Nicolas Stebbing CR considers a field for mission

From time to time people make sneering remarks about the grey-haired people who fill our churches, particularly our country churches and churches in run-down areas. This is unjust and disrespectful to these wonderful people. It is also very short-sighted as it fails to see the really central role this group of people have in the Christian life of our nation.

They keep the churches going. This is really important. If it weren’t for this grey-haired brigade most of the churches in England would now be shut, particularly in the rural areas. Most of England would now be pagan. (It’s worth remembering the Latin meaning of ‘pagan’ was simply a person living in a rural village!) Central authorities are always trying to close these churches as they are a drain on resources and don’t make money. Yet each church with its faithful few is a beacon of light, a lamp set on a lampstand (Matt. 5:15) to keep the light of Christ shining in the potential darkness of rural England.

They are renewable. People seem to imply that because the church is full of grey-haired people these congregations will soon die out. In Russia for decades the communists expected the church to die out because the ‘babushkas’ who came to church would soon die out. They never did! They kept churches open till communism collapsed and Christian life was able to re-appear.

They pray. Yes, they are not just ‘fillers’: people who take up enough space to keep a church open. They pray and their prayer is undoubtedly one of the reasons why Christianity does still do remarkable things in this country. It is not, I fear, the many mission initiatives and officers appointed to ‘grow congregations’ who are providing the thrust for mission. It is people who quietly, unspectacularly pray who do this, though there can be no graphs of statisics to prove it.

They do mission. I am fascinated by the numbers of young men who come to Mirfield College who tell me it was their grannies who brought them to the faith. Their parents were too busy. Grannies taught them to pray, gave them a rosary, took them to Benediction. Again, I fear there are no statistics to show how effective these missionary grannies are, so central church offices will not take them seriously. Do we?

They are the growth area of mission. Mission in today’s church tends to be focused either on the young (‘the church of the future’) or the reasonably well off (we desperately need their money). However, the young are too distracted by social media, social life and other enticements to listen, and the wealthy are too busy making money to give more than the occasional cheque. Recently the Church Times published an article saying that statistics (blessed word!) showed that it was the late middle-aged who were making the biggest come back to church. That is not surprising. Their children have flown the nest; they may have retired; they begin to realise life is more than raising kids and having a career. They are ripe for mission.

The question remains, what should we do with this under-valued group of Christian people? Well first, let’s simply give thanks for them and tell them we are glad they are doing such a wonderful job. Then let’s help them to do the job better.

No doubt that is already happening. Help them to pray; help them to study the faith so that they will be better equipped to share it with others. Help them to focus on their grandchildren and teach them the faith. Here at Mirfield we have a flourishing education centre where scores of the grey-haired brigade come every month, to learn about prayer, Scripture, and the society we live in. These are the people at the coal-face. They are the ones who really encounter the men and women, and even the boys and girls who may be asking the questions that lead them into church. How can we best help them?

Perhaps New Directions could collect stories and information to show how parishes are already helping these women and men to become the great resource they should be. Then others would be encouraged to take the grey-haired brigade seriously and not just think about missionizing the young, important as they are.

Nicolas Stebbing CR