Over the last few years the world has been turned upside down! Normally one can argue about such points, but the age profile of the UK and world populations overall has without doubt flipped.
For centuries there used to be lots of younger people supporting a few older people, but in the last few years that has all changed and we now have more older people than younger.
The demographers warn that this is just the start of an era of unprecedented ageing, as the baby boomer generation moves through active retirement and then into dependency.
As anyone who has followed the recent dire warnings of market failure emanating from the big providers of adult social care will know, it’s evident that society as a whole isn’t ready for the changes that a much older population will bring.
Widening generation gap
The Resolution Foundation published a report before Christmas predicting a widening of the generation gap, as older people use and own a greater share of the nation’s resources and wealth. But Age UK points out that many older folk (nearly 4 million people today) will live lonely, unfulfilled and unproductive lives, with the television as their main source of company.
Just over 200 years ago, it was evangelical Christians who led the way responding to the challenges of demography and ageing, just as they did in many other areas of social reform. That was when the precursor to the charity I now serve — the Pilgrims’ Friend Society — was founded to pioneer pensions, and then residential care.
Towards the latter part of 2015, representatives of a number of evangelically minded organisations (including the editor of this newspaper) met to explore whether now is another moment in history when there is an urgent need for an initiative to inform, inspire and equip churches, to respond to the opportunities and challenges of an ageing population.
The Bible itself is not short of encouragements in this regard, whether through the examples of the ministries and leadership of people like Joshua in their older years, or the description of an inter-generational church, as seen in Titus 2.
Further examples are the picture in 1 Corinthians 12 of the church as a body, with all parts being valued, and the encouragements in the Psalms (e.g. Psalm 71) to older people to minister in declaring God’s mercies to other generations.
Witness to society
The biblical model of inter-generational church could be a radical and much needed witness to society, as the seismic shift of needs, numbers and resources between generations (that has already begun) starts to accelerate.
The wonderful reality, though, is that many churches are already connecting with different generations to the benefit of the ‘body of Christ’.
They are supporting their older members through initiatives like ‘dementia-friendly church’, and by enabling ministries of prayer and encouragement by older people, who can witness to a lifetime of God’s faithfulness. Churches are also responding to the growing mission field of local lonely and isolated older people facing dependency and death alone, and without a gospel hope.
The overall context is, however, less positive. A recent survey by Peter Brierley Associates reported a dramatic reduction in people’s ‘sense of belonging’ to a church as they age, with only 19 per cent of people aged over 85 having such a relationship, compared to 43 per cent of people aged 55-64.
There is no escaping the fact that, after retirement, people gradually but inexorably drop off the churches’ radar. Sadly, we see this all too frequently in our care homes, where, for many residents, visits by people from their church quickly tail off as it gets harder to do; and in the absence, we suspect, of encouragement and training in how to visit well.
As a result of the above, the group that came together a few months ago will be working to fund and provide resources that, God willing, will be available to churches in 2016, and beyond, in the following areas:
Without a scriptural underpinning of the contribution Christians are called to make, the church risks failing to contribute distinctively. We want to see gospel truth woven into ministry from the beginning, rather than bolted on to secular models of intervention.
Three key areas are: inter-generational design for churches; usefulness and service throughout life (particularly older age); and the biblical view of personhood for people living with dementia.
We see scope for well researched guides, akin to franchise packs, that set out how relevant initiatives work and integrate into the life of the church. These can help churches initiate ministries and also prayerfully understand when things are ‘not for them’.
Such packs include models for visiting and befriending schemes; dementia cafes; worship for care homes; telephone encouragement; enquirers’ courses and more.
Accessible information to inspire, inform and instruct people on issues that confront people ministering with, and to, older people. This includes support for carers and biblically based information that addresses some of the fears and doubts older people often face.
Conferences, networks, social media and courses to connect and equip those working with older people. Theological and other training colleges’ curricula need stronger components relating to inter-generational and older-age ministries. We need distinctive inter-generational models of church ministry beyond appointing ‘a seniors worker’.
More imaginative uses of technology to connect older people with their churches and enable ministries of encouragement, prayer and support (including phone and apps).
The working title for our initiative is ‘Fruitful Living’, taking its lead from Psalm 92:12-15 and the picture it gives is of the righteous flourishing and people in old age bearing fruit.
The charity that I run has 200 years’ experience of seeing God work in and through the lives of older people; and others who met as part of the group already mentioned have different gifts and interests they believe God may choose to use for his greater glory in this area.
Our prayer is that we can be a catalyst for ministry and mission. Our vision is that we might play a part in equipping the church to model a way of living that shows God’s love for all ages.
We also pray that we will be a light for society as it struggles to come to terms with issues that increasingly challenge us all: personally (how to care for people we love); economically (how older people give as well as take); socially (how a society creates opportunities for all generations) and politically (how power and resources are shared justly across generations).
If you would like to be kept abreast of developments, or join us, please email me at [email protected]
Stephen Hammersley is Chief Executive of Pilgrims’ Friend Society (enabler of the ‘Fruitful Living’ initiative)
Editor’s note: Further comments, news and articles on this general topic are invited from readers.