I absolutely love the discussion and questions that come to and from the Church Answers community. Almost every five minutes during the day, a new question is asked in our community. I could spend hours each day reading the information and interacting with the nearly 2,000 church leaders at Church Answers.
Recently, Matt McCraw, a Florida pastor, posed a simple question to the community: How old is your church? I emulated him and posed the same question on social media. When we tallied all the responses, we learned that the average age of the churches was 92 years old, and the median age was 67 years old.
That led me to recall the thousands of churches we have served through Church Answers. I wondered if I could find any patterns in the churches according to their age. To be clear, we are talking about the number of years since the church was founded, not the ages of the members.
Here are some of our observations.
- Facilities: Older churches tend to have more deferred maintenance on their buildings. And they tend to use less of the square footage than younger churches.
- Finances: In the recent past, older churches were more stable financially. I cannot say unequivocally that reality is true today. I see more churches of all ages have struggles. Likewise, I see churches of all ages doing well financially. Anecdotally, there does not seem to be a correlation between the age of the church and the financial health of the church.
- Decision making: The youngest churches, typically those 15 years and younger, tend to have a nimbler decision-making process. Many older churches can take a long time to make a significant decision.
- Worship style: As expected, the younger the church, the more likely the worship style moved toward contemporary. Of course, it’s difficult to define precisely the definitions of “contemporary,” “traditional,” and “blended.”
- Evangelistic outreach. Sadly, I see poor evangelistic health in most churches regardless of age. The Great Commission has become the Great Omission.
- Denominational loyalty. As a rule, denominational loyalty is greater in older churches compared to younger churches. But we see denominational loyalty waning at churches of all ages. Of course, many churches do not have denominational ties at all.
- Small groups. There tends to be a higher percentage of members participating in small groups (community groups, home groups, Sunday school classes, life groups, etc.) in older churches. Those churches that have on-campus Sunday school classes that flow to or from a worship service have the highest small group participation.
To be clear, these factors are generalizations. There are obviously exceptions at churches of various ages. I would love to hear from you. How old is your church? Do the generalizations I noted match your church? What are some other categories beyond the seven I wrote above?
Let me hear from you.
Posted on June 6, 2022
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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I can corroborate these statements. There are some interesting issues that aren’t captured above. Those have to do with a “sense of urgency” and the cyclic nature of Parish/Congregational life. Because the institutional memory is nearly 400 years long, time has a distorted value. In our history, an event from 2002 “just happened” and in the grand scheme of the Parish, that is true.
Likewise, the membership and attendance has fluctuated over the life of the Parish, sometimes as low as 4 or 5 and as high as ~85 (in modern times). It was much higher in the 1700s but church was mandatory (punishable by fines or lashes if a person missed church). So there is a collective memory of ebb and flow.
This really causes issues with decision making and Evangelism – beyond the denominational impacts on both of those things.
But, I wouldn’t trade this call for the world.
I had to chuckle at your comment about worship style. I was talking about this issue with a younger fellow some years ago, and I admitted that “contemporary” is a relative term. As I told him, I can remember when “Because He Lives” was fairly contemporary.!
There are three factors in looking at the age of a Church. The first is the age of the building : In the U.K. and France, this can be anything between 1000 years and last week. Secondly, the age of the community making use of it and thirdly the average age of that community. The Churches for which I have had responsibility as Property Steward over about 40 years were built in 1836 and about 1550. Facilities do need to be kept up to date and effective maintenance done. If roof maintenance is not carried out regularly, you are bequeathing a problem to your successors maybe 30 or 40 years down the line. Heating systems need to kept up to date or they can eat money. Comfort is an increasing consideration as are access and facilities for the disabled. Discomfort and poor facilities are a “put-off” for potential members and, with a natural increase in elderly members, they can be shut out by access difficulties and lack of a disabled toilet. There also considerations around autistic people and those with dementia as well as deafness and sight difficulties. No use going exclusively to on-screen songs if you have members with poor sight. You also must ensure that the words on the screen and in the books match! Thought also needs to be given to the house bound members – worship via Zoom has become more common especially since COVID struck. Old dogs can learn new tricks! This can keep such distanced members onboard as well as keeping them feeling still part of the community.
