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Grey Power for a Thriving Church

By Alun Brookfield.

At 50, I’m actually quite old. I discovered this some years ago when I left Baptist pastoral ministry. I began applying for various jobs, but found that I was barred from many of the jobs for which I was ideally qualified. The problem was not my race or my gender, but my age. At 38 years old, I was regarded as over the hill and halfway down the other side. Racism and gender inequality at work have been replaced by ageism.

Sadly the same is often true in churches. Older people, which phrase throughout this article will be used to refer to the over 60’s, are often regarded as old-fashioned, resistant to change, out of touch, technologically incompetent, already evangelised and a drain on scarce resources.

Some facts about older people

All of those stereotypes are occasionally true, of course. But they could equally well be applied to every generation, not just the over 60’s. So let us pause to note a few statistically verifiable facts about older people.

  1. Nearly 20% of the population (10.5 million) is over 60 years old and this percentage is increasing. By 2030, the figures will stand at 25% (14 million+).
  2. When the Queen came to the throne in 1952, she was sending out approximately 50 congratulatory telegrams per year to those attaining the age of 100. Now she sends out 2,350 per year, a clear indication that our population is becoming older.
  3. More people are retiring early. Only 54% of men aged 60-65 have a job and only two thirds of women aged 45-60 have paid employment.
  4. Life expectancy is increasing. Men now live an average of nearly 78 years and women an average of nearly 82.
  5. Contrary to popular opinion, older people do not attend church in vast numbers. Only 19% attend weekly, with nearly 40% never attending. However, the over 65’s account for 24% of all churchgoers, although only 10% read from the Bible weekly and over 50% either do not own a Bible or own one without ever reading it.
  6. There are as many people over retirement age as there are under 15, yet often the majority of the church’s resources is directed at the younger age group.
  7. Although older people include some of the poorest members of society, they also include many of the richest. In between come the ‘woopies’ (Well Off Older People) who are being increasingly targeted by the business world.
  8. Also contrary to popular opinion, an ageing population does not mean an increase the numbers of people living in poor health and therefore dependent on others for their care. It is just that the onset of failing health is being postponed until much later in life.

In other words, because of the rapid increase in life expectancy during this century, we now have a generation of people to evangelise who have never existed before. When I was young, a 65 year old was regarded as old. Now 65 year olds jet set around the world. In the 18th century, John Wesley, in his mid 80’s, was regarded as so old that people came to hear him preach simply in order to see someone who had lived to that enormous age. Now he would be a mere youngster and no great phenomenon.

The Bible sees it differently

In the Bible, we find a very different picture. Old people were to be honoured and venerated. They were not ‘chronologically challenged’, but ‘chronologically gifted’. They were certainly not idle! Noah was nearly 600 years old when he built the ark; Abraham was 100 when he became a father; Moses was 80 when he began his leadership of Israel. These older people were empowered!

In our time, this age-group needs to be both empowered and evangelised, but by whom? Older people are notoriously resistant to the opinions of the young (by which they often mean anyone 10 years younger than themselves). So at 50, my effectiveness is limited by the fact that I haven’t lived long enough, nor suffered enough, nor lived through war-time.

Unhelpful attitudes

So who can be effective in empowering and evangelising the older generations? The answer must lie with the older people themselves. But here we meet another challenge. Far too many older Christians exhibit one of several attitudes.

First, they may feel that they have done their bit and it is time for the young to take over. In other words, they have not seen that there is still valuable ministry for them to fulfil. This may be partly because this is a new generation and there are few role models in their past for them to emulate. Whatever the cause, older people often want to take a back seat.

Second, they may feel that the young have taken over the world and that their own gifts are outdated, irrelevant or even unwanted.

Third, they may have failed to see the needs of their own generation.

Fourth, they may feel that their state of health, lack of physical vigour and even in some cases lack of education disqualifies them from effective ministry.

To all of these, we can reply without fear of contradiction that they are nonsense! To the first, we may say that if the young are given the reins of power without the wisdom of the old, the result is likely to be a headlong dash for disaster. To the second, we may respond that the gifts of the old may not be up to date with the latest trends, but that does not mean that those gifts are either outdated, irrelevant or unwanted.

To the third, we answer that there are some of us working to enable older people to see the need and respond to it. That is why the Evangelical Alliance has drawn together a coalition of concerned people and called the group "Reaching Older People with God’s Love" (ROPWGL), with the expressed aim of helping the churches to develop ministry by, to and for older people. It is why the Churches’ Council on Ageing exists and why one or two forward-looking dioceses are beginning to appoint advisers to assist parishes with ministry by, to and for older people.

To the fourth objection, I respond that one of the most effective evangelists I ever met was a lady in her eighties, housebound with severe heart and respiratory problems. She invited her neighbours in for coffee and then encouraged them to join her in Bible study. One by one, they came to Christ. When she died, she took a rich harvest with her.

Unreached and unevangelised

It is my belief that older people are an unreached people group. As a group of generations, they are largely unevangelised. Part of the reason is that few models of evangelism exist for people of this age, for the simple reason that no-one has had to evangelise them before. Segmenting older people into distinct groups is difficult - certainly it is grossly unfair to stereotype all over 60’s as being similar. They are as varied in wealth, attitude, worldview, state of health, state of mind and educational level as the rest of the population.

