When, back in the mid-1980s, I told a retired Calvin College colleague that I was moving to Fuller Seminary, he responded: “I hope you will make a case there for more appropriate sermons preached at retirement communities!” He went on to explain: “Last week at the weekly worship service sponsored by our community, a visiting preacher warned us against a modalist conception of the Trinity, while also urging us to avoid tri-theism. But that was not as bad as the week before, when a seminarianaddressing a congregation where at least a dozen of us were sitting in wheelchairsexhorted us to stand up for Christ in an increasingly secular society!
I have often wished since then that I had asked him about what he would consider to be a good sermon for that kind of community. But as I get closer to his age I think I could come up with some helpful answers of my own. Many of us have been giving considerable attention in recent decades to the importance of cultural context: you can’t preach exactly the same sermon in a suburban Omaha church as you would to a congregation in rural Thailand. But that kind of emphasis has to do with “macro-“ cultural factors. There is also the “context” of different stages of an individual life. What I found exciting and helpful about Christianity in my twenties differs significantly from my present life as a septuagenarian.
In my younger days I liked to talk about heaven as a realm where we would continue to be active. I made a big deal of this in teaching my Introduction to Philosophy classes. In lecturing on Plato’s dialogue Phaedo, where Socrates sets forth the view that the afterlife is a state of being where the soul passively contemplates the eternal Forms, I would draw a clear contrast between that and the New Testament teaching about the resurrection of the body. There is nothing passive about the Christian view of the afterlife, I would say. We will be raised up on the Last Day with transformed bodies. This means, I would explain, that “the afterlife for us will mean doing things”solving problems, taking on challenges, actively serving God without being plagued by the realities of sin.
I haven’t changed my mind completely about all of that, but I have to admit that the thought of too much of an active afterlife makes me a feel a bit weary these days. I do hope that the heavenly realm will allow for at least a measure of passive contemplation. The ways in which we anticipate the promises of a heavenly existence have much to do with where we are in our earthly journeys. And it would be good for preachers to keep that in mind when addressing age-diverse congregations.
Peter Berger understood that point better than many theologians and pastorscertainly better than the preachers whom my colleague heard in his retirement community. In his The Noise of Solemn Assemblies (1961), Berger observed that the calls to reform the structures of societal life have little relevance to “many of the aged and the sick and the emotionally crippled in our congregations.” Indeed, they can constitute “nothing but a threat to whatever spiritual solace the congregation has been able to give them.” To be sure, he argued, it is certainly appropriate to show concern for “the vocation of Christians in industrial society,” as long as we are aware of the fact that “there are some Christians whose one vocation remains to suffer and to face death in faith. It is certainly no minor accomplishment if a local congregation provides the communal support for such a vocation.”
Actually, that emphasis on worshipping communities supporting diverse vocations doesn’t just apply to us older folks. Recently as I was sitting in church listening to a rather good sermon on the importance of “working for justice and peace.” I looked across the aisle at a teenage boyabout fifteen years old, I judgedwho was staring off, apparently with thoughts not connected to the theme of the sermon. I wondered what he was struggling with in his own life. Maybe a math test coming up in school? Or, more likely, a girl in his school whom he would like to get to know better? Those were big issues in my life in my mid-teens. And I can’t say that I felt very encouraged and supported by the church in my struggles with those kinds of concerns.
I have been hearing a lot in Christian circles in recent years about the need to support people in their diverse “vocations.” That is a healthy emphasisas long as that diversity includes serious attention to the vocations of people sitting in wheelchairs in retirement communities and a teenage boy who is trying to summon up the courage to ask a girl on a date.
Richard J. Mouw is president emeritus of Fuller Theological Seminary.