Am I Relevant?

I crossed over to the other side, stepping beyond the bounds of RELEVANT’s target demographic: 18 to 34. A voice in my head asks: Am I still relevant?

It was nice being on the high end of the scale. It was a lot like being a big brother or a senior in high school. I’ve been through some experiences that many younger people haven’t faced yet – career, marriage, toddlers, home-ownership – and I like to think that this might contribute to these discussions we share about life and God. Nothing has actually changed. I’m still the same person I was yesterday. Yet, as I check the “35-40” box on the church registry slip for the first time, it’ll be hard not to feel like I’ve just been admitted to the nursing home.

Do you ever feel this way? Like you are either too old or too young to be a part of the group? That you are just too [fill in the blank] to be an active participant among the people you enjoy spending time with? Yet, there are those rare people who seem to pull it off beautifully. How do they do it? Well, first, they don’t try to be something they aren’t. (An SNL character comes to mind. In the junior high news sketch, Horatio Sanz plays a teacher desperate to be cool for his kids by using all sorts of lame hip-hop lingo, trying to moonwalk, etc.)

So what are the marks of someone who seems to transcend all of these categories we use to define ourselves? First, they are comfortable with who they are and what they have to share. We have some dear friends who are in their early 60s. To our small children they have been local grandparents; to my wife, Susan has been a loving surrogate mother and mentor; to me, Jim has offered great fatherly advice and instruction in running new electrical circuits. All of us have something to offer – a skill, and insight, a strong back. Share what you have that others may lack, and these boundaries become much less important. Sometimes they even become bridges. And just as Jim had home improvement experience to lend, your healthy, flexible muscles might be a great blessing to an older woman in your church struggling in her arthritis to plant flowers next spring. What do you have to give?

Next, people I admire never stop taking risks and embracing new challenges. This works in both directions – you can be set in your ways at 25 as well as at 75. Paul encourages Timothy not to “let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity” (1 Timothy 4:12). I suspect that many of you may feel like I often do: that you are too young to really be a leader in your church, that you can’t make a significant contribution, that the senior members won’t respect you. Are we just grumbling while fantasizing about going to a new church, or are we taking Paul’s advice seriously? His is a much more challenging path to walk … and it actually includes some effort on our part.

I attend a church in which the average age is probably 27. As a dynamic city church with high levels of participation yet also high turnover, at 35 now, I am currently one of the “elder” members. I serve on our board, so I am also now an elder in a more official capacity as well. Do you know that I constantly feel like Timothy? Despite the fact that I am older than many, I also feel too young for my notion of what an “elder” should be. What do I know? I am not a gray-haired person with a life’s worth of experience to bring to the table. It is often overwhelming, and all I can do is trust God, who knows all that I lack, but can and will fill in my gaps with His perfect wisdom and knowledge.

Much of the time, young people feel overwhelmed to take on challenges – and our enemy is always whispering in our ear about how much we lack. Yet, it seems that God is looking for those who will have some courage to put their confidence in Him and dive into ministry – and life – head first. In the Bible accounts, so many of His chosen leaders lacked something significant and didn’t feel ready or worthy to take on the challenge. Over and over again, He would reassure them: I have picked you for a reason. You may not understand it yet, but I will provide everything you need. I wouldn’t give you this task without also giving you the ability to carry it out. And remember – I will never leave your side.

My pastor tells of how he always felt too young to be pastoring his first few churches. When he reached his mid-40s, he finally felt comfortable and balanced with his similarly-aged suburban congregation. Then, out of the blue, an unexpected opportunity presented itself: to return to the city to pastor a very young church, to completely change his pace and way of life. While he and his wife were considering it, they came into town and were sitting anonymously at the corner coffee shop. Soaking up the urban streetscape, they asked themselves if they could change course so dramatically at this comfortable, stable time in their lives. Could they embrace this faster-paced, more youthful way of life? Now, he says, for the first time in his life, he often feels too old for his congregation.

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Maybe this is God’s design. I’ve been chocking it up to Satan whispering doubts into our heads, and that may be happening some of the time. But maybe God wants us to be in those places where we feel a little bit off balance. When we are able to manage it all ourselves and fit in and feel comfortable and competent, maybe those are the times when we are in danger of losing that acute sense of our need to draw near to God and rely on Him. To seek our strength and wisdom from Him. To find our identity not in our group affiliations, but in the knowledge that we are individually children of God, dearly loved and valued by our Father.

I long to be one of those people who seem to transcend boundaries and categories. At each stage in my life, I want to remain curious and open-minded and always learning from those around me. I want to be a person who remembers what it’s like to be young while acknowledging that I will one day be old. Hopefully, this will lead me to be a better listener. People appreciate good listeners no matter what their age. Yet, as much as I will strive to be “relevant” to those around me, I will try not to seek after their approval as an end in itself. I will try to remember where my identity lies – not in my demographic category, but in my relationship with God.

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