What’s Church For? Church as ‘Old Folks’ Club’ Part 1

OK, I’ve got my protective headgear on. This one’s going to get me into trouble. I want to have a bit of a rant about the culture of ‘church’ which, I have discovered, is overwhelmingly elderly. My text or icon for this is the word ‘refreshments’. Who under the age of 60 ever uses the word ‘refreshments’? Yet in church it’s a regular part of our vocab, and for me it has become symbolic of the whole way in which the church has an elderly culture and feel.

File:Singapore Road Signs - Warning Sign - Elderly or Blind People.svg

 

‘So what’s so bad about being elderly?’ I hear you cry. Nothing at all. I know we have a cult of youth and beauty in our current Western culture, and I know that we have little respect for the experience and accumulated wisdom of older people. This is tragic. But I think there is all the difference in the world between being ‘old’ and being ‘elderly’. I got my B&Q Diamond card nearly two years ago, but I don’t yet feel anywhere near ready to be elderly. It’s all about mindset, not chronological age. We all know people who are 40 going on 70, and we all know amazing people in their 80s and 90s who listen to Dubstep and are most at home with teenagers. So please don’t read this as a slagging off of senior citizens. But it all becomes a problem when we grieve over the absence of young families and 30-somethings from our churches but continue to invite the congregation for ‘refreshments’ after the service. The whole mindset and culture of the church, or at least my Anglican bit of it, cries out ‘We’re a club for senior citizens!’

So how, apart from the R-word, does this elderly mindset manifest itself? Of course any culture will tend to perpetuate itself as it gathers to it those who feel comfortable with the status quo. But that means that we will have to work extra hard at communicating with a younger age-group. In one church I worked in some years ago we were beginning to engage with modern technology by recording talks and putting them up on the website. One member of staff used to announce regularly that people could listen to the service on cassette or ‘through some new-fangled electronic means which I don’t understand’. However much I tried to tell her that the world was ‘online’, there was a refusal to embrace what was obviously an unfamiliar piece of technology, and instead to turn it into a shared joke for others who weren’t quite up to speed with the 21st century. In fact what this did was to communicate, far more eloquently than any of my sermons ever did, and what it communicated was that we are a church for the elderly and proud of it. And then we wonder why we have no young families. Durr!

It isn’t just about technology: it’s about humour and what we expect people to find funny; it’s about references, or the lack of them, to the current TV programmes, films or chart-topping music; it’s about our social programmes and outings … there are so many manifestations of elderliness. But there is a deeper problem. Elderly culture is perpetuated by elderly people, and who are Anglican churches led by? You’ve got it in one. We have, I believe, two problems which contribute to this issue: we don’t fundamentally believe in having young leaders (I’ll defend this outrageous statement next time), and we have no real culture of retirement. I want to tackle these twin problems in future episodes of this blog, but before I end this one I need to affirm the vitally important role of older people in the life of the church. We all know faithful prayer-warriors, practical servants, wise counsellors and so on who might not be able to get physically to services any more but without whom we would be so much worse off. I’m not advocating a cull at age 50. But I do want to question the I’m sure unthought-out policies which as a church we seem to have fallen into, whilst at the same time bewailing the lack of contact with a whole generation of younger people. More next week, but for now I’m going to crawl into my bunker and hide.

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