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Knocking on heaven’s door

23 June 2017

The Church often focuses its evangelism efforts on the young, but why? Ted Harrison looks at how to reach older people evangelistically

Time to listen: Debbie Thrower, as an Anna Chaplain, speaks with a member of the Hard of Hearing Club at All Saints’, Alton, in Hampshire

Time to listen: Debbie Thrower, as an Anna Chaplain, speaks with a member of the Hard of Hearing Club at All Saints’, Alton, in Hampshire

SOME would say that the Church of England is an institution for the elderly, and it is the young to whom the Church needs to reach out. To illustrate their point, they could point to the latest available mission statistics from the C of E Research and Statistics Unit: of the million worshipping members in the Angli­can Church, 20 per cent are under 18, while almost 30 per cent are more than 70 years old.

Nevertheless, Mike Collyer and Claire Dalpra, two of the authors of Mission-shaped Church for Older People, published by the Church Army in conjunction with the Leveson Centre, in 2008, say: “There is just as much need for new and creative ways of doing mission and being church for and with older people. The elderly are the fastest-growing section of the British population. Don’t let anyone tell you fresh expressions are for young people only.”

To assume that most older people have a Christian faith is to misread the situation entirely. If 300,000 of England’s over-70s are members of an Anglican congregation, that leaves 6.7 million who are not active Anglicans. Some, of course, will be active in other denominations; nevertheless, the evangelisation of the elderly remains a huge challenge.

Mission-shaped Church identifies three cohort groups: “Pre-Seniors”, aged 55-64, who are working inde­pendent; “Senior”, aged 65-80, who are retired independent; and “Older Frail”, aged 80-plus, who are often dependent. “It is likely that no one way of doing church or evangelism will fit all three cohorts,” the report says. “New approaches will be needed alongside existing ones, especially as we seek to connect with an increasing pro­portion of younger-­old who have never had any mean­ing­ful contact with church in their lifetime.”

The broadcaster Debbie Thrower, whose work as a lay chaplain for older people in Win­­chester diocese led to the setting up of the Anna Chaplaincy network (Feature, 27 January), sees great opportunities for the Church. “Old age can be an intensely spiritual period of life: I saw my own parents grow spiritu­ally, and I felt that we don’t make the most of this period.”
She also acknowledges that it is a time, even for people with a faith, when doubts can creep in. “People ask themselves, ‘Is it all true?’, ‘Have I been good enough?’, or, if in pain, they might find it increasingly diffi­cult to pray.”

There are now 11 Anna Chap­lains, part of a Bible Reading Fellow­ship (BRF) initiative, The Gift of Years, whose ministry is specif­ically focused on older people. The name refers to the prophetess Anna in Luke’s Gospel, a role-model of a faithful elderly believer.

Anna Chaplains visit, listen, sup­port, and occasionally act as advo­cates for people with no immediate family. “Many older people appreciate having a proper conversa­tion. Most of the contact they have with carers and others is superficial,” Ms Thrower says. It is often the case, she goes on, that older people with no background of faith are also asking questions, such as: “Is this really it, simply more decline and dependence?”In a 2006 lecture on spirituality, health, and ageing, at King’s College, London, the Emeritus Pro­fessor of Psychogerontology at the University of Southampton, Pro­fessor Peter Coleman, stated that: “The time when older people could be taken for granted in the religious and spiritual context has passed.” He suggests that there were large numbers of older British people who had moderate and troubled belief, with religious backgrounds, but who had lost contact with the Church, and were, therefore, unable to progress to a more assured state of faith, or find spiritual sustenance to meet their needs.

He gave the example of a 65-year-old man he encountered during his research, who had experienced a period of depression after the death of his wife. The man spoke about how religion and reading the Bible had provided some comfort, but he had also struggled theologically with concepts of God as a person, or Jesus as the Son of God, and he expressed a need to understand more. “Here was someone who lacked the opportunity for a spirit­ual discussion on spiritual issues that he would have liked to have had,” Professor Coleman says.

Research from Christians on Age­ing (CCOA), an ecumenical organ­isa­tion that provides resources and ideas for those engaged with older people, and theological sup­port for the clergy, supports this view. Its research suggests that the religious needs of older people are just as great and varied as those of younger Christians, but that their needs for support with prayer and spirituality, and working out the Christian life, are often not being met.

As the end of life comes closer, questions about beliefs and our relationship with God often become more urgent. This can lead some older people to rise above the problems of ageing, and “find a positive and new dimension of spir­itu­ality”, the Revd Dr Albert Jewell, from CCOA, says.
Rather than see this era of life as an opportunity for evangelism, how­­ever, older people often “slip off the radar” of the Church, the CCOA secretary, Jo Kennedy, says. Their survey of its members suggested that this happened once someone was no longer able to be active in church life, or if could not get to church. A common comment among those surveyed was that elderly church members received a visit from one of the clergy at home only if they requested it.

The last CCOA member survey also identified that members felt that there was a general reluctance among churches to talk about ageing, death, and dying. “There is a lot of good work being done at a local level,” Mr Kennedy says. “The need is to built up a knowledge base of collective experience.”
It also noted that members felt that congregations struggled to relate to older people who were brought to Sunday worship if they had disabilities — in particular, dementia.

“Most Christian theological mo­­dels fail to include people with dementia because they are based upon memory, relationships, spiri­tual growth, or doing God’s work,” Dr Jewell says. He is the author of Spirituality and Personhood in Dementia (Jessica Kingsley). “People with dementia remind us that, ultimately, we are all dependent on the grace of God alone — being remembered and valued by him — not on anything we profess or do.”

