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Aging Congregations May Be Churches' Biggest Concern

Unless current social trends change, Mainline Protestant churches will face an even bigger drop-off in coming years.

Anyone who has sat in a back pew peering over rows of gray heads can attest: American churches are aging.

Sociologists of religion have tracked a decades-long decline in membership among mainline Protestants, but a national survey of congregations conducted for Hartford Seminary’s Cooperative Congregational Studies Partnership shows that aging congregations may be an even bigger problem.

The survey, called Faith Communities Today 2008: A First Look, shows that mainline Protestant churches are losing members, but evangelical Protestant, Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christian congregations are experiencing dips or stagnation as well.

A look at the age groups is particularly sobering. In 60 percent of mainline denominations, one-quarter of the members are 65 or older. By comparison, in 24 percent of evangelical churches, one-quarter of members are 65 or older. And in 36 percent of Roman Catholic churches, one quarter of members are 65 or older.

“Seeing that laid out graphically was like, ‘Wow!’” says David Roozen, the principal investigator for the FACT2008 report and director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. “One-fourth of congregations will lose half their members in 20 years.”

The FACT2008 survey analyzed questionnaires from 2,527 randomly sampled U.S. congregations. The congregation’s senior clergy leader completed the questionnaires.

Mark Chaves, a sociologist of religion at Duke University, confirms the trend. His National Congregations Study shows that on average, adults who attend church weekly are older than adults in the general population.

The problem for congregations is particularly acute because social movements appear to be exacerbating the trend. Today’s young adults marry later and are more likely to remain childless, two factors that are associated with lower rates of religious participation.

“It’s very clear no indicator of any traditional religious belief or practice is going up,” says Chaves.

Still, overall church attendance remained steady in the 1990s, and Chaves isn’t sounding any death knells for American religion.

“There’s a softening of religious participation,” he says. “I’m not ready to say we’re in a time of outright decline.”

Roozen, however, points out that graying congregations are beset with challenges. The older the church’s membership, the more likely that church is to have falling numbers, weaker finances, anemic youth programming and a sense of spiritual fatigue.

Add to that another concern: Aging congregations often have less clarity of purpose. The less a church feels it is distinctive, the weaker its spiritual vitality and vice versa, according to the FACT2008 findings.

“Congregations that say they have a strong sense of identity and mission have a much higher level of vitality,” says Roozen.

All of this leads Roozen to wonder about the future of U.S. churches.

“Are we in a temporary blip, or is this the beginning of a slow but steady erosion of religious identity and practice in the U.S.?”

 

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