Time for the Church to grow older?
Andy Bryant explains why he believes the older generations have a vital role to play in the growth of today’s church.
In many parish profiles and advertisements for clergy posts you will find the oft-repeated phrase “grow the Church younger”. With churches often describing their congregations as greying (ugh!), growing the Church younger seems a self-evidently good thing. At their best churches should be genuinely multi-generational communities.
Nevertheless, every time I hear the phrase “grow the Church younger” I start grinding my teeth and wanting to throw things! If we must have such simplistic statements about the mission and ministry of the Church, then I want to make the case for growing the Church older.
Consciously or unconsciously the Church too easily joins the age discrimination which currently besets our society. There is the unwritten assumption that young is best, and we have vast industries encouraging us to resist the signs of aging. After years of faithful contribution to the wellbeing of society, far from being given a place of honour at the centre of our communities, the older you get the more likely you are to be side-lined, placed to one side in a care home to await the inevitable end.
Is this really how we want to end our days? Is death just the inevitable result of decline, or is it the climax of our lives, the final great adventure? Is this really the way to show respect for those who have gone before us and paved the way for us? And of all institutions should not the Church be the one that gives pride of place to its elders, especially when we proclaim that death is the gateway to new life?
Whilst we idolise youth, in the end life needs to be understood backwards. It is only in facing the reality of our ending that we will be able to understand what our priorities should be when younger. We need the wisdom and insight of the of the elder to help shape the way to live when young. Youth may arrogantly assume it knows best but the uncomfortable truth is that it does not. The old and frail may hold the very wisdom we need to build a better society because they have lived the mistakes that youth does not need to repeat.
Yes, Church should be multi-generational but at particular stages of life we are more able to help and support than at other times. Without the retired in our midst, volunteering both in the Church and in the wider society would collapse. It is the retired who have the time, the skills, and indeed often the disposable income, that the Church requires to thrive. Whilst it is always lovely to welcome a young family into a congregation, it is the arrival of a retired couple that makes me more confident we may have some more help to get things done.
Although faith is there for all stages of life, there is also a reality that there are stages of life when we have both the time and attentiveness to really grow in faith, and especially in the later years of life. Throughout my ministry I have been privileged to spend time with the older members of congregations who have taught me so much about the things of faith, whose faithfulness has been a true inspiration, and along with a wonderfully shocking and disrespectful honesty, have taught me much about how to grow old well.
There is also a need for the Church to grow older by having a better understanding of its history, heritage, and tradition. There is a terrible mythology being peddled that traditional Church is dying and that the only hope is in fresh expressions, new church plants and all things modern. The assumption is that there was a golden age from which the Church is in terminal decline unless it ditches the old ways.
A better knowledge of church history would help us understand that there have been repeated twists and turns in the flourishing and fading of the life of the Church. The periods of recovery of the Church through history have been as much about rediscovering its heritage and traditions as about embracing the new. The fact that English cathedrals, with their traditional worship, continue to be a growth point in the life of Church are an important counterbalance to the idea that all must be new and contemporary. Old can be very missional.
Contrary to the current group think of the Church, perhaps if we could grow more gloriously and outrageously, more beautifully and disrespectfully older, then the young might find this a Church which is for them too.
The above image is by Belinda Cave on pixabay.com
The Revd Andrew Bryant is the Canon for Mission and Pastoral Care at Norwich Cathedral. He was previously Team Rector of Portishead, Bristol, in the Diocese of Bath and Wells, and has served in parishes in the Guildford and Lichfield Dioceses, as well as working for twelve years with Kaleidoscope Theatre, a charity promoting integration through theatre for young adults with Down’s Syndrome.
You can read Andrew's latest blog entry here and can follow him via his Twitter account @AndyBry3.
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