Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Problem-finding mission

I've been spending some of this awful weather hibernating over the computer. Surprise, surprise. But every now and then I hit on something that starts me thinking - perhaps also a surprise - and that happened today. I was reading a post by a former pupil (I just throw that in) about his work in his church circles - a post that was in turn inspired by a TEDx talk given by one Ewan McIntosh. So far, so incestuous, you may think. But bear with me.

The talk suggests new ways of engaging with young people by asking them to find problems as opposed to solving problems made up for them by their teacher. (You'll remember, I'm sure, problems about how long it takes a man with a shovel to fill up a hole opposed to how long it takes four men who take a teabreak ...) Stewart's post talks about what church tells young people, instead of providing the wisdom to answer the questions they ask out of their own interests. But what if you work within a church that seems lacking in young people? What if you live in an area where the majority of young people leave at age 17 and don't return? Much of Scotland is like this - do you anguish over how to attract young teens, spend your emotional and physical energy on it, change the whole focus of your church, only to have the  school leavers disappear just as they become involved?

I'm not saying no to any of this, actually. Just asking. But in my diocesan travels I meet people of my own age and older who despair of their congregation's future because "we're all so old... we'll never attract young people". And in a way I think they're right - because we're presenting them with a ready-made expectation that they will somehow find themselves throbbing with youthful vitality and guitar music if they want to survive. What if we ask the people in our churches what they'd really like to see happen? What if we begin from the place where we recognise that in fact the new faces that occasionally turn up belong to people who are reaching the age when suddenly religion seems to matter more? That because we live in a semi-rural or even a remote area, the chances are that our new people are going to be retiring or downsizing or escaping from the stress of urban living - or are going to be the parents of babies who maybe need a respite from that particular stress (my own route into parish involvement all these years ago)?

The fact is that today we're in the middle of a strike brought on by threats to pensions - pensions that are having to stretch for many more years than in the past as people like me inconveniently refuse to shuffle off this mortal coil a couple of years after we stop earning. You can often bank on a good 20 years of useful life out of your average 50-something - and that useful life at a point where most people would confess to at least a flicker of timor mortis. Taking that as a starting point, what about setting out to engage with the problems and interests of that particular demographic? Instead of worrying a despairing bunch of elderly women - sadly, there are always more of them around - about how to fill their church with yoof, why not ask them to think of the problems that they really do understand - and then find the solutions for them?

And let's, whatever we do, let's help them all to discover how lively and unthreatening communication technology is. Let's take our tools of mission, the ones some of us no longer find any more remarkable than the telephone, and demonstrate how they can help the lonely, the bored, the housebound - how they can bring them together, share prayers and music and photos and chat and serious discussion and calls for help. And then they too could share ideas from TEDx talks ...


  1. Christine, I so agree with this, even though I'm looking at it from the perspective of church life in rural Wales, rather than rural Scotland. You've given me a lot to think about.

  2. If you ask questions you might get answers..... ;)

    You're right that "we're so old" is a self-fulfilling attitude, but that can be countered. We who are not yet 73 are not so cheap as to only associate with our own age-bracket - I, for one, happily socialise with folks older than me in church - indeed, if similarity of age is the only reason why I should meet people, I won't! (so "20s + 30s" groups are right out).

    If there's an answer, it must involve how we handle change, which is personified in younger generations. When sharing my thoughts (however bizarre) is met with an open (if wiser) smile from on high, I'm happy; when I sense things are ticking over such that I might see a new vestment presented one year or a new instrument or player join the music "team" or I watch the vestry membership rotate, I'm happy; when I see resistance to change I call it a strategy that will fail evolution and walk away (fast).

  3. I've found that when you give anyone, no matter what age, the chance to talk about THEIR questions they engage enthusiastically.

    They also often say that they have never had the chance to do it before.

    Mission can't ever be only about attracting children and young people to church (and I'm children & youth development officer for a denomination!). Mission has to be about engaging with our communities.

    I wonder how many churches made tea and coffee for people on picket lines yesterday? Or for the police who were posted to supervise them? I wonder how many churches are engaging with those hit hardest by the economic situation? These could be the old, the young or anyone inbetween.

    These are just some of our 'problems'. These are problems which our older people have experience of and insight on.

    I like the idea of a problem-finding church. It sounds like a church of the beatitudes.