The era in which the denomination was created is a factor. Older established tend to be more conservative in their worship style and the character may not change significantly even with a new denomination formed by the union of two or more older ones. This can be very frustrating for younger people in particular. The more recently created denominations are less likely to have this problem although worship bands can prove excruciatingly loud. My wife and I have been driven out of services by the pain of excessively loud music. I actually have tinnitus (as do about 7% of the population) as well as hyperacusis. Problems can also arise due to audio system particularly with an ill trained preacher who misuses the microphone, especially if he sings very loudly, off-key and will not mute or move away from the microphone. There can also be problems due to an excessively resonant building, with hard walls. Both the number of people present and upholstered chairs as well as curtains or other hangings can help to control this.
Finally, the average of the membership is a factor. A very elderly congregation will run out of people to fill the essential posts, is likely to have more conservative attitudes and is unlikely to attract younger people. The church where I am currently a member is very much in this position. The building dates from about 1813 and now has a major roof problem due to very severe weather. We joined and have remained as it is a lovely, caring community that actually does much more in it’s community than it’s membership numbers would suggest. From the 35 or so members when we joined, it is now down to 7 with only one under 70. Member’s children moved away from the village and there is a large, modern, very active Baptist church not far away so younger people have been captured by them. That, too, is a very caring and active community. Denominational financial demands have risen sharply and it is no longer financially viable even with sacrificial giving. We have taken the decision to close in August, sad but inevitable, and members will scatter as only two actually live in the village now. A witness lasting 255 years will then end. There are concerns about the building for the interior is substantially original and a good example of non-conformist churches of that period. There is also an active graveyard.
“Those churches that have on-campus Sunday school classes that flow to or from a worship service have the highest small group participation.”
This is a really interesting observation. Any chance of unpacking it some more in the future? Our family had a debate about what could link these two facts over the breakfast table and whilst several theories were discussed we needed more data!
I found the average age of the congregation question interesting. It is younger than I would have thought, but that can largely be dependent upon geography. For example, the further north and east the trend is to see congregations in the hundred to two hundred and category. In my case, Emanuel Lutheran Church in Elmer, New Jersey will be celebrating its 300th anniversary in 2026, for which we are already preparing.
Good points, Mark.
Our church is 3 months old. We only have a Sunday school block which hosts the adult church.
We’re in a semi-urban centre in Kenya
Children are more the the adults
Great to hear from you, Wairimu. I love our Kenyan connections.
In 2019 I became involved in one of the older churches in my community, a downtown church with a campus containing several buildings that connect to each other and which were constructed at different times and two detached buildings, properties near the connected buildings which the church purchased at different times. One is used for the church’s food distribution ministry; part of the other is rented out while part of it is used for storage. All of the older buildings are in various stages of deterioration (e.g., roof leaks, collapsing floors, etc.) and require maintenance and repair. What I have noticed in much space is not used wisely or efficiently and in some instances is used for storing items which the church does not know how to dispose of. And yes, the church has a parlor which to my knowledge is never used! The traditional design of the church’s sanctuary limits its usefulness–rows of pews, a platform with two pulpits, an organ, ranges of altar pipes, choir stalls facing each other, and a “altar” in a recess in the back wall of the sanctuary. The church has two Sunday moring services–one I would described as “blended-worship” (albeit “new traditional” might be a better description at times and “contemporary” at times) and the other more “traditional,” based upon the kind of music used and the use of extemporaneous prayer in the first service and composed prayer in the second service. The church has several Sunday school classes which meet on Sunday mornings. I would not describe them as small groups. I have been involved in small group ministry since the 1990s and these classes are too large for a small group. They are primarily instructional in nature and lack small group dynamics. Each class has staked a claim to a particular space in one of the church buildings. From what I have observed, they do not appear to be open groups. They do not actively recruit new members and during the time I have been involved in this church, no new classes have been formed. The church has no what I would consider small groups (12 people or less, ideally less 7 or less) meeting on Sunday evenings, weekdays, or off-campus. The church’s decision-making process is cumbersome and I have observed some degree of siloing between the different bodies and groups which must be consulted in that process. The decision-making process keeps the church from being as nimble as might be. The turning of an aircraft carrier comes to mind. While the church has a food distribution ministry, is involved in various ways in the community food bank, providing funding, volunteers, and food donations; and operates a community kitchen which serves a weekly meal to needy families and individuals, the church has know organized evangelistic outreach. Right now the denomination with which the church is affiliated is involved in the early stages of a denominational split over human sexuality. Several churches in the judicatory have already voted to sever their ties with the denomination. COVID-19 has taken a toll on church attendance. There is a strong temptation to put maintenance before mission, to hang on to what we have got rather than risk reaching and engaging new people. My previous church disbanded because it had shrunk to a handful of people, the principal reason being that it had in its fifteen years of existence established negligible connections with its community. My present church needs a fresh vision–how we hope to be in five years, ten years, and how we are going to achieve it. The church does have a website and Facebook page and livestreams its services and records them for later viewing. It also airs them on cable TV. But I believe that it could make better use of the internet from what I have observed. I have acted as a mystery visitor in the past and I have identified a number of problems that might keep a first time guest from not returning. Church members do not notice these problems because they are familiar with the buildings. They know where there are restrooms, where there is coffee, and so on. There is also a lot of stairs and limited accessibility for people with an ambulatory disability. The connected buildings are a maze. I have spent several hours exploring them and I still have not familiarized myself with them.
