“No church in Britain is specifically seeking to reach the retired and active generation.” That’s the conviction of Church Army captain Chris Harrington, who has recently written about the issue.
As Harrington highlights, when churches reach out to older people the focus is almost always on those born before the last World War. They do so by running everything from a Holiday at Home to a regular drop-in coffee morning or visiting those in residential care or nursing homes.
All good stuff. But it doesn’t touch those of a very different generation who are also no longer working fulltime, often dubbed the Saga Generation. Those brought up on Elvis rather than Doris Day. Who jived rather than quick-stepped. Who wore denim – and still do! Who by no means regard themselves as ‘old’.
Some of the ways they are distinctly different from their older counterparts:
- They were the first ‘teenagers’ and have lived through the free-thinking era of the new pop-culture.
- They do not trust governments, multinationals, institutions or authority figures.
- They dislike being patronised, dictated to or treated condescendingly.
- They demand honesty, consistency, reliability, quality, value for money and good service.
What’s more, this segment of our society represents a huge sector of the population.
Official figures point to there being approaching 9 million people in the active retirement band, aged between 65 and 79. That’s almost three times as many as those in the ‘old-old’ band of 80 and above.
What an opportunity there is for churches to treat this Baby Boomer age-group in the same way they do other age and interest groups – with events, services and programmes crafted for them. Maybe not every week. But sometimes. Or, at least, to run small groups and events that can embrace un-churched, actively retired people.
Could it happen? Is it happening?
The Church of England’s report Mission Shaped Church (2004) encouraged fresh expressions of church for the vast numbers who are either un-churched or de-churched. Now, Chris Harrington, in his Grove booklet Reaching the Saga Generation, along with others, are exploring what that could mean for what he calls Saga Church – those who’ve reached retirement age with years of opportunity ahead of them.
Harrington offers a helpful check list for churches to keep in mind:
- De-emphasise membership – Boomers are not ‘joiners’ but will attend for the experience.
- Accommodate their desire for experiences – Boomers are not passive ‘you talk and I’ll listen’ people.
- Emphasis ‘how to’ messages – Boomers are interested in what works and how to make it work for them.
- Recognise the need for equality in leadership, authority and responsibility – Boomers resist hierarchy.
- Accept and celebrate the contribution of singles – there’s likely to be a greater percentage of them than any other adult segment of your community.
- Respond to the relatively high level of dysfunctionality and emotional pain – there may be smiles on the outside but also a lot of pain and struggle behind the masks.
- Give prominence to innovation, diversity and options – Boomers resist one-size-fits-all approaches.
- Encourage discussion and not dogma – they want to be spoken with and listened to, not talked at.
What could be done?
In his book Chris has helpful examples of what events might be like. It also stresses there are other ways – and possibly better ways – than church services to engage with un-churched afterworkers. These include –
- A ‘seeker service’ a la Willow Creek – with everything focused on the needs and interests of the visitor.
- A film and faith group – using a current film as a spring board for conversation.
- A book club – based on secular novels with spiritual themes.
- Rambling groups, retreats and pilgrimages – with moments for reflection.
How come this isn’t happening already? My sense is we’ve sleepwalked into this situation. This new ‘actively retired’ group has gradually emerged as a new phenomenon. The travel industry spotted it – and now caters for 25 million people on cruises world-wide each year.
But now is the time – a time well overdue – for the churches to wake up too.
Peter Meadows is the Programme Director of AfterWorkNet, where this blog first appeared. He’s using his retirement to help churches, resource inter-church initiatives, enjoy his eight grandchildren, escape to Spain and spend his kids’ inheritance.
For more articles on mission, see the latest evangelism-themed issue of Premier Christianity magazine.
Premier Christianity is committed to publishing a variety of opinion pieces from across the UK Church. The views expressed on our blog do not necessarily represent those of the publisher.