Research specialist, John Gabriel, has identified eight groups among the 55-75 age group, namely:

  • The Apathetics - "We’ve worked hard all our lives and now we deserve a rest".
  • The Comfortables - financially secure, living in well-defined comfort zones, and enjoy hobbies such as gardening and embroidery.
  • The Explorers - keen on experimentation and travel. To them, life is for living.
  • The Fearfuls - worried about declining health and wealth. Modern life is too hectic.
  • The Organisers - committee people, raising funds for charities, want to give something back to society.
  • The Poor Me’s - forced reluctantly into retirement. Feel sorry for themselves.
  • The Social Lions - join evening classes and sports and social clubs. Enjoy travelling and buy into whatever their friends do.
  • The Status Quo’ers - unwilling to change, a bit reclusive. Pursue private hobbies, but they might experiment with new ideas if they might enhance the quality of their lives.

Some of these groups are more open to the gospel than others. Some are simply easier to get to than others. For example, the worried and fearful may be fairly open to a God who promises never to leave them or forsake them. However, the reclusive are much harder to find and build relationships with.

Models of mission

But a few models of mission to these age groups are beginning to appear. One such is the Holiday at Home, where the church lays on a series of local events, plus a few outings, for people who for various reasons may be unable to go away on holiday. The Christian message is built into the fabric of the activities.

Another useful model is to join clubs and associations where older people are well represented in the membership. For example, I chair our local allotment association - most of our members are either close to or past retirement age (one member, aged 80+, recently announced to me that he was giving up work at the end of the year in order to concentrate on his allotment!).

Visits to residential homes are essential for the frail elderly, especially if the visits are supplemented by personal visits and gifts from church members.

When working with older people in their homes, service and friendships are the keys to getting a hearing for the good news of Jesus Christ. I recall an incident just after the gale in October 1987 when a team of visitors from our church had to climb over a fallen tree to get to the front door of an older lady. As soon as she opened the door, they offered to arrange for disposal of the tree - she was trapped indoors by it. A week later, the job done, the team returned, were invited in, given tea and buns and began a relationship with the lady which enabled them to share something of their Christian faith with her.

An untapped resource

Not only are older people an unreached generation, they are also an untapped resource, since there are few areas of ministry in which they cannot be involved, save for the limitations of health problems.

For example, older people can be effective youth leaders because their testimony of walking with Christ through many years gives that testimony its own authenticity and integrity, which cannot be matched by the young and energetic. In a time when grandparents may live many miles away, an older youth leader can become a surrogate grandparent.

They can also have a valuable role in releasing younger adults for ministry. For example, a Toddler Group can benefit from the involvement of older people, either as grandparent figures or helping to look after the children while the mums and dads build their support relationships.

So be creative and daring and older people will not be a burden to your church, but a resource.

Making the most of older people in your church

I want to end this article by offering some advice on how to make the most of the older people in your church.

First, listen to their faith story. They can tell us more about how to maintain our faith in all the circumstances of life than any young person. The older they are, the more valuable their faith story. They have seen it all, done it all and probably got the string vest to prove it!

Second, listen to their advice. You may choose not to take it, but at least listen to it and make sure you know why you choose not to take it. To be listened to is a great compliment.

Third, encourage them to join in worship - reading Scripture, leading in prayer, praying for the sick. But don’t forget that older people often find it difficult to stand for long periods of time, so give them permission to sit down when necessary. Also older people have a greater tendency to loss of hearing and poor eyesight, so make sure they can both hear and see what is going on.

Fourth, allow them to take risks if they want to. There is no need to wrap older people in cotton wool. After all, they are adults and as such are responsible for their own lives. I remember watching a man in his middle seventies crawling about under some staging, bolting the bits together, while younger men looked on in amazement at his agility. A few months later he had a heart attack, survived and returned to build the same staging the following year. And I think of Fred, the 80 year old at our allotments, leaning on his spade, clutching his chest and gasping for breath. One day, I’m sure I’ll find him dead among his cabbages, but that’s OK - at least he’ll have died doing what he enjoys most.

Conclusion

Older people are, in my view, both an unreached people group and an untapped resource for the church. Those who know Christ are often under-valued, while those who do not know Christ are not regarded as a worthwhile subject for evangelism. In fact, the most qualified people to evangelise any age group are those who share the characteristics of the group - in this case, older people themselves. Many of the tasks which form part of church life can be done (and often are in smaller congregations) equally well by older people as by younger ones. Indeed, in a time when the employment demands on younger adults make it difficult for them to commit to regular service in and through the local church, those who have retired from paid employment are often more able and available.

We must be careful not to sell out to the prevailing culture of ageism. Rather we are called to be counter-cultural in this area as in so many others. If we do so, perhaps the day will come soon when an army of grey warriors will rise up to win their own generations for Christ and pass on their great knowledge and experience to those coming behind. But there is much work to do. The issue is barely on the agenda of many churches and needs to be much higher up that agenda. Only then will our churches thrive as God intends.

Alun Brookfield is a Parish Development Adviser in the Diocese of Bristol and a member of the RBIM Board of Management.

Alun Brookfield

Editor of Ministry Today

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You are reading Grey Power for a Thriving Church by Alun Brookfield, part of Issue 19 of Ministry Today, published in June 2000.

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