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Reform Magazine | May 27, 2024

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A good question: Ageing congregations: Blessing or problem? - Reform Magazine

A good question: Ageing congregations: Blessing or problem?

One question, four answers

‘Third agers are the Church’s core workforce’

Older people are the Church. This is the reality of congregations across the United Reformed Church and indeed for all the UK protestant Churches. Church members, elders and those who carry out the myriad tasks that maintain active Christian communities, are predominantly people in the third age of life, beyond full-time, paid employment. These people enable all aspects of the local church to be welcoming places of worship – they serve reliably on rotas as stewards, they provide coffee, they supply food for celebrations and funerals, they arrange flowers, they maintain property, they are pastoral visitors, editors of church magazines, and so many other things. In outreach work to homeless people, dementia circles, charity work, day centres, toddler groups, and a wide range of social gospel ventures, third agers are the core workforce. And, to complete the circle, ordained ministers are a rapidly ageing group, with many services of worship being led by older non-stipendiary and retired ministers.

Yet, for more than 20 years, Churches have prioritised and invested heavily in work with children and families. ‘Children are the future of the church.’ In a literal sense, this is true. But in reality, the children presently so welcome in our churches are unlikely to form the future generation of church members. It is the adult members who will ensure that the church is alive as a worshipping and serving community into the future. They/we need to be nurtured to ensure we are the best we can be…

Malcolm Johnson is Visiting Professor in Gerontology and End of Life Care for the University of Bath


‘It depends on experience’

Where do you sit on the see-saw? How do you see the ageing process? Do you identify with King David, who died ‘at a good old age, having enjoyed long life, wealth and honour’? Are you blessed in your later years with a sense of serene equilibrium, at peace with the past and ready to embrace the future? Or do you feel, with the writer of Psalm 90, that ‘the span of our days is but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away’?

We are all living – and working – longer. Some now say old age begins in your 80s. Certainly most of us know centenarians. Congregations, demographically, are no different from the rest of our ageing population. None of us can be immune from the physical and often mental deterioration of ageing. Biology has not designed us to last for ever. Yet, each of has a life story that renders us greater than the sum of our parts, however crumbling, even after we have gone. How often have you heard it said, after a funeral: ‘We didn’t know that!’ about the deceased? I remember a particularly inscrutable lady, who, out of choice, never left her room in the care home where I was chaplain. When she died, we discovered she had been a codebreaker at Bletchley Park during the Second World War…

Janet Hopewell is the United Reformed Church Southern Synod’s Chaplain and Advocate for the Elderly

‘The problem is the dearth of younger people’

I can’t get very excited about ageing congregations. Ageing is what we all do, albeit I feel I’ve been doing it more than most recently. In congregations I’ve known, I think the average age has been rising throughout my life. I may at times regret the ageing process but, as friendly funeral directors assure me, it is more fun than the alternative. I am quite sanguine about people living longer. The phenomenon we are no longer able to ignore is the dearth of younger people in the churches. The question facing the churches is whether the traditional model can, or should, be preserved.

Throughout my adult life I have always felt the need to question where the Church is and what its priorities are. I was 18 when John Robinson, Bishop of Woolwich, published Honest to God. I found it compelling and persuasive. The book was a wake-up call to the Church to reappraise its practices, stances and teaching. It gave rise to controversy in which there was a renewed interest in the writings of Tillich, Bonhoeffer and Robinson himself. Cryptic phrases like ‘religionless Christianity’, ‘the New Reformation’ and ‘God’s frozen people’ abounded. In 1965, I encountered The Comfortable Pew, a Lenten study commissioned by the Episcopal Church of Canada from broadcaster and journalist, Pierre Berton. It rattled cages and ruffled feathers. In 2001, Callum G Brown of Strathclyde University published The Death of Christian Britain, which suggested that secularisation did not gradually evolve from the Industrial Revolution but exploded on to the scene in the 1960s. Also in 2001, a fellow church minister, Peter Cruchley-Jones, gave me a copy of his PhD thesis, ‘Singing the Lord’s Song in a Strange Land?’ where he dared to formulate the question: ‘Is God coming to the end of his experiment with Church?’…

Alan Paterson is a retired church minister


‘We need one another’

Reflecting on this question in the week that my own, Anglican, newspaper begins a series exploring teenagers, faith, and the Church, is a useful challenge. Our front page spoke of a ‘crisis’ and there is no doubt that the Church is facing a serious demographic problem. In the diocese of London there are just 2,000 people aged 11-18 in Church of England churches (out of a total of 310,000).

I know older Christians care about this. I remember getting a beautiful handwritten letter from an elderly woman expressing deep concern about the absence of young people in church. Perhaps our clergy should be going to the places that teenagers could be found, she suggested, mentioning ‘discos’. I think, too, of St Peter’s, Bethnal Green, where an ageing congregation, determined to secure the survival of the church they loved, sought a partnership with a young priest in a nearby parish. He arrived, with a small team of young people, and it’s now a brilliant example of two traditions cohering, and multiple generations worshipping together…

Madeleine Davies is Deputy News Editor of Church Times


These are extracts from an article that was published in the February 2018 edition of  Reform

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  1. Elizabeth Welch

    The question of ageing congregations is interesting. I serve a congregation where we have a majority of younger families. There are times when I lament the lack of older people who can offer all the gifts and possibilities to which Malcolm Johnson so helpfully refers. But underlying this, is the question of how we see God speaking to our present age, whether older or younger, and how we go with where God takes us through, what I still believe, is God’s gift of the church. I give thanks for those who have been able to keep the faith in a rapidly changing age.

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