30s-40s Singles Niche: Why Ageism In the Church Needs To End
Whilst not true for all churches, many churches are places of segregation — people are grouped together by age and status. Some churches bemoan their lack of ‘young’ people, they have too many ‘old people’. Older people can be seen as restrictive, resistant, unprogressive, unable to contribute or do, barriers. Younger people (defined as anyone under 35) are all and need to be discipled, trained, invested in, developed, taken away on weekends, given food and fun and positively encouraged to mingle.
Bizarrely no-one seems to care about the missing 40 and 50 somethings in many places, especially as the average age of those experiencing homelessness is, certainly in London, 40 something. Very few seem to wonder why my peers, my age group, are beset in this way?
Some odd truths are being taught — students (full time University Undergraduates aged 18–20-something) are sought first; then 20-somethings; then married people (preferably with children, multiple children). College-age students (16–18s), elders and 30–50 somethings are the unseens in some churches, especially if you’re a woman. There is also some infantalisation of churches going on with an emphasis being placed on salvation during childhood being a kind of crunch point — are adult conversions less worthwhile somehow?
As an unmarried forty something woman I struggle to see how I fit in to my local church. There doesn’t seem to be a place at the table, let alone a table! It’s easy to be labelled — ‘single’, ‘senior’, ‘elder’, ‘older’ and other unattractive nom de plumes without really seeing ‘me’. As far as I’m aware I’m not a walking category or set of statistics, but the exclusive church model truly makes me feel worthless, second-class, lesser and without value or function. It’s as if my days are done, I’m all sorted and perfected, know exactly what I’m doing, fully formed and sitting around waiting to retire, die or become 60 something, which seems to turn me into an automatic purveyor of wisdom. Mostly I just seem to be there to give — I get a funding talk whilst the 20s-30s have an teaching weekend away. From the Bible, I see that this isn’t true — age/status is never a barrier to God using you or you knowing God more.
The lack of discipleship or traineeships for anyone beyond 20 something really concerns me — I know I’m not fully formed, that I need mentors and peers, and ideally role models of what it looks like to be a Christian woman walking with Jesus through life, slightly ahead of me. Even being a part-time mature student at points has not enabled me to break through these ageist barriers and preconceptions. Furthermore I feel that in the marketing of traineeships as a gap year, the Church is missing out on insight and skills — we haven’t learnt the lessons of apprenticeships for wider age groups as the secular world has done. It’s tiring to be the ‘elephant in the room’ — I seem to have developed a reputation for being unfriendly, for only being seen around or for only talking to groups termed ‘internationals’. None of this is true I want to scream, just it’s embarrassing to say constantly ‘I can’t go because I’m X age’ (or needing to seek official special permission to join), and as for talking to international friends — they tend to be more open minded and less concerned with my age and status; we can talk about anything and I enjoy learning from others! But whilst church is not a social club, it does make it difficult to get to know anyone in the dominant groups (as defined by age and status) in church if you are divided severely and to maintain friendships if your friends are in a completely different social grouping to you. It also cuts across the church as family message — some in the family seem to be better than others.
Of deep concern to me is truly the writing off of elders — as individuals they still have much to give and contribute, although these may take a difference form to someone in their 20s, and learn. Why are 20 somethings seen to be so go getting and elders not — surely 20 somethings can be just as reticent or prejudiced as someone in their 60s, (if this is how we want to label people)?
Overall, surely the Church should be different to society and care for people that culture and society seem to see as ‘lesser’ and lose this need to lump everyone together in convenient chartable groups. I do feel like some ageist sexism creeps into the Church in how unmarried people are treated — a) we are defined as a ‘we’, not individuals; b)I think if I was an unmarried man I would get better support, partly because as a man I would be seen to be not able to cope somehow (i.e feeding myself etc) — as a woman I’m expected just to get on with it! c) Unmarried men are perhaps just more noticeable overall and able to access better and more opportunities in the Church, leading to wider and better support and mentoring, generally.
Recently, the Church has started to realise that women are a ‘thing’ with gifts, a voice and opportunities for service. I do feel discouraged from living life or from active discipleship from many sectors of the Church (the expectations for me are non-existent compared to a woman in their 20s) and I do feel very much defined by my work and social status within some Church settings and not much else. Surely my character is really the main thing, not things? Whilst I long for it, I just can’t wait for the Church to get that 40 something women are a thing too — I need to keep moving and growing now, not later!
It’s also the ways in which access to the church community happens — I’ve seen 20 somethings get straight into serving in student work (co-leading groups), whilst as a 40 something I need to do a course, sign up, have an Elder interview, be assigned to a group and then I can get involved. Membership for 20 somethings will happen, but later — whilst as a 40 something I can’t join a group until I’ve dotted all the ‘i’s and t’s’. Groups for those over 30 seem to just happen in the background, whilst (until recently) 20 something and student groups were marketed alone. Why this discrepancy of value? Indeed a student or 20 something can ‘try out’ a group to see if it’s for them; for me I am placed and have little choice about where I end up apart from by availability and location. I’m not sure how easy it is to move groups if you really don’t feel comfortable with those you’re with.
If you are reading this and thinking this is isn’t so — I’m glad that this isn’t your experience. Nor am I seeking to be critical of the Church just because…However for me, it has been for the much part (even the title of the article was something said to me by a leader), and I’m not sure how to change it (having tried getting involved where I’m allowed to, speaking to leaders, seeking opportunities to serve and disciple, befriend others etc) apart from finding somewhere smaller and less age segregated/preoccupied. In dividing the church up like this, it damages people — my abilities to get involved, to be seen and loved, to be cared for, even to make friends, to feel human even have been limited — especially if you get ‘left behind’ as your friends go away on training weekends and weekends away aimed at certain age groups. I recognise that safeguarding does need to come into this — but I also wonder if it’s healthy to have same age groups learning just from each other (or led by someone slightly older than them), or to be encouraging 30–40 something men to pursue and marry younger women in this age of # Me Too?
Perfection is not what I seek, because I’m not perfect! Nor am I asking for the Church to be centred around me! However I would like to seen and heard, for issues relevant to my life to be mentioned (not just singleness or unamarriedness please — that’s not who I am); later age marriage and dating to be discussed and encouraged, and everyone, at every age and life stage, to be valued, discipled, seen as a disciple, encouraged into ongoing discipleship and inter-generational mixing, even friendships, safely promoted.