Talk show host Dennis Prager is well-known for saying that his generation—the boomer generation—is the stupidest generation in American history. This comment, perhaps extreme, summarizes the multitudinous errors of that generation of young people that grew up and ushered in the large cultural changes in the United States in the 1960s. One of those errors is the worship of youth. The phrase “youth culture” would have been unintelligible prior to the 60s, but now it is common speak. The glamorization of youthfulness affects everything from marketing and entertainment to presidential elections and local church ministry. And obsession with youth culture has affected the ministry of worship, as well.
I had a recent phone conversation with a worship leader friend of mine who leads music on the other side of the country. In a candid moment, we were both expressing concerns about the longevity of our jobs as local church music leaders. We wondered whether, in ten to fifteen years, we would be viewed as out-of-date, irrelevant, washed up, and cheesy—one of those old guys trying to look and act young. Ultimately, we questioned whether we would be as effective in doing our task once we started “looking old.”
No worship leader really voices it. No congregation overtly acknowledges it. But many of us think there is something lacking in a worship leader who has gray hair or smile lines. He or she must not be truly “with it” and up on trends (another value exposed which needs to be challenged). He or she wouldn’t be capable of authentically crafting and leading a musical style that is current and fresh. They might be just fine in a traditional or blended worship environment, but if we want to “reach young people,” a forty-something at the helm is no good.
This is lamentable. And (to make up a word) repentable. That we were even having such a discussion tells us that culture’s obsession with youth has invaded the heart of the church. What does the Bible have to say about being old?
Is not wisdom found among the aged? Does not long life bring understanding? (Job 12:12)
I thought, “Age should speak; advanced years should teach wisdom.” (Job 32:7)
At the window of my house I looked down through the lattice. I saw among the simple, I noticed among the young men, a youth who had no sense. He was going down the street near her corner, walking along in the direction of her house. (Proverbs 7:6-8)
The glory of young men is their strength, gray hair the splendor of the old. (Proverbs 20:29)
Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as if he were your father. Treat…older women as mothers. (1 Timothy 5:1, 2)
Prior to the 60s, the elderly were much more celebrated in culture. Most native cultures—from Native Americans to native Hawaiians to native Africans—favor the aged as the source of knowledge and wisdom. Such cultures actually look to the elderly for guidance for the future (imagine that!). Nowadays in the West, the elderly are irrelevant cultural cast-offs. They are the Dalit caste of modern America. We quarantine them in homes. In church meetings, we roll our eyes when old Mr. Jones stands up and wags his finger in the air. And we worship leaders brush off their comments like dust on our feet. And we move “forward.”
Though I’ve never heard it from a single one of them, I’d bet that every twenty-something who’s been a worship leader for more than a year has had the thought, “What happens when I get older?” (Implication: I have to do something different, because this can’t work.) I know a few forty- and fifty-something worship leaders who are currently looking for positions in churches, and I know that the market is tougher for them.
This ageism is more than just bias and prejudice. It’s sinful idolatry. And I’m guilty myself of playing into the hands of these gods every time I entertain a fear of getting older or judge an “older” worship leader as irrelevant or out of touch.
The truth is: the more I’ve gotten to know the generations of worship leaders above me, the more I realize that the Bible is true. With age comes wisdom. Churches should desire older worship leaders. Though youth should not be despised (1 Timothy 4:12), biblical wisdom reminds us that being young carries liabilities against which we need to be on guard. I long for my generation of worship leaders to have open and honest conversation about this evil bubbling under the surface. I long for us to confess it, to repent of it, and to seek its change.