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Evangelism and dementia

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Posted by Isaac Pain, 3 Oct 2019

Isaac Pain reflects on his experiences of ministering in care homes and our approach to evangelism amongst those suffering from dementia.

This week I took a Harvest services in one of the care homes we minister in. I love these opportunities to take the gospel into care homes. To the outside world they won’t look very glitzy or glamorous occasions, but, to those with eyes to see, they are opportunities to live out the topsy-turvy gospel where it’s the last who will be first, the weak who are strong, the poor who are rich, the foolish who are wise, and where quiet, humble, secret service is what brings God glory.

In total we minister in six care homes, and each one has a number of residents with dementia. A quick google search tells me that approximately 800,000 people in the UK are formally diagnosed with dementia, that 1 in 20 people over the age of 60 will get dementia, and 1 in 6 over the age of 80.

I imagine I’m not the only one who has had that heart-warming experience where a traditional hymn, a memorable bible verse, and the Lord’s Prayer said in its traditional form has brought otherwise distant eyes into focus and transformed a closed mouth into one that mouths along with once familiar words. Jesus promised his disciples in John 10:28 that, “no-one will snatch them out of my hand.” And even the ravages of dementia will not prise open Jesus’ hands that grasp those whom have been entrusted to him by his Father.

But what about those with dementia who don’t yet know Christ? Do we have any hope for them? We know that Christ is stronger than death, but is he stronger than loss of memory and mind? What would conversion, baptism, and discipleship even look like for someone who can’t even recognise their spouse?

We rightly emphasize the need for a personal response to the gospel call. But what would a personal response look like in this case? I don’t know. But neither am I that worried about it.

In Mark 4:26-29 Jesus tells the parable of the seed that grows beyond the farmer’s understanding; it grows secretly: “Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain – first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head.” R. T. France comments: “At first there may be little to show for the sowing of seed, and a sceptical observer might think nothing was happening. But there is an inner dynamic in that message which will in due time produce its effect, even if human insight cannot fathom how the process works. In the meantime, the wise disciple will wait in confidence for God’s work to be accomplished in God’s way.”

How did Luther put it? “I simply preached God’s Word: otherwise I did nothing. And then, while I slept or drank Wittenberg beer with Philip and Amsdorf the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that never a prince or emperor did such damage to it. I did nothing: the Word did it all.”

What then of means? Of course, God uses means. There’re biblical examples aplenty of persuasion, rhetoric, argumentation, apologetics, and reasoning. But, and this is key, there are times when we will be blind to both the means and the fruit, times when we will not fathom how the process works. Put simply: we may never know that Margery or Malcolm have been placed into Jesus’ hands. But God is sovereign. He will act. We don’t know whether the Lord has many people in this care home, but we can be certain that if he does they will be saved. Article XVII doesn’t say that God’s sovereign action is, “full of sweet, pleasant, and unspeakable comfort” for no reason.

So, yes, plunder the Egyptians for all you can on communicating and ministering to those with dementia: use traditional language, use short and familiar bible verses, use pictures and props, keep it short and clear, smile lots. Pray lots. But don’t be downcast if you don’t see any fruit, because while it’s true that dementia cannot prise open Jesus’ hands that grasp those whom have been entrusted to him by his Father, it’s also true that Jesus’ will prise open the grip that dementia holds on his chosen ones.

Isaac Pain is curate of St Andrew's Church, Burgess Hill

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