Fascinating and challenging information. Thanks for sharing, Robin.
Our church was founded in 1692. 330 years old. We have small groups, a form of contemporary worship at one of our services, and we are fairly stable as a church. We have an older age range, but we are in a retirement community near the beach.
I will be surprised if anyone who comments is in an older church than yours!
Thom, our church was founded in 1642 in Nansemond County (now the City of Suffolk) Virginia. Our Sanctuary isn’t that old, it was completed in 1755. In my 12 years as pastor I have learned more about clay bricks, lime mortar, porosity, and the adverse impacts of dissimilar bricks and mortar than I ever imagined existed.
Wow! What an incredibly historic church! And what a great lesson in brickology.
Thom, ironically, we are not the oldest church in our city or area. One of our sister churches, that was founded at the same time by English Law, has a sanctuary that was completed in 1738. The oldest Church in the United States is just over the river – founded in 1610. They aren’t on their original location but they have been an ongoing Parish the entire time. Interestingly, the city jail is right next door to the Church.
Greg, where is your church located?
The church that I serve is 202 years old. However, we meet in a building that was constructed in 2005. We have theater seating for 400 but our attendance is between 65 and 80. We utilize our gym for Upward Basketball which we have done for 6 years. We did not have Upward early in 2020 during the beginning time of Covid. We have Sunday school for all ages but we are struggling to get children and their families on Sunday morning. Upward has not produced one family that has begun attending the church because of this ministry. We are in the process of talking to the Unstuck Group and are considering hiring them to consult with us about needed changes in how we do church. It is quite possible that we will no longer be in existence in 5 to 10 years. There are aspects of our church life that need to change.
Thank you for sharing this information, William. My prayers as you seek God’s solution for your church.
We gave up Sunday morning Sunday school as a dinosaur that we were struggling to keep alive yet in your final point about small groups you seem to be suggesting that the churches that have maintained the tradition of a “Sunday School hour” or whatever they might call it now have better, stronger participation in small groups? Please elaborate! I would try almost anything to see small group participation increase in our local church. I know that we can do better outreach and education that way rather than rely so heavily on the Sunday morning teaching time and a couple of Zoom Bible studies going on and one in house. We are a small assembly moving forward after COVID but connection was hard and is now getting more difficult as life picks up speed again in Canada. Is an upgrade/updated version of an old practice part of the way forward?
I can offer a descriptive response more than a prescriptive response. In churches we consult, the percentage of small group participation (we use the ratio of small group average attendance as a percent average worship attendance) is higher in churches that have on-campus small groups that flow into or out of worship services. They may or may not be called Sunday school.
If the average and median ages of those in the Church Answers family are 92 & 67, that suggests that a disproportionate number of older churches seek out the CA collaoboration compared to younger churches. If that is the case, and I don’t really know if it is, then we might be missing out on the ideas, creativity and wisdom of the younger churches. What do you think, Thom?
The informal survey was not only done within the Church Answers community, but it was also broadly disseminated on social media. As for churches that seek resources and help from Church Answers, we tend to hear from a broad spectrum of churches, young and old.
As regards the intersection of ministry and purpose: my sense is that older churches are more likely to have established ministry activity or spaces for which there is no discernible or surviving purpose and younger churches, more likely to have clear purposes or objectives for which they have no ministry activity or assigned resources (yet?).
Good points, Ron. Thanks.