It is one of the top three requests for help we get at Church Answers: “Our church membership continues to get older. What do we do?”
The members and leadership see the handwriting on the wall. One church leader with whom I spoke just two days ago summarized their challenge. Ten years ago the church’s median age of church members was 42. Today it is 74. One-half of the church members are 74 years old and older.
Many of the younger members left for a variety of reasons. They have not been replaced with similar age members. The congregation is getting older rapidly. The leader with whom I spoke said his church would not be able to sustain itself financially within three or four years.
Is there a solution to this challenge? Based upon some great insights from church leaders, I do indeed see how God is working to move the aging church forward. Here are the five most common responses we have gotten at Church Answers:
1. Don’t default to hiring someone to make the church younger. Some aging churches have the financial ability to add staff. And some of those churches think the solution is hiring a family minister, a youth minister, a children’s minister, or some combination of the three. It never works. It is a clear indicator the laity have given up doing the work of ministry and have resorted to “hired hands.” It’s ineffective. Even more, it’s unbiblical.
2. Look to the strengths and the gifts of the older congregants. One pastor with whom I spoke said he gathered together about 25 of the older adults in his church. He asked a simple question: What abilities and gifts do you have to connect with younger people? He was amazed at the results and the energy in the room. That one meeting became a launching point for many efforts by these older adults to reach beyond the walls of the church.
3. Find places where older adults can connect naturally with younger people. One senior adult became involved in an ESL (English as a Second Language) ministry. Another older adult became a math tutor. One senior adult in the church owned three local fast-food restaurants. He became highly intentional about connecting with the teenagers and young adults he hired.
4. Pray for opportunities to reach younger people and families. Another pastor shared his church’s initial success at getting younger. They simply prayed for opportunities to connect with younger people. As they prayed, the opportunities came. As they prayed their eyes opened to those opportunities.
5. Get outside eyes to make your church aware of opportunities. One of the elements I value most in church consultation is the fresh set of eyes it offers. Sometimes, a new perspective can be paradigmatic in moving the church toward reaching more young people. Let us know if we can help by contacting us at [email protected].
Hear me clearly. An older church is not an inferior church. Older Christians have much to offer in both wisdom and experience. But if a church’s membership ages rapidly, the congregation is indeed in danger of losing its effectiveness, and potentially seeing its doors close.
Can an older congregation become younger? Absolutely.
And it’s an incredible story of God’s grace and power when we see it take place.
Posted on April 12, 2021
With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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We are an aged church (i.e. approx. 80% are over 75 years) and four years ago we started to revitalise our dying church . This year we hired a children’s worker to help us reconnect with our neighbourhood which was lost in the cross fire of church division and politics. Our new children worker’s energy and gospel-focus has enabled her to rally many of our older people together who are delighted to share her youth, passion and enthusiasm for the unsaved. In May, we will be starting a playgroup for parents and preschool children.
I would qualify point (1) by saying that hiring to transfer responsibility from the congregation to an employee is not helpful in arresting the mindset which causes church decline, but in our case, where our worker has engaged our people, there has been a ripple of benefit across the congregation.
Your response is so good, Mark. Thank you for that perspective.
I have already done one revitalization project and about to launch into a new one. So this is actually very helpful. Totally on board with the first point – “not hiring a younger person simply to make the church younger.” I know many churches are looking in that direction these days, but younger does not always mean wiser. In fact, part of the strategy is to bring the older generation along with you on the journey – not kill them.
I do believe though that there are other intentional things that can be done in this realm. Such as having younger adults, even older teenagers on stage for the worship service.
I’d like to know what generation you are defining as “older congregants.” There is a huge difference between a church of aging Boomers, who may not have the energy or health for generational ministry suggested here, versus a congregation of Gen X (currently 41-56 years old) looking to go younger. My congregation is more aging Boomers, so we are looking at bringing in a younger staff person, but to plant a new younger church within the church.
I think you’re spot-on with these recommendations. Another one, that is often overlooked, is to also include outreach to unchurched, unsaved adults. Millions of “baby-boomers” don’t attend church at all, and millions of them don’t know Christ. Often, white hair can also represent a field that’s “white unto harvest.” Our churches Senior Adults are the perfect missionaries to an aging group of people who desperately need to know Christ.
I would recommend preaching that includes the problems of today’s world. Too often when the church ages, the sermon remains as it was in 1965 or 1982.
As a church ages and its membership declines, one of the first ministries to disappear is the children’s ministry. If parents with young children do by chance visit the church, they find no nursery, no children’s program, and a service that is not child-friendly. These parents will not return for a second visit. It is widely-recognized that a church grows with its children’s ministry. If the children’s ministry runs out of space, the church either must move to a larger facility or expect to stop growing. For a church to reach parents with young children, it needs a nursery for toddlers and infants, a children’s program for the pre-school and younger school-age children, and a child-friendly service. It does not need to offer a separate children’s service, just make its services more child-friendly. I believe that children should worship with their parents. One of the downsides of children’s services is that children often have difficulty making the transition to worshiping with their parents and other adults when it comes the time to make that transition. It is far better to accustom them to worshiping with adults from an early age (and accustoming adults to worship with them.) I have been involved in making services child-friendly so I know that it can be done. As the saying goes, “where there is a will, there is a way!” Hymns and songs can be picked which have refrains and repetitions in which younger children can join, an easy-to-understand translation of the Bible can be used for Scripture readings, older children can be involved in the service various ways (e.g., taking the collection, offering prayers, performing special music, giving testimony, etc.), a children’s talk can be given , and so on. Videos of the church’s child-friendly services should be regularly featured on the church website and Facebook page. One thing that churches should avoid is a picture gallery of their aging members on their church website. The photos are often of poor quality and resemble police mugshots, showing the head and shoulders of the church members sometimes with the top of their heads cut off. It is much better to post well-edited video clips of highpoints of worship and other church activities, not those that might be of interest to church members but to potential visitors. Make sure to include clips of older people and younger people, including children, mingling with each other, engaging with each other. This will convey to potential guests who visit your church website that your church is a church for all ages. Edit out the boring parts from these clips. Make sure that the videos depict the generations interacting in a positive way.
Another option for an older congregation with a good facility that is either people deficient or in danger of extinction through natural attrition with age as the number one contributing factor for decline is the adoption of a younger, new church. There are numerous church plants that have been forced to exist in rental places and who are financially challenged when it comes to purchasing a adequate facility. By merging a young energetic congregation with a geriatric congregation, you can wind up with the best of both worlds. The biggest challenge may be in the neighborhood of the church, as aging churches often wind up in aging neighborhoods that are faced with a different demographic. Resistance to the new demographic realities typically need to be embraced to avoid the inevitable collapse of the church and the possibility of the facility changing focus when the property is sold. The best way to insure that the church retains its mission regardless of ethnic composition is an orderly transition if this is the situation.
Yes. Adoption is a very good option.
Thanks! Great article!