Community was at the heart of NYNO’s original vision. That which is true spiritually should also be found, falteringly, in our daily human relationships. Our understanding was that the reality of our spiritual union with Christ, and therefore our union with each other, meant that the Church should seek to be a community of mutual service and dependence.
This general ideal for church community had particular consequences when we applied it to our work amongst older people. We had observed that ministry amongst older people followed the patterns of traditional ministry. While such ministry was widely accepted and appreciated, it presented a problem for a future where professional ministry resources will be scarce. In its place, NYNO wanted to encourage the agency and participation of older people in the life of their churches. We wanted to see church communities grow, located in places that were accessible to older people (practically speaking, this meant meeting in communal areas of sheltered accommodation) and whose participants had a diverse age range. At the outset of our project we were anxious to develop relationships between the generations where members of each generation would bring blessings and be served by all the other generations. Each individual would bring different giftings; each individual would have different needs.
We were therefore very aware whenever we heard a member of the younger generations speak about wanting to be involved with a NYNO group and ‘serve’ the older members. On the face of it, this was a noble request. For NYNO this was precisely what we didn’t want. We didn’t want older members to be viewed as primarily the recipients of the ministry of younger people. We wanted younger folk to recognize what they could receive from friendship with older folk before they began to serve. The alternative, it seemed to us, would be the patronization of older people as passive recipients of the good works of younger people. We were also very aware that people who came to us would generally be coming from another church community to which they would already have a loyalty and personal relationships. It is only natural for a NYNO group to have difficulty commanding such loyalty from people. Instead, it becomes a place for service. This is, its way, admirable, but is a genuine hurdle to be overcome if the aim is to develop a new worshipping community.
The result of all of this was that we asked folks wanting to join us to come and be part of the community first, before thinking about what they could do. In doing this, the intention was that folks would appreciate the position of our less physically able members and would develop the real peer relationships that would prevent any future service – which would be needed and natural – becoming one-sided. I’m not sure this worked.
I don’t think we understood how difficult it would be for folks to simply come and develop friendships. Nor, at the moment, do I know what that difficulty was. But, as it has turned out, folks who have come and been encouraged to not immediately serve, have not stuck with the group.
There could be any number of reasons for this happening, including the personal and the clarity with which this vision of church has been consistently explained. There may also be issues with the form of worship we offer not meeting people’s expectations. Even so, the question at least has to be asked whether we have to be more tolerant and patient of people’s expectations that they are engaging with NYNO in order to serve. What this means practically is inviting new folk to come and in offering them a role as a means of finding a foothold in the community.
When NYNO started, when we were a young and vulnerable project only just finding our feet and trying to insist on our alternative approach in the face of the universal expectations surrounding older people’s ministry, perhaps then we were justified on insisting on community first and service second. Perhaps now we can afford to let people find their way in their own time.