A golden setting for the pearl of great price?

At the end of June I was privileged to take part in the accreditation service of a new Local Preacher. Not that this was anything new for me in itself – since joining my present circuit three years ago I have welcomed no less than five preachers onto Full Plan, with several more in the pipeline. On the other hand, this was a very special service, because Joan Milnes is 83 years old, and five years ago she would no more have imagined herself becoming a preacher than sprouting wings and flying! She hadn’t even attended church for over 60 years, though she had been aware of God’s presence as she exercised and trained her dogs in the countryside. Then she felt prompted to go to the local Methodist church, tucked away in a back street of a village now surrounded by Huddersfield. Within a few months she was a part of the church community; she had found many new friends (who, much to her consternation at first, would greet this rather shy lady with a hug) and a particular Friend in Jesus. She was welcomed into membership and stood in front of the congregation to give her testimony. A year later, she acknowledged her call to preach and began to study and to learn the craft of preaching. She won the hearts of her congregations by her sincere and simple portrayal of God’s love – and she finished the course in record time.

A great deal of attention is paid to Christian work with young people – and rightly so. Today’s young people have no specific encounter with Christianity, often knowing less about it than about Islam, unless they have contact with a church. Yet even among those born more than 50 years ago, whose school RE lessons were focussed on the Christian scriptures and who attended Sunday School and church services, many seem to have missed the point. More have lost contact with the church than have stayed. Some have simply found it impossible to juggle many demands on their time and the habit of churchgoing has been lost; some have been disappointed in a gap between teaching and practice; some have honestly not believed. What can we do to show them that they are still valuable to God? How do we reach out to them with the Good News?

I have always had a heart for older generations and throughout my ministry I have been aware of older people beginning to attend church after a long absence. Various explanations came to mind but I rarely actually asked anyone their reasons, merely welcoming and valuing their return. When I needed a subject for an MA, I knew I wanted to focus on older people so I decided to look at why some decided to start attending church, what made them choose a particular church, and why they continued to attend.

It may come as a surprise that no-one said they were aware of approaching death and wanted to 'get right with God', though Joan did once say something similar in a conversation and maybe it was part of the inner compulsion that a quarter of the respondents gave as their reason for returning. Some came to pray for someone who was ill or to give thanks for recovery, but most people came back to church because a friend invited them, or family (especially grandchildren) took them.

It came as no surprise that a particular church was chosen because it was local or because the respondent knew people who attended. The step across the threshold of a new church is almost as big as the first step on the moon – a giant leap! Joan walked past the doors on several Sundays before plucking up the courage to step through. When I was a child I noticed that there were three kinds of building you could never see into from outside: pubs, betting shops and churches. Perhaps that is why I have a bee in my bonnet about making the interior of churches visible to passers by. It doesn’t matter how attractive the worship space, or how warm the welcome, if it is hidden behind wood and stone and opaque (even if beautifully stained) glass.

It is one thing to go to church, by invitation or by whim, but it is quite another to go on attending that church and become a part of God’s family. Well over half of my respondents said they stayed because of the warmth, friendship, caring or sense of belonging. That had to come before they stayed because of deepening faith. In fact it was only when they felt secure in their belonging that they were able to open themselves to God’s leading.

I return to my earlier questions: How do we reach out to older generations with the Good News and show them that they are still valuable to God? I offer some suggestions to start you thinking:

Inreach

  • Daytime refresher courses on Christian basics – we cannot assume that older churchgoers have 'got it all together'. Age may bring doubts and deep concerns – or they may never have had the confidence or permission to ask questions
  • Encouragement in faith sharing exercises: Like attracts like and our most valuable evangelists to older people are older people themselves
  • Short midweek service for those who are unable to sit for the usual Sunday hour+
  • In churches where there is good youth work, perhaps for every youth activity or event, there could be an equivalent for older people

Outreach

  • A Holiday Club, with activities, talks and 'God-slots'?
  • A “Celebration of Age” weekend
  • Regular midweek service (see above)
  • A guest service aimed at older people
  • Befriend people tied to their homes and offer to pray with them
  • Offer to take regular hymn-sing services at residential homes
  • An open aspect so that outsiders can see inside

Cherishing

  • Appoint a 'Welcomer' (or two) whose duty is to ensure newcomers are welcomed and encouraged (without being overwhelmed or feeling their privacy violated)
  • Try to discourage ownership of particular seats in the church
  • Make sure newcomers know that they are included in the general invitation to events, to receive Communion etc

Finally, remember that the Bible cherishes the experience of old age, and Jesus welcomes the grey-haired as well as children to share in his Kingdom.

Some useful resources for work among older people

  • Outlook Trust, an organisation dedicated to evangelism among older people, produces useful material and holds missions and conferences. Based at Clare Lodge, 41 Hollybush Lane, Harpenden AL5 4AY (Tel: 01582 760596)
  • What shall we do now? a resource pack produced by Women's Network, Methodist Church House, 25 Marylebone Road, London NW1 5JR (Tel: 020 7467 5175)
  • Evangelism among older people, a book by Arthur Creber (CPAS 1994)
Category: