creating age-friendly environments,” to quote the UN’s Decade language.
I believe the church has a unique opportunity, not only to help its own members jettison ageism and live with new purpose and dignity, but also to offer to the communities in which God has sent us a distinctively Christian and profoundly affirming vision of older adulthood. We can give people who feel devalued and discarded the chance to see themselves as God sees them and to experience third third flourishing in a community of like-minded and like-hearted people, people of all ages, I might add.
So, I believe it does take a village to flourish in the third third of life. Moreover, it also takes a church.
Banner image by Erika Girard on Unsplash.
Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he focuses on the spiritual development and thriving of leaders. He is the principal writer of the daily devotional, Life for Leaders, and the founder of the De Pree Center’s Flourishing in the Third Third of Life Initiative. Previously, Mark was the Executive Director of the De Pree Center, the lead pastor of a church in Southern California, and the Senior Director of Laity Lodge in Texas. He has written eight books, dozens of articles, and over 2,500 devotions that help people discover the difference God makes in their daily life and leadership. With a Ph.D. in New Testament from Harvard, Mark teaches at Fuller Seminary, most recently in his D.Min. cohort on “Faith, Work, Economics, and Vocation.” Mark is married to Linda, a marriage and family counselor, spiritual director, and executive coach. Their two grown children are educators on the high school and college level.