Many of the stories told of fresh expressions of church today are among the youth or young adults of the emerging generations. That is where the culture has been changing fastest and quite rightly many of our most radical church plants have arisen in response to this challenge. However, the principles of good mission engagement can also be found in the mission field of the retired and elderly. This is particularly significant since the elderly are the fastest growing section of the British population. Molly is over retirement age and when we first met her and heard her story she wasn’t aware that she had planted a church at all! But this is quite typical of many who have launched out in mission adventures and have been surprised when the question arises as to whether what God has done could appropriately be called church.
Molly and her husband Graham live on the Ravenshead Estate in Nottinghamshire. The Estate was built in the 60’s and 70’s and is mainly made up of owner occupied houses that are not starter homes, but were the sort of places that established families moved to. Such a positive community developed that a high proportion decided to stay and hence progressively the proportion of retired and elderly has increased. Molly and Graham are Christians who have been involved in church leadership in a church in a nearby town. However they have been committed to engagement within their own neighbourhood of Ravenshead over many years.
Molly has been a particular catalyst with others, for a range of community projects particularly focussed on the elderly. First is a mini-bus service which provides transport for those who are not able to get about themselves. The blue line on the map (Fig.1) shows the route that the mini-bus takes. This enables the elderly and otherwise housebound to get about to all sorts of social events locally and to go on outings beyond the Estate. The diagram in Fig.2 shows this and the other community engagement projects that Molly and others have initiated over the years to improve the quality of life for the elderly. In each case the activities and programmes depend on teams, committees and leaders of whom only a proportion are Christians. You will see from the diagram that other such activities are the Good Neighbour Scheme, the Luncheon Club the Fab Club and the Day Centre. These are shown as overlapping circles, because of course many of the same elderly people are involved in more than one of these activities.
Although only a minority of those leading and volunteering in these activities, they realised the great opportunity for the Gospel presented by all the positive relationships that they had across these different networking times with other elderly folk. First of all they started an Alpha course and invited and gave out invitations to all those involved in all these five areas. From the Alpha course a number of the elderly wanted to continue in their journey of faith and a cell group emerged to which a significant number of elderly regularly attend.
Then a year or so later Molly and one or two other Christians working in these programmes, had the idea of laying on a Sunday afternoon tea. What came together was to be the best Sunday afternoon tea these elderly folks would ever know and for which they would be charged £2.50! Once the first tea occurred the word spread and folk were queuing up for the mini-bus to pick them up to take them to the tea venue. The tea not only included excellent refreshments but also had in amongst a pattern of reading a psalm, a dramatised bible passage, a short meditation and sometimes the singing one of the elderly folk’s favourite hymn. As can be seen from the diagram with this living Christian cell and this wider group attending the afternoon tea service, elderly folks are being given the opportunity to progress in a journey of faith and different ones are moving at different speeds, but clearly some are finding a meaningful encounter with God and the opportunity to become disciples of Jesus.
This church among the elderly exemplifies the principles of how we like to use the term Emerging Church, as described in our earlier feature article Making Sense of Emerging Church. The church emerges gradually in an appropriate contextual way for the community concerned. It’s not a case of engaging with the elderly through these programmes and then inviting them to inherited mode church, but rather allowing church to arise out of the authentic relationships and community activities that grow and develop.