|Ministry to the elderly - are churches getting it right?|
|Monday, 27 February 2012 16:17|
ACCORDING to a major piece of research by Tearfund in 2007 (Churchgoing in the UK) nearly half of our country’s churchgoers were aged over 55. That number was set to rise, and four years later the figure is almost certainly over half. In contrast, the Evangelical Alliance reported more recently (The 18-30s Mission: a Missing Generation?) that the numbers of 18-30-year-olds attending church has dropped by approximately two-thirds in the past two decades. As a result many church leaders describe reaching this age group as one of their highest priorities.
It’s all too easy to fall into the statistics trap. We have lots of older people, and not many younger ones.
Doesn’t it make sense to throw time, energy and resources at the missing generation – even it means leaving the others to look after themselves? There was never a clearer case, though, for a ‘both/and’ rather than an ‘either/or’ approach. Of course reaching younger people is vital, and the church is never more than one generation away from extinction.
But our UK society itself is aging, which means that there are going to be proportionately more older people about. They are a mission field, as much as anyone else: and older Christians don’t only have a lot still to give to the church, they have earned the right to respect from it as well. There’s a growing recognition that ministry to older people is a calling and a gifting in its own right, and that the wider church should recognise and resource it.
Organisations such as the Outlook Trust and the Leveson Centre are dedicated to the spiritual care of older people, and it’s at the core of Christian bodies like Pilgrim Homes.
Its spokeswoman Louise Morse, the author of books on dementia, is passionate about valuing older people rightly.
The trouble is, she says, that ‘Old people are regarded as nonproductive. That’s the way the world sees them. And we have picked up societal values where we should have picked up Christian values: we bring the world into the church with us, when we should take the church into the world.’
Is there really a tendency to marginalise older people? Most churches would say that they don’t: but there can be a subtle lowering of expectations, a sense that the old aren’t really open to anything new, and an unthinking assumption that they have had their day and that the future belongs to the young.
All wrong, says Louise: ‘The things that older people want are what we all want. To be included; to be loved, to be able to give love. ‘They don’t want to be thought of as different, in a separate category of “old people”. They still want a sense of agency, to be able to affect outcomes.’ And since they so often fail to find that in society at large, where better to model a better way than the church?
Kathryn Morgan is a former BUGB mission advisor with responsibility for ministry to older people. She stresses the continued spiritual vitality of people who might be long past retirement age.
‘As people get older they do become physically and mentally frailer. But we shouldn’t make assumptions that as their minds or bodies deteriorate they no longer have spiritual needs.
It’s worth noting again that someone who retires at the age of 65 has, all things being equal, a quarter of his or her life still to come. So why should we assume that retirement marks an end? For many, it’s the reverse – a life change that can lead to spiritual questions being asked for perhaps the first time.
Alison John is a Baptist minister in New Milton, who’s the Union’s first accredited specialist in older people’s ministry. She’s produced a resource entitled Not Getting Any Younger, based on sessions she held for the church’s luncheon club.
The eight sessions include material on change, friends and community, aches and pains, faith and eternity. They’re presented magazine-style, with an icebreaker like a quiz, a Bible study, and small discussion groups – and importantly, though they’re presented from a Christian point of view, they’re designed for nonChristians too.
‘Older people can be very private, but they might have very deep questions,’ she says. ‘I’ve found this especially with those who’ve lived through the war. Listening is very important.’
As is respect. She speaks of ‘the importance of genuine prayer and worship – not “Let’s all have a lovely sing-song”’. It was said of Moses that at the age of 120 ‘his eye was not dimmed, nor his natural force abated’ (Deuteronomy 34:7). He was the exception, of course: for most of us the experience is quite different. As well as increasing physical limitations, we lose the
Partly, of course, this is natural and right: the old should know when it’s right to let go of the reins and cede their power and influence to younger people, and failure to do this can be very damaging in the life of a congregation.
We ought to learn tolerance, and if we have not acquired a peaceable spirit in later life it doesn’t say much for our discipleship. And we tire more easily, and recover more slowly, and as these things are inseparable from age, they should be woven into our mutual expectations of church life.
But there is also a set of assumptions which are, as Louise Morse says, more worldly than churchly, but which are all too influential among us. One of these is that there comes a point where we have ‘done our bit’, and can settle back into a sort of spiritual armchair. But retirement is a very recent invention, and there is nothing biblical about it. For the Christian, age has its duties and responsibilities, just as youth does; they are just different. As the old English poem says, 'Harder should be the spirit, heart the bolder, Courage the greater, as the strength grows less'.
So one way of putting this challenge for churches is surely this: we have to learn to treat older people with appropriate respect, such that they are enabled to give what they can, and encouraged to see the last part of life as a time of service, not just of rest.
BUGB has a mission programme called the Second Half of Life aimed at ministry to older people. Details are in the Mission section of www.baptist.org.uk
This article appeared in the Baptist Times on September 23, 2011
|Last Updated on Wednesday, 30 January 2013 12:05|
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