He suggests that care homes should not be expected to provide for the religious needs of their residents, but that they should be encouraged to harness the support of clergy, churches, and other faith groups and leaders in their area. “I was once the visiting preacher at a church where, at the very start of the service, some 20 people were blessed and sent on their way. I discovered afterwards that this happens once a month, and [that] they go to several care homes to conduct services at the usual times of morning wor­ship.”

Dementia-friendly churches, he suggests, might hold special services for the elderly, with short sermons, traditional old hymns, and readings from the Authorised Version, be­­­sides being more sensitive to those attending who have dementia. He also argues that people with dementia should be offered com­­munion, even if they appear un­­­aware of what is going on: “Often, tactile experiences — touch and taste — trigger memories.”

The Pilgrims’ Friend Society is a charity that runs training seminars to help congregations become more dementia-friendly, and to suggest ways in which the talents of active older people may be better used. In collaboration with the London City Mission, Mission Care, Keychange Charity, Outlook Trust, and the Salvation Army, it has also dev­eloped a new website and resource initiative, Faith in Later Life, with ideas and resources for supporting older people practically and spir­itually.
The chief executive of the Pil­grims’ Friend Society, Stephen Hammersley, says: “Methods of evan­­­gel­ism which work well for younger people, such as Alpha courses, may not work so well for the older generation.” But “they may already know the basics and have a residual memory of hymns from school assemblies.”

The theme of the charity’s annual meeting, in May, was “Realising the potential of older people”; the speakers included Dr Jennifer Bute, who retired as a GP owing to early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. She says: “Dementia seems a bleak prospect, but for me it’s a privilege. Having been a doctor, I can now under­stand it from the inside. The spir­itual never dies. There are no rainbows without rain.”
The Aberdeen-based organisa­tion Neither Young Nor Old (NYNO) has been exploring new ways of connecting with older people. Their pioneering work with a local sheltered-housing complex in the city is not so much a ministry out­reach from the Church of Scot­land parish as a new church-plant. One of the leaders from NYNO, Matthew Edwards, saw the limita­tions in simply visiting and provid­ing a monthly on-site act of worship.

“It perpetuates the form of church that, in many cases, has al­­ready been rejected over the course of a lifetime by many people outside church circles; and, as a result, it has limited missional im­­pact. While older people are ‘cared for’ in this approach, they are not included in the full life of the church, or treated as having a valuable contribution to make, or part to play.

“If people do look to the young — and youth culture — all the time as the answer to church decline, older people are left out in the cold, which is something which potentially leads to the Church being divided against itself.”

In practice, Mr Edwards admits that maintaining and growing new forms of ministry has its own difficulties. “Active church members are already over-stretched just keeping the parish going, and often identify the priority, when it comes to new initiatives, as being to nurture the next generation.”
One of the keys may be to mobilise older generations to reach their peers. Currently, Mr Collyer says: “The Church doesn’t see older people as having a ministry to give. It’s keen to organise luncheon clubs, but doesn’t nurture mission by members of the age group to their peers.”

Once upon a time, those who reached 60 were considered old. Today, 60 is said to be the new 40: a time of opportunity. In Lincoln diocese, the Rector of St Andrew’s, Heckington, the Revd Chris Harrington, who is a Church Army captain, is the author of Reaching the Saga Generation, in which he explores ways of reaching the Baby-boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964).

“They are the last generation amongst whom there are those who can be invited to come back to church,” Mr Harrington says, because very few members of subsequent generations have ever been to church in the first place. “They are the last generation who have some memory of church from their own schooldays and childhood. If the Church doesn’t pick up on them, it will have really missed a trick.”

He calls the now ageing — but active — baby-boomers the “bridge generation”. “Many are active grandparents: they help their own children cope with the demands of work, but at the same time are responsible for older, failing parents.” Because of this, they are often struggling with what he calls triple dependency: “Grandchildren, children, and ageing parents, all needing their time and money.” There are often feelings of guilt, especially if older parents need full-time care.

“They are being largely forgotten by many churches in the desire to reach the new younger generations. It is time to look again at this group, and radically proclaim: ‘This Church needs more older people.’ They are the generation that wants to make a difference rather than be preached to. They are best reached by getting them involved as volunteers, and in good-neighbour schemes. They are the ones, too, who might bring their grandchildren to church.”

Baby-boomers are sometimes referred to as the “Mick Jagger generation” as well as the “Saga generation”. “They were the peace and flower-power generation who questioned authority in all its forms, and explored all kinds of spiritual traditions. The Church did not know how to respond, back then, and so now they are too often the lost generation,” Mr Collyer says.

His research has suggested that services aimed at supporting elderly parents, and bereavement support, not only meet a need for the elderly, but provide opportunities to build relationships with baby-boomers. He also suggests that a starting-point for evangelism is to engage with their social concerns. “The Saga generation have a common vision with the Church for a better world.”

As for baby-boomer spirituality, the Revd Steve Hollinghurst, a Church Army mission and culture tutor, says: “Baby-boomers tended to go in one of two directions: some have been reached by church initiatives that recreate the rock-concert music culture of their youth; others are the spiritual-seeker types; and there are ways of adapting the Christian message to them.”

Mr Hollinghurst has found people receptive to such practices as Ignatian meditation. He points, too, to interest in new monasticism, Celtic Christianity, and movements such as Forest Church.









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