Six ways your church can help older people stay connected

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Millions of older people in the UK, the US and other countries are not internet users – and it's becoming harder for them to access basic services.

Everything from shopping to parking, banking and keeping in touch is becoming more difficult for anyone who is not online.

Is the Church part of the solution, helping older people to feel welcome and included? Or are we part of the problem as increasingly churches are going online with their communications, ministry and even ways of giving?

It's a subject that's been troubling me for some while, based on the conversations I've had with many older people in my area. And I'm not alone.

The British charity Age UK has launched an 'Offline and Overlooked' campaign calling for all public services – including health services, local councils and other bodies – to be legally required to offer and promote an offline way of reaching and using their services.

They say, "Public services are rapidly 'going digital'. It's becoming harder – and in some cases impossible – to access day-to-day necessities such as banking, making health appointments or even just paying for car parking.

"Older people who aren't or choose not to be online are being locked out of essential services. It's discrimination - plain and simple. And it poses real risks to people's health, wellbeing, finances and ability to participate fully in our society."

Age UK point out that many people prefer to handle their finances, their bills or their health matters in person or over the phone. They add, "No one should feel forced to perform important tasks online if they don't feel comfortable."

But what about the Church?

Debbie Thrower, founder and pioneer of the UK's Anna Chaplaincy movement that provides spiritual support to older people, told me: "Many churches are involved in ministry to older people in a range of ways, from drop-ins to lunch clubs and much more.

"But some have a 'blind spot' when it comes to their communications and ministry to older people. Many churches have moved their communications online, without thinking of those who are 'left behind' and feel thoroughly left out when this happens."

Working with experienced church consultant John Truscott, who has been advising denominations and churches for more than 40 years, I have drafted six ways churches can help older people – and others who do not use smartphones or go online – to feel included in our congregations:

1. Always provide a phone alternative for people who want to enquire about a church service or activity but have no internet access. A weblink or QR code is no use to anyone who is not online or would struggle to use or read a smartphone.

2. Keep cash as an alternative way of giving. Some people still prefer to use cash or cheques, and cannot give via credit transfer, an app or a credit card. Ensure their donations are as welcome as any others.

3. Have hard copies available of any communications put out via email. These include letters from the leadership, annual reports and papers for committee meetings.

4. Remember that some people who may have a smartphone do not understand software like ChurchSuite or WhatsApp or are unable to print documents. Many older people find reading documents on any screen large or small to be difficult – and this can include worship songs during services.

5. Ensure prayer chains, or similar networks that operate via email, also include some form of telephone network so those who are not online can take part.

6. Seek out a friendly 'techie' person who is patient with older people and good at explaining things to offer to help anyone struggling with a smartphone or laptop.

It's also worth remembering that some people cannot afford a smartphone or computer of any kind but may not want to say so. And others do not have a smartphone or web access on principle.

In recent research with an online forum of church communicators, I heard how some churches make their complete services available in print form, including their talks or sermons. That may be a step too far for many churches but shows how some ministers are seeking to keep their older members in touch.

As churches seek to encourage more younger people to join their congregations – and, in the UK, the Church of England has declared 'growing younger' to be among its key priorities – let's also remember older people and how we can make them feel more welcome and included.

Rev Peter Crumpler is a Church of England minister in St Albans, Herts, UK, and a former communications director with the CofE.