Elder at the Gate

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Worship: The Generations

Elder at the Gate

(Author’s Note:  In 2022 I turned 73 so let me adjust the numbers in this essay.)

These were my musings on turning 69.

1 Timothy 5:17-20
Let the elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the word and doctrine. For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain,” and, “The laborer is worthy of his wages.” Do not receive an accusation against an elder
that the rest also may fear.

Lamentations 5:14 NKJV
The elders have ceased gathering at the gate, And the young men from their music.

In September of 2018 it happened.
I turned 69 years of age. Doing the math, I could no longer truthfully say I was in my mid-60s. 69 years old leans too heavily toward 70. Two of my brothers died at age 68: one, Bill Stoecker, was my adopted brother who helped me avoid freshman mistakes in college; the other, James Phifer, was my real brother whose absence still causes me deep pain. I knew there was no true significance to these men dying at the age I had then achieved, but I could not help noting it.

In the decades leading up to this event, I had tried to prepare for it and, hopefully, for the other similar milestones following. I prepared by being a lifelong learner of my craft: music—especially the music of worship—how to find it, prepare it, lead it, and/or create it—and of worship itself.

Only recently have I realized there was a biblical assumption behind the years of preparation. From the New Testament, I got the concept of the elder. In our modern church life, we have altered the meaning of the term to mean “leader.” But the original language is short and to the point—it means “old man.”

‎‎presbutes (pres-boo’-tace); from the same as NT:4245; an old man:

From the Old Testament we see a place for the old men—“at the gate.” And the definition of the Hebrew word is even more brutal.

‎zaqen (zaw-kane’); from OT:2204; old:

From this background, I had the idea that the combination of age, experience, and diligent study would someday place me in a position of respect “at the gate” of the church. I was always careful to sow this good seed in my respect for my elders and to respond to young anointed ones and their needs.

  • I am a product of my elders’ wise counsel.
  • I was blessed to have parents, pastors, and teachers who would answer my questions about ministry and music.
  • I sought them out, respected them, and listened to them. I can still hear their voices guiding me every day.

It wasn’t hard to imagine that one day I would join their ranks and reap the good things I had sown. I knew that age alone would not be enough to supply “gate worthy” wisdom. It had to be amplified by education, experience, and careful observation of the shifting culture. So I set out to obtain these things as well. Of course, through it all, I was a writer, so there would be a detailed record of whatever wisdom I may have accumulated.

Something unexpected happened.
Somebody removed the gate. When my time as an elder arrived, there was no place for us to gather to conveniently dispense our wisdom to those who would come after us. The dire prophecy of Jeremiah came true: “The elders have ceased gathering at the gate.”

Experience, once a respected line item on a resume, had become an expiration date on the anointing marking the elder as an unwanted, unneeded item to be tossed aside. Education in one’s field, was devalued as “tradition” and became either a swear word or a punchline. The ancient principle of respect for the wisdom of the elders at the gate was practically gone.

It isn’t universal yet. An elder can build his own gate if he/she is willing. I have a few gates where I can sit and share.

  • I have taught an online masters course in my field with amazing young students. Appropriately, I spent the rest of my birthday, evaluating their work. I am honored to share hard won truths born of scriptural investigation and real life experience.
  • I interact with other worship leaders online through Face Book. They are asking the same questions my colleagues and I asked back in the 1980’s when Praise and Worship grew out of the “song service.”
  • I play in a worship orchestra, encouraging the other players and noting especially the young ones. They are precious to me.
  • I also write and post articles on worship issues from a biblical standpoint.
  • I serve as a guest minister in church settings and as a guest lecturer in college and seminar settings, even overseas.
  • For three wonderful years I got to lead worship for seniors every Friday—not songs—worship!

My life is busy and this inter-generational transfer of truth and experience is the focus of it.

Hate and Worship
Somehow a foreign object has landed in the worship soup we cook up every week—hatred. Years ago, while serving as a worship consultant, I met a young worship leader at the center of the stage. I had retrieved a 9-foot grand piano out of a back hallway and put it center stage. He was walking from stage left and I from stage right. When we met at the piano, I saw an opportunity to point out the value of such a fine instrument.

Me: “Isn’t this a fine instrument!”
Him: “You know what I want to do with it?”
Me: “What?”
Him: “I want to chop it up into little pieces and burn it on the parking lot.”

I was speechless. Where does such hostility originate? His hateful words had a familiar ring. I had heard people of my generation say hateful things:

  • I hate those 7-11 songs.
  • I hate those drums and fuzz guitars.
  • I hate those crazy lights and that smoke.
  • I hate the loud music.
  • I hate those new songs. I can’t worship with them. I can’t even sing them!
  • I hate singing off the wall.

I realized my generation taught this generation how to add hate to their worship thinking. True to biblical principles, if you sow hate, you will reap hate. Listen to them:

  • I hate hymns.
  • I hate choirs and orchestras.
  • I hate seasonal productions.
  • I hate special music.
  • I hate altar calls.
  • I hate music stands.

Try this on for painful irony: The music dedicated to loving the Lord with heart, soul, mind, and strength is preceded by hate speech, perhaps unspoken, but shouted from every artistic choice. To hate someone’s dearly held music is so close to hating that person that it does as much damage as a direct hit.

The inter-generational transfer of values has happened and now we all hate something about the way some of us do worship.


What Can Be Done?
We must find the gates again—if—and it is a big if—what is shared is not the well-worn methodology of cultures that are dead or dying. Our cultures have no more intrinsic value than those of the young. We need the gates and the elders only if what the elders are sharing is biblical, trans-cultural, and empowering. Our role as elders is not to criticize but to encourage the young ones—to fan the flames of their devotion to Christ and to speak eternal things into their lives. We must trust the Holy Spirit to lead them, as He did us, to apply the eternal things to their generation. Just as my generation unwittingly led the way into worship tinged with hate, we must lead the way to worship informed by the Word of God and the wisdom of previous generations. We must treasure the younger generations—Jesus does.

This is a matter of prayer.
I pray that the disdain for elders I feel from so many will soften. I pray that those in leadership who exhibit such hostility to their elders will realize that God has a plan that includes all of us—young, old, and in-between!

  • If there is war between the aged and the young, it is not of God. If the wars are over and one side won, it is still not of God.
  • If it is not of God then it is wrong, a wrong in desperate need of righting, a sin on our record that needs to be blotted out by the Blood of Jesus.
  • I call on my fellow elders to respect the young: their calling before God, their heart-felt musical prayers, and their heavy burden for their generation.
  • I call on the young to realize that their story is just the latest chapter in a long, long story—a true epic—that is the story of God and man.
  • I call on pastors to teach a biblical vision for trans-generational worship. This is the only vision found in the Bible. It is not only trans-cultural, it is counter-cultural. It is what the psalmists repeatedly called for, what the apostles reported, and what Jesus prayed for.

Elders at the gate have learned things over their years, things that can be shared with the young to save time and effort and reinvented wheels.

Now, back to that birthday…
As the early morning of my 69th birthday was quickly passing, I had to stop writing and look to my students. They, after all, were looking to me—an Elder at the Gate!

September 26, 2017
October 10, 2017

Revised February 4, 2019

and November 18, 2022

Semper Reformanda!
Stephen Phifer
© 2022 Stephen R. Phifer All Rights Reserved

Elder at the Gate

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