“Church is dying. The congregation is aging, a bad winter and they’ll all be dead.”

It’s easy to understand why people say this as they look around some churches, particularly those where children are a rarity, and teenagers non-existant.  But there are churches which have been like this for the last forty years, and yet they stubbornly refuse to die.  Why?

I have a theory.  As people retire, they are still hale and hearty.  They often move to a new place, they have time on their hands, and a wealth of skills.  They want to make friends, and if they have moved to a small community, they want to get involved.  And one obvious way is through church.  But I think there is a little more to it than that.  People lead busy lives.  They focus on jobs, family, houses, cars, hobbies of all sorts.  But as they get a little older, they realise they have lost the immortality of the teenager or the ambitious twenty something.  Life has been more complicated than expected, bad things have happened among the good (or indeed the other way round), and suddenly there is time to wonder what it all means.  I think that’s why people turn to church later in life.  

It means that congregations are indeed self renewing.  And it also means (unfashionable viewpoint alert) that there is a place for some churches, or some services which aren’t child focussed, but aim squarely at the people who are in the pews, or lurking in the doorway, or have been invited by friends.  What suits a family with young children doesn’t appeal to every sixty-something.  (I’ve heard of a few who actively seek churches with fewer children because they need the peace after being childcare all week).

This isn’t me suggesting that children’s work and youth work should cease.  Far from it.  We are ALL children of God, and we all need ways to articulate our experience of God.  But it is a suggestion that maybe, just maybe, there are some congregations that we don’t need to beat ourselves up about.  


9 responses to “R.I.P.

  1. Amen, sister!
    I know of churches (some urban, some rural) that have majority or all congregation at retirement age or older and yet who are faithful & diligent in their mission and ministry. They see their friends & neighbours drawn into the circle of faith without ever approaching All-Age Services or Children's Clubs. These churches aren't dying. they are engaging contextually & successfully in the work God has given them to do where they are.(Although one in Northhumberland has started a Messy Church with the average congregation age being 70!)
    And I help look after an intermittent group that calls itself (deprecatingly) Sad Dads (all separated or divorced, most don't enter any church building) who are happy & keen not to be drawn into anything that includes their children. We meet in Costa, at the pub or for curry/film nights and discuss issues, the Bible and faith. I would suggest that at least 4 have developed a real faith over the past 7 years; but have no desire to be part of a church that emphasises all the things that they feel excluded from (kids activities, Mums & Tots, Mothering Sunday, perceived 'feminine' or 'lovey-dovey' worship) but doesn't address what is really important for them (being a single father in 21st century, money & debt, role models). I've talked with them about “Who Let the Dad's Out” but the jury is till out on this. I'm one of them!
    Oops! Gone on a bit about this – but have been reflecting one again on what we do in church, prompted by my strong sympathy for Helen's most recent two “A Weeble's Wonderings” posts 🙂

  2. I agree Claire, probablz like most things in life, your tastes and needs change throughout life and the church needs to think about this and maybe address it, could mean more work for you guys tho! Karen PS love reading the posts!

  3. We have five churches in our benefice (four more joining soon) and most of those who attend regularly as grey or white haired (I include myself in that. I came back to church at age 58, and the past five years have been some of the most productive of my life, aside from full time employment.

    We have 2 churches where they prefer traditional services, with BCP or Order 2 CW and who Choose traditional hymns. They also put on Matins and Evensong,. Efforts to persuade them to change have resulted in new energy, forming friends group, engaging through putting on classical concerts, flower shows and a range of events which bring in a wider audience than their normal attendees, but may not be particularly attractive to younger people or children. This might be mission to the older generation, but it's still mission all of the same.

    The other three churches are outward looking, with a variety of services, including family friendly,. The backbone is Eucharistic services from CW, with an occasional BCP or Evensong. All three attract all age ranges, although the Eucharistic services tend to be older with a smattering of younger people and families. The Family services, non-Eucharistic, attract more across the spectrum. Led mainly by Family Service Teams they are lively, vibrant and for someone like me, challenge to my perceptions of what Worship is or should be. The activities are imaginative and deceptively simple at the same time. This too is mission.

    We also have other activities outside church. Engagement with the Village School, a thriving youth group in three distinct age ranges, a bring and share group, two bible study groups, a weekly fish coffee shop and much more. Our curate started a mothers and toddlers group two years ago, which is now thriving and being run by those mothers who joined in at the start. Many are not church goers, but have children at the village school and naturally come within the orbit of those who are.

    We have a ministry to four care homes, where we go weekly with Extended Communion and at one which cares for dementia sufferers, we have an additional service of Hymns monthly. Our volunteers, including myself are fully involved in this ministry and act as the focal point between the church and the home, most of the residents have family in our villages.

    The church isn't dying through lack of commitment, in our case, Confirmations, Baptisms and Weddings seem to point in a upwards direction, as new people coming in, outweigh those who leave or go to Glory. We get on with it without fanfare.

    As a church, we just need to be better at getting out the good news and getting over ourselves in matters of gender and sex, which seem to drive most of the negative feedback we received. There are small miracles happening daily, not remarked and known only to those who receive the grace that they bring.

  4. Our church has few children and when the Bishop came to talk about our Mission Action Plan he urged us to celebrate our older people & serve them, not try to imitate other churches and be family friendly. We have a large number of residential homes in the parish, so have plenty of scope for serving older people.
    The priest in charge however has not taken the bishop's advice and is going in the direction of attracting families. W e'll have to see what results.

  5. Yes, there is a whole different question about what makes church church, why we do what we do and who for – I too was reflecting on Helen's post, but also on the fact that 8 o'clock BCP congregations endure (they are the archetype for “we can stop this soon” when actually we can't), and on churches which are desperate to attract the young in villages where anyone rich enough to be able to live with young children leads a very busy life indeed.

  6. It will be interesting to see the results – as priests we have different callings, and if a call is to families and young people, then it will probably work. It doesn't help that every parish profile wants someone who is brilliant at children's/youth work (I exaggerate, but you know what I mean) . I hope that in your church the answer is both/and not either/or.

  7. I think you hit the nail on the head in your last paragraph especially – we are bad at recognising and celebrating the daily small miracles, although they are the inspirational bits of ministry, reminding us that the Kingdom of God is here and now.

  8. I have been increasingly aware that in our open evangelical, family friendly (also has activities for men/women-only etc) church, one of the notable increases in congregation size has been in our 8am congregation (usually CW, not always HC, BCP once a month). Talking to folk, it would seem this is for the reasons of
    – it's quiet before a busy Sunday (which may or may not include leading worship in one of our other congregations)
    – it enables our faith not to impact heavily on 'spouse time' with a non-Christian spouse
    – we're partially deaf and struggle to cope with the multiple layers of sound from hymn-singing let alone choruses and a worship band
    – it just happens to be convenient this Sunday & next week I'll be back in my charismatic congregation – a change is as good as a rest, and at least I had a chance to worship.

    I hope and pray that the wide variety of worship and churches remains alive and well in the CofE – and personally I think it will for exactly the reason you state.

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