In 2019, almost one in five of the UK population (18%) were aged over 65. This is likely to increase over the next 40 years to one in four. The biggest increases will continue to be in the numbers of the “oldest old” – those who living in the fourth age. It is predicted that the number over 85 will double. The majority of them will have multiple illnesses or disabilities, but Age UK would only class two thirds as ‘frail’.
In churches, the proportion aged 80+ has doubled or even tripled in the last 10 years. Across the denominations, this brings great opportunities for churches – to nurture, develop and value these members, to bring glory and give service for the kingdom of God. The challenge these changes to church memberships bring is to view those in the fourth age as a ‘gift to enjoy, rather than a burden to bear’ (Jewell 2013).
Despite most churches having declining numbers and ageing memberships, very few have specific ministries, leadership or missions involving or among older people. Rohr (2012) suggested that many churches have a ‘first-half-of-life’ culture, where the focus of ministry is on children and families, with the contributions and needs of elders being largely ignored. In particular, there is little focus on those in the fourth age – the ‘forgotten faithful’, who may not be able to attend church services, events or groups; whose spiritual and pastoral needs may go unnoticed or unfulfilled in most churches; who may have enormous amount of knowledge, experience and wisdom but few opportunities to share or use these in ministry or mission.
Ageism in churches often overlooks the pastoral and spiritual needs of older members, lacks sensitivity towards the changing circumstances and social needs of the fourth age and ignores the contributions of the oldest old to church life and work. Albans & Johnson (2013) commented that churches have yet to fully appreciate and engage with the ‘new populations of older people’ Churches need to develop more pastoral ministries, which focus on the spiritual needs of people, to bring together age-groups and counter against the ageism of society today; to enable the church to better recognise the rights of the very old to be heard and valued. Rather than marginalising and disempowering those in the fourth age, the church needs to include these wise elders, recognise their contribution to life and to the fellowship and celebrate their wisdom and understanding.
This is something that Faith in Later Life seeks to address. Sign up to become a Church Champion and have priority access to our resources.
- What is the age-profile of our church membership?
- What leadership, ministry and mission do we have relevant to those in the fourth age?
- How much of our resources goes towards ministry among older people?
- Does our view and strategy for mission and out-reach include mission among older people?
- How does the ministry of our church reach out to meet the pastoral needs of the oldest old?
- How does our church listen to the needs and views of older people?
- How could we better minister to the needs of those in the fourth age?
- What assumptions and prejudices exist regarding the needs and values of older people?
© Professor Keith Brown from ‘Guidance for Christian Faith Organisations in the Support and Value of Older People’.