Matthew Edwards and Julie Ferguson lead Neither Young Nor Old (NYNO) in a sheltered housing complex in Aberdeen.
NYNO aims to create fresh expressions of all-age church amongst older people, particularly, but not exclusively, those who live in sheltered housing accommodation. The title was inspired by Galatians 3.28, 'There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for all are one in Christ Jesus'. In Christ Jesus there is also Neither Young Nor Old.
Stockethill Church of Scotland had been conducting monthly worship services in a couple of sheltered housing complexes for some time. Matthew Edwards, a lay member of the church had been involved in one of these, Stocket Grange, a complex where about 60 residents live in bungalows and flats.
Matthew Edwards begins the story:
We had been there for some time but I began to wonder if there was more that could be done. We made several attempts to form something new, including a small group that met for midweek Bible study. That was very important to those involved in it over the years – but we were still asking the question, 'How can we take it further?'
Challenged by the minister to put down on paper what an experimental project might do to answer this question, I put together a funding proposal for the Church of Scotland Council Emerging Ministries Fund (now part of Go for It!), which gives grants to projects for church planting. Within the month, our newly titled project, Neither Young Nor Old (NYNO), had received significant funding.
The challenge was then to actually get the project off the ground, something which took another 18 months because we had to get a management team together, look for further funding and then advertise for two project workers. The project began in earnest last July.
One common traditional approach of the church in its engagement with older people, particularly those in sheltered or supported accommodation, has been to care for them through visiting and, if possible, a short, monthly service. We felt there were real limitations to this:
- 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. As a result it has limited missional impact.
- 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.
In NYNO we aim to see new all-age church communities come into being that are accessible to older people and that develop their own identity, teaching, spirituality, leadership, mission and care. The families of older Christians in particular may also find the NYNO congregations to be places of welcome, care and support for their relatives and for themselves.
I think there should be a lot of hope in older people in the Church. If anything new is going to happen, it is generally assumed that it's going to come through engagement with younger people. A consequence of this can be that the significance of older people is minimised inside and outside of the Church. 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. At NYNO, we are determined to work against that.
Julie Ferguson adds:
In one way or another, I have always been involved in care of older people, particularly those living with dementia. I didn't see myself as a church planter when I first saw the job advert for NYNO, although it seemed like a great idea in bringing together community and older people. I wrestled with whether to apply or not for some time, but in the end felt God calling me.
In the complex where we work, we have to build community with people from a wide range of backgrounds and churchmanship. Instead of 'parachuting in' to lead a service, we talk a lot about making this community into a spiritual 'home'. We are all about participation and emphasising the role that everybody can play with the focus on encouraging the laity as much as we can.
In addition to our monthly Sunday gatherings, we meet most weeks on a Thursday for Bible study and a chat. About 25-28 people come on Sundays and there's usually about eight on a Thursday night.
Every now and then we'll also put something on to reach those with no church background at all. This Christmas Eve we hosted a gathering open to everyone, particularly to make sure no one had to be on their own over the Christmas period. We put leaflets in all of the bungalows and flats to advertise our 'soiree' and we had egg nog, mince pies and cakes! It was great to see people who don’t come along on a Sunday – residents, family members and staff.
Matthew and Julie continue:
Something that has proved a challenge is the fact that we are lay, not ordained, leaders. Having got into the theology of the body of Christ, we wanted to make Communion central to the worshipping community but, for obvious reasons, there are limitations to the way we can do this and we find ourselves bumping against the divide between laity and clergy.
We are very fortunate that Ian (Aitken) the parish minister comes in every second month to celebrate Communion. On the positive side, as Stockethill Church oversees us, there is a sense – when Ian comes to Stocket Grange – that we are all joining in with something much larger as we gather together for Communion.
There are lot of preconceived ideas about churches with older people in them. We sometimes get responses like, 'So, you sing a lot of hymns then?' In fact, people are up for singing songs they've never sung before; they don't mind having a go at something new. For some people, it's all new because they didn't attend church as a child and are not familiar with what others might assume they knew. But more importantly, we're trying to foster the growth of churches where styles of worship are really seen as peripheral. The most important thing is the diverse body of Christ, old and young, worshipping together in community.
We are looking forward to being able to tell more of what's happening in the lives of the community in which we're involved but this is a journey that can't be rushed. In moving from a 'service' model of church to more of an emphasis on community and participation, we're involving people in change. We can only do this one step at a time, at each stage trying to involve people so that we go on this journey together.
If we find that a community grows that is sustainable and reproducible, we hope we'll be able to share more about what we've done and help others to do the same. As things stand we're always interested in talking to others with similar ideas.
The Church of Scotland has been very supportive in giving us partial funding for two years with potential for another, but we have found it very difficult to access money from elsewhere for church planting. In the end, the project started by reducing the planned number of paid hours.
We're supervised by a management team of five people from different churches across Aberdeen: a missions worker, a lady in her 80s, a retired teacher and a youth worker. We appreciate the diversity of experience represented here. It's important to have that given the type of church we want to see grow. We all meet every few months or so and this team really helps us not to lose sight of why we set up the project in the first place.