Ageing church congregations: problem or challenge? (Mike Collyer)

Mike CollyerMike Collyer asks whether ageing church congregations are a problem or a challenge, in a follow-up to his recent post, The invisible generation.

One cannot deny that most of our congregations are largely made up of older people – that is, people over the age of 55. It is also true that large amounts of resources are invested in maintaining the status quo – time, money and dedicated pastoral care by professional ministers and lay people. The fact that our congregations are mostly made up of older people is often perceived by church leaders and mission strategists as a problem rather than a challenge.

Of course it raises concerns about the future of tomorrow's church. But equally our aged congregations should not cause us to overlook their spiritual needs as they are today's church, not tomorrow's church. What is often not understood or seen is that our aged congregations are an untapped resource for mission in reaching not only their own peer group, but also the younger generation.

In this sense, older churched people feel that they have become invisible, both in terms of their faith-sharing skills and their non-involvement in the decision making processes related to mission strategy. It can often be assumed by younger church leaders that they know what older people want and desire to help their spiritual development. There is a great desire for older people (often returning to church with a Sunday School knowledge of the Christian faith) to want to go deeper and to be disciples.

Reaching older people is often focused on visiting the elderly frail in care homes (who only represent about 4% of our elderly population) and running luncheon clubs mostly catering for women over the age of 75. Although this is highly commendable and provides a much needed service, it does not cater for the thousands of isolated frail and disabled older people living alone at home. What about their spiritual needs?

It does not cater for the invisible sons and daughters of the '60s, now ageing, and the up-and-coming boomer generation with no experience of the church. They will not be coming back to church because they were not there in the first place!

What about the many recently retired non-churched men who are bored out their skulls? They are not too keen in joining luncheon clubs for the elderly frail. What can the church offer them? Is this not a challenge for fresh expressions of church?

The invisible generation (Mike Collyer)

Mike CollyerMike Collyer uncovers the invisible generation.

It is now a well established fact there are now more people of pensionable age than there are young people under the age of sixteen in the United Kingdom today. This fact is hardly acknowledged by the church and society in general in which 'young' is 'cool' and fashionable. There are all kinds of products and cosmetics that promote this idea. In this way we undervalue 'oldness' by trying to make it go away or cover it up with face wrinkle cream!

Institutional ageism, whether we like it or not, exists within the church. For instance, look at the disproportionate resources that are poured into ministry and mission for the younger generation compared with the older. Within the climate of pioneering ministries and fresh expressions of church, how often is attention focused towards older people and their interests? In this sense, older people can be described as a mission blind spot.

So, what about a mission-shaped church for older people – a generation that increasingly feels invisible, undervalued, isolated, an object of fun and whose spiritual needs are often overlooked.

Church Army, in partnership with the Leveson Centre, has produced a training resource entitled A Mission-shaped Church for Older People facing this challenge, which was very successfully launched last November at a day conference of the same name for which over 100 people registered.

Older people can be described as a mission blind spot

To celebrate the success of this event, we are running a duplicate one day conference by popular request in London (St Michael's, Chester Square) on 29th October and wish to send people with responsibility for mission and evangelism (trainers/pioneers) a personal invitation to attend. Bishop Graham Cray will be present, and keynote speakers will be CEO of Church Army Mark Russell and Rev Dr James Woodward, former director of the Leveson Centre and now Residentiary Canon of St George's Chapel, Windsor.

This is a unique opportunity to engage with the issues and to take mission with older people seriously.