Being invisible isn’t all it’s perceived to be
When I was young I thought it would be great to be invisible. I would be able to listen in on friend’s conversations, take an early peek at the exam papers and watch where my parents hid the Christmas presents. I realise now being invisible is isolating. If no-one can see you, where does that leave you?
Seeing the invisible
In 2008 a national event set in motion the beginning of what today has become 'The Pearl Principle'. As Director of Evangelism and Community Outreach, and as part of the leadership team of Zion Christian Centre in Halesowen, I organised a number of events and new initiatives throughout Hope08. One of these was a ‘Holiday at Home’ for Senior Citizens geared primarily at reaching those in the local community that would not normally attend church. I ‘hoped’ for 60 people, we had 124! It was a defining moment for me, my eyes were opened to an ‘invisible’ generation that few seem interested in reaching. As a former youth evangelist for Youth for Christ it was an illuminating moment for me in a whole different way as well…I learnt quickly that people over 60 don’t need a programme as fast, fanciful and frenetic as a 16 year old would! I am sure some of them are probably still recovering!
From that week on, God began growing in me a burning desire to reach this ‘invisible’ generation before it’s too late, and here I am today aiming through The Pearl Principle, to bring those in later life into the light.
The Pearl Principle in focus
The Pearl Principle is purposed on supporting churches; to reach people in the ‘senior’ years of life, to resource leaders and congregations to equip and release effective ministry to older people, and to help redefine expectations and perceptions of later life.
Why ‘The Pearl Principle’:
In a New Testament parable, Jesus compared the ‘Kingdom of Heaven to a ‘pearl of great price’ (Matthew 13:45-46) "Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking fine pearls: Who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it."
The Good News of Jesus and the ‘abundant life’ he brings is not just for the young and the middle-aged. Surely if the Gospel is not for all, it’s no gospel at all.
In marine biology a pearl is something of great value and which is cultivated over a number of years, overcoming challenges and becoming something beautiful as result.
The Pearl Principle is that the Kingdom of God is for all, but is focussed on those in the ‘pearl’ years of their lives, and investing to see these precious people, whom Jesus paid a high price for, rescued.
I turned 50 this year, which entitles me to join the Saga mailing list it seems, Over 50’s clubs and apparently obtain cheaper car insurance. At this milestone I am conscious I want to invest the remainder of my life into something critical not comfortable. We face a global crisis worldwide as people live longer and the over 65’s demographic grows rapidly. By 2050 it is projected that over a quarter (26%) of the UK population will aged 65 years & over*. The equivalent of approx. 19.5 million people. With budget cuts and community fragmentation it is estimated that currently of the 11 million people over 65 in the UK, 5 million say TV is their main form of company, 28,000 die of cold every year, 500,000 spend Christmas Day alone and 1.6 million live beneath the poverty line.
Is the church also invisible?
So how is the church responding to this need? The majority of church investment seems to be into children’s work, youth work and adult ministry. It’s rare you see an advert in a Christian publication for a ‘seniors minister’ amongst the abundant children’s and youth workers ads. I wonder if the church has a blind spot when it comes to the aged. Or sees purely the problems rather than the potential.
I am well aware of the statistic, and the subsequent argument, that most people come to faith in their child/teenage years and so church resources should therefore be directed to these age groups. (To look at it another way – perhaps the percentage is higher as a result of all the investment historically?) No, I know it’s not that simple, and as a previous youth worker for 20 years I’m into evangelism whatever the age, but the fact remains little resourcing is given to the elderly. With the growing elderly population, and with time running out for them, the church needs to re look at what it is investing into reaching older people who have yet to come to faith. Otherwise the church is effectively saying ‘we only care if you are ‘lost’ if you are under 60 years of age’. That is not the church that Jesus Christ founded.
Those in their later years can easily become under-valued, over-looked and neglected as much in the church as in today’s culture. A life without church is one thing, and eternity without Christ is unthinkable. I want to motivate the church, to challenge the apparent salvation ‘ageism’, to inspire others to see life in the later years, whilst providing a voice for older people and a way forward for churches to engage with this expanding people group. To become visible and viable.
The Pearl Plan:
Reaching People. Resourcing Churches. Redefining Perceptions. Primarily I want to see non-Christian older people ‘Reached’ with the Good News of Jesus Christ, discipled and released into appropriate service. Churches, and the elderly themselves, need resourcing. The harvest is substantial, the workers are scarce. This challenge needs communicating, and leaders and congregations inspired and equipped to respond. Finally I am keen to see perceptions redefined. Perception is powerful; a perception is someone’s reality. Change the perception, change the reality. There is no doubt there are challenges, older people can be plagued with health problems, sometimes gripped by fear, loneliness and lacking in confidence and may have limited mobility, finances and technological adeptness. However the potential is enormous; it’s a massive pond to ‘fish’ in, the current older generation have an inherited Christian framework to their lives, they have a greater trust in institutions & the Church, greater time availability & flexibility and are acutely aware of the passage of time and the fragility of life. And if we don’t reach them now, there is no-one else, and it will be too late. And to help churches harness that potential I hope to provide speaking engagements, consultancy work, training, sign-posting, networking, resources etc. although some of these are in the early planning stages at present.
Let’s be the Church not the Crowd
A story is told of a team of new police recruits attending their first day of training. A Senior Training Officer describes a challenge scenario of simultaneous events involving; an elderly lady asking for directions, a Sales Assistant chasing some thieves, a 3 car collision in the street, and a child crying from an open window of a blazing building. The Training Officer pauses and asks; “In that situation what would you do?” There was silence. Then one recruit said “Remove my uniform and merge with the crowd sir”. When it comes to the challenges of the elderly, I wonder if as the church we are in danger of responding in exactly the same way. May it not be so on our watch.
Janet Whitehead is setting up the 'Pearl Principle' which is a resource helping churches reach and retain older people. Janet worked for Zion Christian Centre, Halesowen as the Director of Evangelism & Community Outreach. Previous to this, she operated as a national evangelist with Youth for Christ.
*Source: Office for National Statistics http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/index.html
**Selected statistics from Independent Age