Too Many Older People in Church

There are too many older people in the church in Britain, and I am one of them.

Has that made you either sit up or choke on your tea?

What I really mean is that there can never be too many of any age group in the church, we want to win all to Jesus. However, across the denominations there are not enough 20s and 30s in the churches. The proportions of older people to the 20s and 30s in the British church is not good. Being an Elim minister I think Elim churches are doing better than most, but we too need to keep our brains plugged in and learn from the others who have not been ready or willing to make the changes.

I meet with many leaders of various denominations and it has not gone unnoticed that in many of their churches the 20s and 30s are missing. Some of those leaders wring their hands in anguish not knowing what to do about it. Some do not seem to care. Some of their churches will soon cease to exist.

I think one of the reasons Pentecostal churches across the globe are such a success story is that it is in our culture to be open to change. Pentecostal people are planting a churches and doing church in places and ways that would seem very much ‘out of the box’ to other denominations.

If you are the sort that does not like change and quake when your leadership suggests it, I have news for you, change is here to stay! And another thing, I think the rate of change will increase during this next decade and we will all have to hang on to our hats. Deal with it!

Since completing the first draft of this article I got an email from someone I know advertising his conference for the 20s. “Whoops,” I thought, “are we on different tracks here?” No, I think we are both talking about the same thing. He has chosen to do something about it. He does the hard work while I just sound off about it – which is great fun.

This is a time for action. How can we see more 20s and 30s in churches?

I know of a church of a more ‘traditional’ denomination. They decided they wanted to get younger adults to join so they had a meeting to discuss how they would do it. One person said they knew some ‘happy clappy’ choruses they could lead and that might help bring them in. What planet are they on? As though the Holy Spirit has a favourite song or style of music.

I know of a church numbering a few hundred people that decided to start a meeting for young adults. I knew it was destined to failure. What I predicted came to pass. Before this weekly meeting had been running for the first full month it was already being joked about in the church as a dating place for singles. People from the target age group started to drift away as attendance there seemed to indicate you were looking for a partner and were desperate. The next thing that happened was that older singles started to attend. One of those, a single man (who had just turned 40), turned up because he realised that was the place to shop for a partner.

My proposal is far more radical than some special meetings for the 20s and early 30s. I think we should be doing all we can to hand over the whole church to the younger adults. If we are going to put on special meetings it should be for the older people, people my age, not the 20s.

I am in a relay race. When I was a young pastor I reached out and grabbed the baton the older leaders were holding out to me. I ran with it and still do, my time is not yet up. But more and more I find it is my turn to be holding out the baton to the younger adults. I need to remember to let go of it and give the opportunities. Imagine a relay race where the runner holds out the baton to the next runner, the next one grabs it but the previous one does not let go and there then ensues a struggle as one thinks they are to run off with it while the other still grips it. We all need to be ready to let go.

This is not just about leaders. We all need to trust the younger ones and to help them take over their church. The church needs to help the older ones to let go, and both older and younger need to be equipped for this transition. The church member needs to trust. I think we are doing better in Elim than they are in many of the other church groups, but we too need to keep our eyes open about this.

I was once asked by someone, “Do you really trust me?” They felt honoured by the trust that had been place in them. I said, “It is the Holy Spirit in you that I trust. You will do this, and you will do it well, if you lean on the Holy Spirit.”

We must all work together to pass on our churches to the younger adults. This strategy is already happening in many churches to a large extent, but I know it would horrify some people. Even too many new converts would horrify people of that mind set. I have heard it said, “If we are not careful these new people are going to take over our church.” Don’t they get it? That is the plan, to continually be handing the baton to the next runners, whether new people or the younger adults. And they too will have to let go when it is their turn.

I wonder if fitness levels in the over 50s is a factor in some of this. I am fit. I have run regularly, give or take a few short breaks, since I was a teenager. I still run many miles in a week. I have just had a birthday and feel fine. I can hardly believe I am this old (over 55). Is this part of the problem, many older people forgetting that they are older and feeling reluctant to see the baton passed on? Or is it that we are accustomed to older leaders, so are less likely to risk giving opportunities to the younger ones?

I was in a meeting recently with Elim leaders and the topic of catering for the young adults was discussed. I said I thought we should not start putting on special meetings for young adults, and gave my reasons. A person there asked how many of us present had been pastoring churches in our 20s. The majority put up their hands. Yes it was commented upon that there may be various cultural changes that might explain this shift, but the point is that we were given that trust in our 20s and it is now our very age group that seems reluctant to be just as trusting.

People are living longer. It may be the first time in the history of the church that this generational change has existed. This may be one of the reasons the British church is very much in the hands of older people and the young are having to wait longer for their turn. How to respond to this correctly is a real puzzle. I am not suggesting we sack everyone over 40 but there has to be some creative thinking about this. Some people have looked forward to a ministry for many years and only start out on it when they are in their 50s, 60s or older. Those people are likely to have many years of service ahead of them. I do not suggest we to rob them of those great opportunities.

