Neither Young Nor Old

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:

NYNO - teamWe 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.

NYNO - handsIn 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.

NYNO - entranceIn 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:

NYNO - communion

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.

NYNO - local areaIf 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.

The Marlpit

Katie Miller serves as a Reader with St Michael's Church, Hellesdon, near Norwich, and heads up a lay leadership team serving the Marlpit estate. Now hoping to train as a pioneer minister, Katie tells how the team built relationship with the community from a position of powerlessness.

St Michael's had been involved in this estate for 40 years before its Marlpit base, built by donations from local residents, was closed down in 2007. To me it's very interesting that what could have been the end of something instead became the start of something new because it was then that we truly started to build relationship with those around us.

The Marlpit is a council estate, half of which was built in the 1930s and the other half in the 1960s. It is squeezed between a main road and the River Wensum. We are with the parish across the river so there is a very real sense of it being a unique entity.

We found that not having a permanent church home became a blessing and we made friends precisely because we had no building. There is such a sense here that the church is part of the establishment so it was very helpful to be able to say, 'We are church but we have got nowhere to meet'. Relationships grew from that and it was useful to learn that you can very much build from a position of powerlessness.

Marlpit - housesThere are four of us in the core leadership team, including a couple who came to the estate 20 years ago and lived through various curacies. We recognised that it was important to break the cabal of the four of us so we have gradually built up indigenous leadership from within the community. That's why, when the time comes for me to move on, I will be ready to hand over because that joint – or new – leadership is now in place in all of the areas for which I had personal responsibility.

We have found it important to put two or three possible leaders in place because many people's lives are so chaotic on the Marlpit that it's important to have someone else to stand in the gap if an individual can't make it for whatever reason. In terms of context, this is a place where some people have lived for a very long time with generations of the same family around the corner from each other. There are also people who only stay for a while, people who are 'housed' here rather than live here.

The Marlpit - craft

We are fortunate in that there are public community places on the estate; it has its own primary school, play group, health centre and a couple of shops. It also has two community centres, one of which is set up as an internet café and drop-in sort of place. We have rented rooms in both of those centres and also in the school; we've been everywhere at one stage or another! The toddler group grew to such an extent that it had to move off the estate to a Methodist Church nearby.

We tend to describe ourselves as having six ministries in the Marlpit, one of which happened to be a Sunday morning time of worship. The rest involve all sorts of things, including a mid-day mini service after toddlers' group – something which has all the hallmarks of a church. The mums from that group all care for each other and want others to be part of it.

We set up the Marlpit community choir and we're now asked to do many gigs; it has become a focus of real pride for the estate – not only for the people who take part. The estate really 'owns' it; there’s nothing like making music together to make people feel as if they are part of a community. The choir also has a Facebook page where the members pray for each other. We have 25 people involved and they're not all brilliant singers by any means but when the whole choir is singing together; they really do make a great sound. There must be a message in there for the church! We basically do karaoke and use backing tracks for music from the 1940s to the present day. Bill, one of our leadership team is the choir master. He finds the backing track and we go with it; we did Born to be Wild and something from Queen when the Archdeacon came to visit us!

Marlpit - sheltered housing

We also lead a monthly service in local sheltered housing as part of our ministry here but that's very different. There we do hymns and have a very calm service; we pray for all the residents and we have some little thought or reflection as part of that. It's very gentle but we are welcomed in. In all of this, the parish church is really positive about what's happening here and we have never been stopped from doing what we do in this context; we have just got on with it.

My own background has very much fed into this time. I am an academic palaeontologist (the geology of ocean beds), have been a theatre director and now I'm pioneering. The link is that it's all about storytelling – a good geologist collects data and puts together a story from that; a theatre director is there to let the actors play through creativity and chaos before telling them, 'this is the direction I want you to go in' and pioneering is all about God's story and those whose lives are changed by it.

The Marlpit - choirI have loved what I do here and I'm shocked at the ways in which some people imagine life on a council estate. The fact is that residents here are the same as anyone else; they want to have stable relationships, they want their kids to do well at school etc; I find absolutely nothing different about that.

I don't feel what I'm doing is more 'worthy' or 'radical' because of my location or context. We should be helping the poor, people who require committed support in order to give them the backing they need. We shouldn't be judging them.

Sunningdale sheltered housing

Sunningdale is a community of 108 self-contained, warden-assisted flats all occupied by elderly people. Lesley Bailey, a lay-reader at Christchurch, with four others began church services here eighteen months ago.

Lesley says she is well known now among the residents. Some will join in for the end of worship cup of tea even though they don’t attend the rest of the worship. Others will ask for prayer.

There is much to give thanks for at this stage:

  • over ten percent of the community are already in the congregation;
  • members are fully involved in the worship;
  • the entire community being personally invited to each service.

Some members of the congregation are able to lead prayers and others feel comfortable reading the Bible. They may not have done this in a larger church.

Several have rediscovered their faith since services began at Sunningdale. One struggled for several months to overcome her agoraphobia so she could attend the services that are held in the residents' lounge. Now she reads the lesson with enthusiasm and commitment.

Lesley is very excited about how the church is developing. She hopes the next step will be a more in-depth study of the Bible for those who are interested.