Survey Articles

Debbie Thrower

How denominations /churches can combat pressures and causes for disconnection
What churches can do to reintegrate those reconnecting.

Debbie Thrower, Chaplain to Older People.

It is tempting to think that older people have made up their minds about God. If they profess a belief, that they have their faith life more or less “sewn up”- once a church goer always a church goer- but experience of listening to older people suggests that this is far from the case.

The Connect4Life research indicates to me that whatever age we are we may have profound issues with the way in which church engages with people. For some older people, criticism of the church may lead to a gradual disconnection; a steady loss of faith leading to the decision to abandon church altogether. For others a crisis of some sort may precipitate a more sudden disconnection.

 

Of particular significance to the older age group, perhaps, were the following reasons given for turning away, for “disconnecting” from church:

black and white answers, personal attack instead of care and support, made to feel bad, no hope, the leadership would not stand on the Word of God, a lay leader’s action was inappropriate, divorce and a new relationship with a non-Christian, lack of interest or love from the leadership and many of the congregation.

Can we read into these replies a wake up call to the churches? For example, to give older people credit for being able to discern shades of grey in arguments and be given more opportunities to answer back, rather than always being addressed from “on high”? For trying harder to practise what we preach, for emphasising the hope in the gospel message and where possible enacting that hope, showing more of God’s love in action, being less judgemental, and more pastorally attentive and helpful in life’s difficult times?

A few years ago the charity, Methodist Homes for the Aged, produced a booklet which should be required reading for all church leaders who are serious about retaining their older members of the congregation and nurturing their discipleship, not to mention hoping to attract new older people “reconnecting.”

It is called “Crying in the Wilderness”* and it gives voice to those older men and women in our churches who feel overlooked or under-appreciated. It makes sober reading but shows how later stages of life can afford opportunities to gain and share insights, to continue asking pertinent questions and to grow spiritually.

Interestingly, none of those older people canvassed placed any special value on the church as a building or even as an organisation; what they valued most was the church as a community- a community to which they felt they needed to belong.

No wonder then that the Connect4Life research has stressed the following as top priorities when it comes to what people want of their church. It should be a blueprint for each of our churches if we are to keep congregations connected to Church, to God, and to one another as fellow members of the “Body of Christ.”

  • · Support and sense of community
  • · Interest, understanding and encouragement
  • · Love and acceptance
  • · Signposting to resources
  • · To grow as a disciple
  • · Forgiveness
  • · Not to feel I’m welcomed because they want to give me jobs or get something out of me

This research should be read, I believe, in the light of the fact that older people are the church’s natural spiritual constituency. We should always be aware of what attitudes and practices tend to marginalise them.

“Our mission,” as one of the foremost writers of the spirituality of ageing, James Woodward*, has said, “should be to embrace their experience and respond to the questions older people have raised in the belief that older people have much to contribute and share. A mutual understanding of their needs and aspirations can enable the deepening of a Church which is inclusive and wise.”

For our society to be healthy, churches need to be doing all we can to be connected to God, and to one another… even, and especially, as we age. For as James Woodward adds, “We need older people’s experience as part of the whole family’s inclusiveness as it develops into generational conversation and community solidarity. We need both action and reflection; noise and silence; independence and dependence if we are to build spiritual communities which are inter-dependent and open to who God would have us be.”

I spend a good deal of my time offering worship and friendship to people in care homes. Some have become disconnected from their previous church life. They may have moved to be nearer a family member and lost touch with their former church. Disability, lack of mobility for whatever reason may be hampering their ability to attend church in person. Others I spend time talking with and, if appropriate, offering to pray with may have little or no faith but very few are hostile to a chaplaincy visit. The majority welcome the opportunity to talk, to ask questions in a safe space of someone who is not judgemental but who is there to draw alongside them, and have an open, honest and confidential conversation with them.

Chaplaincy is at the forefront of plans to “re-imagine ministry” in the Church of England. It already occupies a high profile within the Methodist Church. For what is Church for if it is not about “making Christ visible in the world”?

What emerges for me, from this timely Connect4Life’ contribution to what we can do to help keep church members and grow our churches, is the need to practise humility and hospitality… to be mentoring church members of all ages, and extending our ministry beyond church. That is going to involve more and more pioneering work on the boundaries between church and world; slowly but surely “building the kingdom of God” until that day when all have become  what we were made to be… “abiding in Christ,” or in other words, fully “connected.”

*Note

“Crying in the Wilderness” Giving Voice to Older People in the Church, Graham Hawley and Albert Jewell, MHA Care Group 2009.

“Valuing Age,” James Woodward, SPCK 2008.

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