Cultural and economic changes in recent decades have meant that young adults stay in education longer, and delay taking on the responsibilities of marriage, their own home, and having children. Perhaps we are picking up a message from this, that they are not ready for the responsibilities of leadership and service in the church? If we do pick up that message, it is certainly not one they are transmitting.

Another big change is the movement of young people who leave their home churches to go to university. Many of them don’t return there. It is churches near universities that benefit – like ours. This moving about of young people can be a major hurdle in them settling in church and finding opportunity. It takes time to settle and build credibility. Small wonder that the start of their ministries in church is delayed, even in those churches that are open to young adults.

I had a conversation about change with someone (not in the church I serve) and they immediately mentioned a lady in the church and said, “Oh dear, I don’t know what Mrs T would say to that.” I said if she was such a great person of faith she would be delighted. If she were not, her opinion should be ignored.

Some people think that in church every person’s opinion has equal value. It does not. The person who persistently brings guests to church or who repeatedly plays their part in introducing people to Jesus is someone I will listen to before listening to the one who was weaned on a lemon and does little but criticise.

Perhaps some would not like my ideas because they want to preserve things according to their own preferences. That is nothing but selfishness!

One person said to me about their church, “It’s all right for you Pentecostals, but this is how we like it.”

“Yes,” I replied, “but you will all be dead soon and you will have not handed your church over to the next generation because your personal preferences were more important to you than the lost and the future of your church.”

She smiled and said, “Yes I suppose so.”

In York Elim we try to use the young adults as soon as possible. We are blessed to have many students. With students we have the advantage of being able to find out if they are walking in the light by asking our CU contacts. If they are, we want to utilise them as soon as possible.

I had been on holiday and had missed two Sundays. On my return I was greeted at the door by someone for whom it was their third week and they had been recruited to welcome. I was welcomed and asked it I had been before. I thanked them and said I had. I was not offended, I was delighted.

On more than one occasion I have walked in to our main meeting on a Sunday morning after the worship band have already started up and I have looked at the worship leader and realised I have never seen that person in my life before. Before we had our present, excellent music director Neil Morgan, that would happen more often. It was not done irresponsibly, someone had checked the person out and was playing alongside to cover if needed. On two such occasions those new worship leaders became main worship leaders in our church. Both of those have now moved on to other cities where they have developed their gifts further. I have never regretted the opportunities we gave them, or the risks we took. God can cope!

I know why some church members would not want to give such opportunities. They are pessimists and dread that things might go wrong. I know why some leaders would not give such opportunities, they are fearful and dread the complaints or would not want to have to correct something that had gone wrong. I am an optimist and have found that things like that rarely go wrong, and if they do I do not mind bringing some correction. And I don’t mind complaints.

I think a healthy church can cope with mistakes. I think Jesus would prefer to look down on a church that is like a school playground where people fall and graze their knees, than a church like a graveyard where no mistakes are made because they are all dead. God can cope with our mistakes. I think he likes us trying. Jesus didn’t ask for perfection before he sent the first disciples out.

I may still be the main preacher in the York Elim church, I have not neglected my responsibilities, I am not finished yet, but we do regular classes for those who want to get started in preaching. As a result some of them will become better listeners, some will be better equipped to speak at work or do an occasional preach at church and some will find that it is something they are called to.

We give opportunities as quickly as possible, and in as many ways as possible, to the young adults in our church. Specific procedures are rightly laid down for the recruitment of anyone wanting to work with children, young people or vulnerable adults. And I do not recommend that we waver from those!

I realise York Elim is blessed to have so many young adults. It also has the other age-groups too. I like that. I would like the church to continue to be filled with people of all ages. However, I would like the church looking younger all the time when it comes to who is visibly running things, from the welcome at the door to leading worship, serving communion, being involved in public ministry, etc.

Creative thinking is needed and I would like to know more of what is working here in the UK. I am less interested in models from the USA as, apart from them having a similar language to us, we are culturally very different.

I have suggested little, I would like to have more answers, but let me summarise where I am at so far:

  • As much as possible avoid creating special meetings for the young adults. At best it will become a ghetto, or patronising, at worst a demeaning dating joke.
  • Make room for the young adults to serve in meaningful, high profile roles. They should be well supported, equipped and mentored by the older ones as they do so.
  • Try and educate the over 40s. They need to see they are not neglected, but that handing the baton on to the next runners is a huge priority and an urgent one.

Things I tell young leaders:

  • The group is more important than the individual when running church. They need to remember this when listening to personal preferences that are selfish and short-sighted.
  • Know who to listen to. The opinions and observations of some people have greater value than others. We need to know who to heed and who not to heed.

None of this is new. Many churches have been working at this for a long time. But not enough have been. I know of one denomination that is about to go off the conveyor belt as they all die off, never having handed the baton on. What will Jesus say to that?

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