What should we make of an aging church?

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John Stevens, National Director of the FIEC has recently shared a couple of articles looking at the most recent data for church attendance.[1]  John notes two things, first that we’ve long argues that the percentage of born again believers has always been much smaller than the percentage of church attendees generally. 

Secondly that a key indicator of future church health is how youth and children’s work is doing.

His comments provoked some interesting discussion that I  want to give a little bit of time to.

First of all, it’s worth noting that the aging profile of the church is not in itself, on its own a cause for concern.  The population is generally aging and so we might expect congregations to be aging with the communities around them.  Yes, it seems that the church is aging more quickly (average age of 51 years v 40 years in the general population), however, that difference is not as dramatic as the Christianity Today article suggests. The important question is how commitment to Christian faith compares across the different age brackets.  Are we seeing a specific drop off among under 30s, under 25s and under 18s?  I suspect given the decline in adherence that has been tracked over many years now, that we will see such a drop off.

Secondly, whilst it is true that figures for conservative and evangelical Christianity tend to hold up better than for liberal denominations, I don’t think this gives us cause for complacency.  There are two reasons for this. First, if we are serious about the Great Commission then we can never be satisfied with holding our own. We should be wanting to see evidence of growth over time because we want to see people who don’t know Jesus coming to know him.  Second because if we are seeing conservative/charismatic evangelicalism holding its own whilst mainline denominations shrink, the risk is that we are simply seeing a consolidation of the base as the most committed align increasingly with conservative churches.  Are the most committed simply consolidating into churches where they share the same outlook?  Could that even be masking decline in true faith even further?

Thirdly, whilst I agree with John’s overall sentiment, that the discipleship of children and young people matters, I think we need to be careful about reaching for the panacea of youth and children’s work.  There are two reasons for my concern here.  Firstly, that there is a risk that our focus is on how we make sure that the children of Christians have a positive experience of church and so stick with it, hopefully professing faith.  The reality is that if we do this then we may hang onto a few but remember there will still be an attrition rate as a number walk away from the church when they reach adulthood and also that the demographics mean that with people having less children then we will not replenish the number of adults in the church as older people die off and some in midlife leave.  A focus on retaining as many churched young people as possible is just another form of managed decline.

The other reason is this.  When we start talking about the health of children and youth ministry, then we tend to very quickly think about youth and children’s (paid) workers, Sunday School and youth clubs. Indeed, one person responding to John suggested that the reason conservative churches have more young people is because they have more money to pay for workers and programmes.  Now personally, I don’t think this is completely the case.  I’ve pastored a growing (large in its context) evangelical church and from experience would argue that it is simplistic to assume that growing churches are always flush with cash to spend on workers and programmes.  Our deprived context meant that finances were constantly tight for us as a church.  I think that you see a few very large city centre churches that are well resourced and they can throw money at things but plenty of churches cannot and so we need to look at what is happening across all evangelical churches without the few big churches distorting the picture. Incidentally, my perception is that those big churches hit a certain size and then tick along, plateauing.

In any case, I don’t think that youth programmes and youth workers are the solution.  I suspect that John doesn’t either which is why we have to be careful and clear in our communication.  I believe that the church has suffered from an over reliance on this as the cure all and what has happened is that large youth and children’s programmes have been confused with church health when in fact most of those young people do no stick with the church.

I believe it is true that it is easier to get to the end of the youth programme and think you’ve done church than it is to walk away from a true family of God’s people.  So, I would argue that when we want to get a sense of a church’s potential future health then we should not be looking at how specific ministries are doing. Rather, we should be asking whether or not the church is fruitful and whether there is evidence of a vibrant spiritual family with Christ at the centre.

[1] See 2021 Census: More non-religious than Christians among those under 67 » Humanists UK and  Average age of Christians in England and Wales rises above 50 (christiantoday.com)

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