“Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.”
1 Timothy 4:12
Crumpled in some long-forgotten storage space lies a pile of youth group t-shirts, the fading font of 1 Timothy 4:12 fading closer to vintage by the day. In a rush to graduate beyond the demographics of “youth,” many assumed that the message screen-printed on the front would be outgrown along with its fit. In our minds, “youth” is limited to the teenage years. But, like the thirty-something Timothy, many of us grapple with age discrimination far later into life than we had hoped or expected.
Here is the Apostle Paul’s protege—the man who had a whole church for a character reference (Acts 16:1–2) and yet faced dismissal in Ephesus simply for having seen fewer sunsets! But, according to Paul, perceived youthfulness is not an automatic disqualification for leadership. Timothy’s authority to “command and teach” is recognized as a gift from God affirmed by the council of elders (1 Tim. 4:11, 14). Admittedly, Timothy still has room to progress through practice (v. 15), but imperfection is both ordinary and expected. Unlike a cynic’s modern advice, Paul’s prescription is not to complain up the chain of command, turn cold to godly ambition or establish an independent community for the young and hip. Rather, he urges Timothy to teeter forward by setting an example, not only for believers his own age or younger, but also for believers of all ages (1 Tim. 5:1–2).
Ageism is a subtly corrosive disease ravaging the church. An intergenerational rift has hollowed our halls, siloing youth into retrofitted warehouses pressured by low expectations. Is it any wonder that a steady diet of games has created a crowd of absentees?
Ironically, it is often the young who discriminate most against the younger, a four-year gap seeming more significant than forty. It is easy to forget that immaturity—not youth—led to the regrets of our past. So, rather than considering individuals individually, we slide down the easy road of platitudes, stereotypes and blanket statements, projecting our experience as standard: “Just wait until you’re older,” a constant refrain.
Now, don’t get me wrong: Wisdom is often wrung from experience, but not all experience is equal. A heart of wisdom comes not from having many days, but from numbering the ones we have left (Ps. 90:12; Eccles. 4:13). Though there is something occasionally helpful about saying, “I’ve been there before, and this is how I found my way out,” Scripture’s timeless truth helpfully unearths the root cry of the heart. If we see ourselves as guides to the gospel, then the priority of experience begins to matter less and less while wisdom and godliness matter more and more. A humble confidence comes from the strength of the abiding Word and the victory of the cross (1 John 2:14).
There is a heart of humility that says, “I am inexperienced, so I shouldn’t,” but a posture of pride can mouth the same words. If God has equipped you, who are you to say that His equipment is deficient? Truth is true whenever and wherever it is discovered! Job’s young friend, Elihu, testifies to this: “It is the spirit in man, the breath of the Almighty, that makes him understand. It is not the old who are wise, nor the aged who understand what is right” (Job 32:8–9). Wisdom is a gift, not a right; an active pursuit, not a natural inheritance. After all, you can’t measure maturity by counting candles on a cake.
Set an Example
I know it can be exhausting. But, dear friend, endure! Bear patiently with those who can’t see past your wrinkleless face. Keep fighting the good fight of faith. Embody the character of a Christian. Desire to grow in godliness as a disciple of Christ. If you set a godly example, those who are truly believers will soon wrap you in a warm embrace.
May our churches be places where youth—whether 13 or 30—don’t have to wonder if they will be rejected simply for the year on their birth certificate. Let us be a distinctive place where the young are not content or confined to be passive participants. Let us cultivate leadership among mature men and women joining hearts and hands spanning the generations from now until Christ returns. Shake out the wrinkles on that fading t-shirt and set an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity.