CLOSE TO one million of those who attend England’s churches every Sunday are over the age of 65. Although our population is getting older the last thing they seem to be doing is putting up their feet. This poses questions for many churches: are they catering for this demographic or are churches in England perhaps not facilitating their needs?
In the New Testament, old people are held with great reverence. There is none of the attitude that is prevalent in western culture that people over a certain age are not as essential as, say, those in the 20s to 40s bracket.
At a recent conference at Westminster Chapel in London, run by Pilgrim Homes, several speakers addressed the topic of old age within the church. Basil Howlett, co-pastor of Carey Baptist Church and a lecturer at London Theological Seminary, said it was fundamental that churches drew on the resources of their more elderly church members.
He said: “Today, a lot of churches don’t listen to the advice and opinions of its old people and a lot of churches are split and damaged because of that. I am not saying that older people are always right, sometimes they get stuck in their ways and resist all change. We must make it clear in our churches that the elderly have an important contribution to make.
“Those who have been Christians for years have a wealth of practical and spiritual experience to share with younger believers.” He spoke of how the New Testament — the Apostle Paul’s letters in particular — contained vital teaching on the church’s attitude to older people, for example in the letter to Titus.
Mr Howlett said that despite the New Testament’s open inclusion of older people, British churches often failed to remember this particular demographic in sermons and addresses.
He said: “We need to remember in our congregations that there will be a lot of old folk with aching hearts, they have lost someone dear to them, or they have got a wayward son or a wayward daughter, they have got aching hearts and we need to remember them in our preaching and to say something that will help them and encourage them and point them towards heaven.”
He also added that it is presumptuous to think that all churchgoing elderly people are actually Christians, many may have just been going out of habit for most of their lives and the truth has never really sank in.
“I have lost count of the number of people over the years who have said to me ‘I have been attending church since I was a child and I always thought that I was a Christian but in the last few months I have come to see that I never was a Christian.’ It’s wonderful when young people are converted, it’s an even greater miracle in many ways when an older person gets converted, as they can get set in their ways.”
Writing this article in Westminster, I am currently aware of the flurry of activity outside as the country awaits the Queen’s Speech, featuring the new government’s proposed bills. Police are lining the streets and crowds are gathering around parliament square Pensioners and elderly people need to pay attention to the detail. The speech is set to outline a programme that will include two work and pensions bills. After the summer recess it is understood that a Welfare Reform Bill and a Pensions and Savings Bill will be introduced to Parliament. Under the new Pensions and Savings Bill, the government will consider plans to link the state pension to a person’s earnings.
The plans come as Britain’s largest private sector pension schemes have reported a shortfall of £160bn. Despite a mildly healthier stock market, the deficit on some retirement funds has trebled from £49bn in spring, 2009. In light of this many will be forced to rely on a state pension. Lee Clark, a Chartered Financial Planner, Fellow of the Personal Finance Society and a Member of CSM National Executive, believes it is essential that the government continues to work towards a better state pension.
“Liquidity crunch, falling stock markets, falling interest rates, increasing longevity: all bad news if you are making personal provision towards your retirement and are planning to retire in the near future!” he said.
“The turbulent financial times we are seeing coupled with the plethora of changes in the pension landscape over the last 30 years, have shown time and time again the need for a meaningful state pension offering.”
It may be in the coming years that churches must do more to reach out and help pensioners who have to make a state pension stretch way beyond what it is capable of.
However, technology is on the side of the elderly. To make churchgoing easier for elderly folk many churches have made improvements to their facilities. For example, many churches with crypts – such as St Martin-in-the-Fields – include a lift so that elderly and disabled people can access the areas. There are also hearing loops included in many churches. These systems work by use of a small electromagnetic circuit and can be picked up by someone wearing a hearing aid.
The advantage of hearing loops compared to other assistive learning systems is that instead of rigging people up to headphones the system uses hearing aids which elderly people have already had tuned to their level of hearing loss.
Other advances in technology have made old age a much more enjoyable time. Considerable research has gone into producing mobility aids to help pensioners and elderly folk find their way around buildings and their homes. Such inventions include rise and recline chairs, adjustable beds and bathing aids. However, it is always important to seek professional advice before buying. The Great British Mobility Group has a good sales team and also allows for products to be trialled before purchasing.
In many ways churches are catering for the elderly as they should. Many retirement homes or semi self-catering residents have established good links with local churches. In fact for many old people, who may have lost their husband or wife in the last 10 years, churchgoing has given them a new lease of life. Former pressures, or prejudices of their former partner, may have prevented them from exploring their faith.
In conclusion, it is vital that the church embraces and celebrates its elderly people. The New Testament sets out a model where older people are not just valued members of Christian society but actually vital members.