Ten steps to community outreach with seniors through sport and wellbeing

Keith Mcintosh (pictured below right) from St Andrew’s church, in Leyland, Lancashire, has been involved in sports ministry for 35 years, including a county-wide initiative launched several years ago in the Diocese of Blackburn called ‘Ministry of Sport’. Since then, Keith has launched several local community outreach projects and has also offered sports chaplaincy in various contexts.

He has a particular passion for creating opportunities to bring together faith, wellbeing, fitness and friendship among older people. He believes there is a massive need for activities to keep older people occupied, alive and well, fit and happy. 

Popular sports like badminton, table tennis, carpet bowls, walking football and stretching classes can be offered through churches as a means of community outreach, to positively affect the wellbeing of local older people and to share the gospel with them too.

Here, Keith offers a ten-step guide to setting up a wellbeing community outreach project for seniors.

  1. Listen to God - notice and talk about what’s on your heart. If you have a personal passion for the wellbeing of seniors, for pastoral care, your first step will be to find 2-4 people with a similar passion, so you can pray together and articulate a vision together, and what you are going to do about it, together.
  2. Don’t forget what’s already there. In your community, you might already have some ready-made groups offering company/support for older people. They may or may not be sport related, but they may be groups which could be enhanced by a sport/wellbeing element, for example by inviting them to meet in your church and stay on for some activity, like an exercise class or walking football. Welcoming groups into your patch, under your roof, brings them a little closer to the family of God.
  3. Sort out the prep and paperwork. When your vision is clear, plan and prepare; make sure you have all your legal admin in place, insurance, public liability etc. Church leadership and diocesan offices can often be a big help with all this, and it needn’t be too onerous. It’s worth doing properly because it gives the whole thing credibility and the proper foundation for security and safety. People will come along if they see it’s well-run.
  4. You may need specialist training for specialist groups. When you open the doors, you’re never quite sure where people are going to be at, medically, practically, spiritually, mentally. A confidential medical declaration form can help you find out some of this, but you may need to tailor things to accommodate some needs. You can even set up an additional group especially for older people with common neurological conditions, such as dementia or Parkinson’s Disease for example. A few of you will need some specialist training beforehand to prepare you. There are two key groups I can commend to help: 
    1. The Alzheimer’s Society. They offer excellent training to help group leaders adopt a dementia-friendly ethos. 
    2. Ambassadors Football. This group is fantastic for setting up Walking Football – an excellent, gentle activity for older people which can be used for rehabilitation as well as getting fitter.
  5. Use your church building, if you can. The senior generation (55+) will most likely have had more connection with church throughout their life than perhaps younger generations, so for older people in particular, being invited into a church building is a great opportunity to bring back memories – perhaps reconnect with their childhood and the big moments of their lives. Participation in your group will be a moment for them to make new memories, so make sure they are good ones! Every church building has its own ambience, but they all feel special because God is there, the whole building speaks of God through its history, art, windows and literature, so they will hopefully see that it is a special place. Don’t worry if you simply can’t use the building – you will be able to connect the group into church in other ways, (more on this in point 10 below).
  6. Gather supporters from within and get going. Identify people within the church first of all who would come along and support it, to get it off the ground as it were.
  7. Advertise your first event locally in lots of places. Use posters around the community in libraries, doctors’ surgeries, pharmacists, newsagents, community noticeboards, (see Keith’s example here). Use community hubs on social media too, particularly Facebook. Get your plans keyed in to social services and Age Concern too, so they can refer people to you, if appropriate.
  8. Always meet and greet. From day one, notice and speak to every person who comes through the door. Get to know people’s names and use them. Never underestimate the value of talking to people and showing an interest in them. Many people come simply for the friendship and the company. Introduce a few participants to each other.
  9. Encourage your church members to engage – having people from your church around to talk to and welcome people isn’t just good for the participants - it’s a way of sharing faith and growing as a disciple. Friendships just develop naturally and friends talk about the things that are important to them. If Jesus is important to you, you’ll want to talk about him and there’s obvious value in that for everyone.
  10. Keep inviting your group to different church events. Invitations can be ongoing all year round. From concerts to quiz nights, there will be something appropriate you can invite older people to. Again, by taking part in church-run activities, the sense of belonging to the church family grows.  Wherever they join in with something done by the church, at some point along the way, they’ll hear the gospel. It doesn’t matter if that’s over a chip butty and a pint – they still hear it.

For more about sports ministry at St Andrew’s, see the website.

If you’d like to contact Keith for advice about setting up a sports group for seniors, he’d be happy to help. He can be contacted at keith.macintosh1@gmail.com.

Keith also commends The Christian in Sport Mission Pack, a great resource for local church outreach initiatives.