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Interview: Alex Drew, lead officer, Faith in Later Life

08 September 2023

‘Older people are not backwards in coming forward with encouragement and advice, wanted or not’

Older people at church have always been a huge encouragement to me. There’s no ego with them; they’re not backwards in coming forward with encouragement and advice, wanted or not; and we’ve journeyed through joys and bereavements together.

Perhaps as you get older, you are less concerned with what others think. It releases you from always trying to be something or someone. And that’s what God has always wanted for us: to know our worth in his eyes, not anyone else’s.

Later life takes on a different pace: space to notice things that the rest of us are missing, and to really enjoy them all. There’s always more life to be had, that fullness of life that God calls us to in John 10.10. I love seeing people continue to pursue and know this fullness, right into old age.

Certainly, those who have a lively spiritual perception have access to the treasures of heaven: forgiveness of sins, the unending companionship of the Holy Spirit, the promise of eternal life. Then, there are the deep connections with others who believe the same, a lifelong calling to reconciliation, riches in scripture still to be mined, a prayer life that moves mountains.

One of the ways to help older people grow in their faith is to listen to them. I’ve heard their frustrations about the lack of variety when it comes to worship songs at church. Hymns that older people (and many younger ones) connect with are often pushed out, or the tunes or words are changed unhelpfully.

My friend Iris had a stroke, which left her unable to say anything more than “yes” and “amen” — two fantastic words to be left with — and could barely move; but I’d hold a one-to-one worship service with her with traditional hymns from YouTube, and she could sing them all in her own way. Meaningful connection on a Sunday is important. For some, there may not be another outing till Wednesday, or even Sunday.

Faith in Later Life began after a round-table discussion in 2017 to see how UK Churches could better serve older people. It’s a collaboration between four leading charities: the Keychange Charity, the London City Mission, the Pilgrims’ Friend Society, and the Salvation Army. We have great links with the Church of England through our partnerships on DailyHOPE and the Archbishops’ Reimagining Care Commission.

We equip individuals and churches to serve and empower older people in their churches and communities.

I’ve been pursuing my calling since I first knew Jesus. The quest has led me to theological study, initiate evangelistic and discipleship ministries, support and equip older people to know Jesus and thrive in their calling, and to work for Christian charities that focus on mission.

As the ratio of older to younger people increases, we have to embrace older people into the full life of the Church — to take part in making strategic decisions and be involved at every level as contributors to, and beneficiaries of, Christian ministry.

We want everyone to have a thriving and living faith in Jesus in the later phase of life. That means getting alongside those who might be attending church just out of habit, and encouraging those who already have a living faith to share it with others well into old age.

If churches have a senior-ministry deacon or champion, it shows that they really understand the importance of ministry to older people. We may have many kind words, but it is our love in action which will speak into loneliness and isolation, and reignite a sense of purpose.

We have a network of over 700 church champions, who work in hundreds of local communities. We support and encourage the champions through monthly training events, resources on our website, visits to churches, and through prayer.

My granddad had a real zest for life. He was funny, interesting, always involved in something, and incredibly proud of his family. He was a fantastic example of what ageing can be like: the lens through which I see older people.

When granddad’s brother died, his wife, Hazel, was bereft; so I tucked her into our family. She held my babies, drank tea, spent Christmas with us, and, in time, perked up and created a wonderful season of holidays with other friends, dancing and participating in everything in the community.

Later, I was her champion through dementia — she gave me power of attorney — and I saw the devastating destruction that this disease drives, and what a difference it makes to social- and health-care decisions when someone fights for you. Even if you’ve got family, they’re not necessarily the ones who can or will be your champion.

She didn’t know what day it was, but she could still co-ordinate an outfit, and knew when her nails didn’t match it.

I was 50 years younger than Hazel, but she never saw being friends with someone much younger than her as a strange thing. I’ll be 50 next year, and I’m curious about which baby born now might one day be my friend and fight for me.

We’ve had a limited view of what older people can do. Why, at a certain point, do we relegate people to making the coffee? I’ve seen older people learn to run the church tech: so many of them learned to Zoom, to keep up with their grandchildren and great-grandchildren during the pandemic.

I’m interested to see at what point people stop wanting to learn new things. There’s lots of scope for people to get left behind, especially with technology. When does that happen? My neighbours have such trouble ordering prescriptions or telling BT their phone doesn’t work because they don’t have internet. What are the important elements to progress forward and be independent? How can churches support learning?

People of all ages experience loneliness, but God — who himself is a community of three — created us to live in community with others. As age advances, our social circles begin to shrink, along with our ability, energy, and confidence; and this can lead to isolation and loneliness. Being immersed in the family of God can foster a sense of belonging and purpose, and we want to help churches and communities offer this.

It’s true that post-retirement years are experienced very differently, depending on a person’s financial circumstances, which also influence health and well-being. But the experience of losing friends and loved ones, devastating diagnoses, and the physical facts of ageing can’t be avoided, no matter how much money you have.

I’m German and lived in Germany till I was ten. After Brexit, my son wanted a German passport; so I looked for my birth certificate. I turned it over and discovered my christening certificate, and that someone had spoken God’s word over me: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are mine.” I didn’t have a Christian upbringing, but 31 years and 700 miles later, I heard those words again, and met the God who owned them, through an Alpha course.

I visited family in Germany two months ago, and went back to that church and gave thanks because God’s word had gone out and hadn’t returned void. I love giving others the news and assurance that God chose them long before they knew it, too.

My pleasures are walking in nature with friends and dogs, stopping for tea and cake, having fantastic, vulnerable, confronting, and transforming conversations — and always still being friends on the way home.

Lies make me angry.

Dinner at home with my family is my happiest time, preferably with Wham! playing in the background and Mary the dog sitting nicely on her chair. I love the sound of friends and family coming through the front door.

The God of hope gives me hope for the future, and the unwavering love and kindness I see in others.

I pray for my three sons.

If I could choose anyone to be locked in a church with for a few hours, it would be my mum, to ask and say all the things I didn’t get the chance to during her short illness before she died.

Alex Drew was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.


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