Our team member, Ryan Burge, wrote a fascinating article about which denominations are graying the most. You can see his article in our premier content at Church Answers on February 1. I continue the theme of the graying of the church today to address how congregations can become younger.
Senior adults are a blessing in most churches. They often offer wisdom, experience, and stability in a congregation. I am not biased against older adults. Heck, I am a senior adult myself.
But there is a rightful concern in many churches today about the relative age composition of active church members. In fact, one of the most frequent consultation requests we receive at Church Answers is “help my church get younger.”
Why Does the Concern Exist?
Should the graying of churches be a concern? Shouldn’t we celebrate any aged person who attends our churches? The answer to both questions is “yes.” Yes, we should celebrate all ages who attend, and yes, we should be concerned if our congregations are getting older.
In fact, it is usually an older pastor or an older layperson who contacts us for help. Here are the realities they say they are facing:
- The church is declining in size because older adults who die or those who are no longer able to attend are not replaced by younger people. In fact, they are not usually replaced at all.
- Older adults are key to the financial support of the church. As they go, so do the funds necessary to carry on ministries and support of the church. Many churches with older congregants also have the burden of deferred maintenance.
- It is common for some older adults to be limited physically. They can’t do the work for the church that younger members can do.
- Older adults are often resistant to the necessary changes the church needs to do to reach younger people.
- Even if younger adults visit the church, they often do not return. The younger adults seek commonalities for themselves and opportunities for their children.
What Does the Data Say?
The statistical and demographic data overwhelmingly confirm that the American church is graying. Look at some of these stark realities:
- The proportion of senior adults ages 65 and older in churches is double the proportion of those same ages in the general U. S. population. Those senior adults account for 16.8% of the general population, but they account for 32.9% of active church members (U. S. Census, FACT2020).
- We have significant anecdotal evidence that smaller churches are much older than the median of larger churches. This reality means that the smaller churches will decline and die sooner (Church Answers Research).
- The graying trend will not slow down. Around 10,000 people in the United States turn 65 every day. The nation is getting grayer. From a simple demographic perspective, the age of active church members will increase every year (U.S. Census, birth rate by year).
- The median age of a pastor is approaching 60. It was 57 in 2020, and it will likely cross the age 60 threshold next year (FACT2020).
Can Our Churches Get Younger?
Those leaders who are concerned about the graying of their churches are not as interested in data as they are in solutions. We suggest to church leaders that they take their members through five key questions.
- Do you realize your church is getting older? This question is simply one of awareness. Frankly, we have conducted surveys in churches that have obviously aged, but most of the members are not aware of it. We encourage all churches to get a demographic study of their community to see the ages of residents in the community as well as other key data.
- Do members in your church have a “we built it, so they should come” mentality? Is their attitude one of waiting for guests to show up? If so, the church will continue to decline.
- What level of change will church members be willing to make to get younger? Obviously, you cannot keep doing things the way you’ve always done them. Many of the members indicate that they are open to change as long as it does not affect them.
- Are you willing to bring on younger staff? This question is typically met with a response of “we can’t afford it.” But graying churches must think outside the box. Bring young interns onto the staff. Find younger people in the community who are willing to work part time. Offer stipends to young people for one year.
- Are you willing to go into the community to reach younger people? Many graying church members assume that they don’t have the resources or the ability to reach younger people. Or they assume younger people will not come to the church even if they were reached by the older church members. I love to point to a church where graying church ladies took unchurched single moms under their wing. Eventually, those single moms came to church. And the single moms, of course, brought their children into the church.
The graying of the church is a demographic challenge, but it is not a fait accompli that a church will decline or die. That sad conclusion only comes when the Great Commission is either ignored or disobeyed.
Posted on February 5, 2024
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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