I sit routinely with Harry, a good and gracious man who has lived his faith and served his church for more than eighty years. Now, with failing eye sight and a body that creaks, he is not able to be at church as often as he would like, nor volunteer time in the way he once did. There were days when his church could count on him to do things, to run things, to make things happen. But those days are gone. Though Harry understands why, the disappointment is real. As we sit together over a pot of tea, he speaks regretfully of his body’s limitations and the losses that have followed. With equal parts grief and hope, he leans in: “I still need to be feel relevant, Simon,” he says.
It’s a common cry among older adults. Though rarely communicated with such precision, I hear this need repeated often, alongside fears for its absence—irrelevance: those feelings of being ‘put out to pasture’; of being marginal to a community and inconsequential to its future. These fears are tangible for the aged and can manifest in particular ways: bemoaning change; holding tenaciously to traditions; responding like ‘sticks in the mud’ when it comes to innovation. Sadly, the deeper cries that sit beneath these responses go unnamed.
Of course, this need for relevance is not unique to those who are older. We all feel it. It’s human—the need to be needed; the longing to be acknowledged at life’s centre rather than linger unnoticed at its edges. It’s equally true for institutions as it is for individuals. There is much talk in today’s church about the need for relevance: a ‘fading institution’ that once had a central place at the tables of culture and politics, desperate to be a player still. Trouble is, the sort of relevance the church reaches for has more to do with appearance than substance: music, cutting edge multi-media, a youthful congregation, and a pastor in jeans.
I wonder, though, if the real essence of relevance is misunderstood, its worth misplaced by surface estimates of fashionability: we’re up-to-date; we’re cutting-edge and popular. Perhaps the real worth of our presence is found in the signs of our irrelevance. In a society that judges age as the movement to marginality, we esteem it as the gift that enriches our communities. In an age enamoured with veneers of material success and physical beauty, we prioritise character and integrity. In a culture where speed, efficiency and profit win the day, we invest in values of slowness, depth and generosity. In a milieu that prioritises self-interest and tightly drawn borders, we strive for communities of inclusion and hospitality.
No doubt, Harry’s longing for relevance is real. We do people a great disservice when we fail to take their felt needs seriously, no matter what their age. That said, the great gift that Harry gives at this stage of his life, often unconsciously, is his presence. His relevance is not in what value-adding activity he contributes, but in who he is. As Harry sits in his pew each Sunday morning waiting for the service to begin, he holds the bulletin in his hands, reading of the church’s pastoral concerns and praying. As he moves about the congregation after the service, he lingers in conversation with numerous people, listening and encouraging, especially the students from overseas who struggle with English. Harry is no respecter of skin colour, language, sexuality or age. He cares indiscriminately with care that’s neither hurried nor forced. He prays consistent and believing prayers that hold us all. And he embodies grace, demonstrable and practical grace without reserve.
To be honest, it is hard for me to imagine a more relevant presence in the church than Harry’s. Or, to put it differently, perhaps it is Harry’s glorious irrelevance that renders his presence an enduring gift to the church.