Why so many elderly in Church?

What is the cause of the imbalance?

While some Churches have a good balance by gender and by age others do not. It has often been said that the large proportion of old people in Church are because we have an ageing population or because all the young people go off to University. Yet while anecdotal evidence can be found to support these theory’s, the results of the Tearfund survey paint a different and very clear picture.

As always these look at the UK as a whole. So if your Church is does not look as bad as these statistics, to make the average work out a Church somewhere must be worse than the average.

Church attendance by age

The two graphs compare the age profile of the UK adult population in blue with that of the UK Church regular attenders in red. From the age of 16 to about 50 the proportion of people in Church is substantially below that of the general population, then after the cross over the proportion of people attending Church stays substantially above that for the UK population. This clearly shows that the Church does attract more old people than young by a huge margin. The imbalance of age groups has nothing to do with the fact that people are living longer, because we can see the trend for the elderly in Church is higher than that for the general population. In a way the lack of young people is more worrying, and this graph shows just how big the loss is.

The trend for an increasingly aged UK Church

Unlike the Tearfund data this trend data from Christian Research includes those under 15’s who do not have much say in the matter of going to church. It’s not sensible to call them consenting members, although some will be. Their inclusion inflates the total Church population and makes things look better than they are. However, this way we can at least see what happens to this important age group.

The trend for the average age in the Church is increasing rapidly as Churchgoing declines. We find that they both started before the 1980’s and is forecast to get much worse. This stongly suggests that the two are linked in some way. The process for decline in Churchgoing results in an increasing average age.

The story of the age groups

Breaking the trend data down by age group we can see how some decline and others rise. You will also note that the age bands in the data from Christian Research are not equal in size, which makes comparisons more difficult. The trend of the under 15’s is for a dramatic decline. The outlook is for 65% of the Church to be over 65 by 2040 and because of the decline in male attendance almost all of these (85-90%) will be women.

A symptom or a root cause?

The order in which each age group declines in attendance suggests that the steep increase in the percentage of people 65 and over is caused by a steep fall of in attendance of the <15, 16-19, and 20-29 age groups. The number churchgoers of 65+ in 1980 is 1,119,580 and in 2040 it is predicted to be 816,350, which is a significant reduction in the actual number of people despite the steep increase in the percentage of churchgoers for that age group. This should come as no surprise because common sense would tell us that a drop in younger age groups will in time cause a drop in overall Church attendance, and this graph shows that is what is happening.

One theory is that the problem in retaining the 10-15 age group is that they are influenced by presence of young adults. This is thought to be especially true for boys. The presence of young men and the availability of challenging activities are what they look for. If they see mainly older women looking after children they class it as childish and put it behind them. As the apostle Paul said “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me.” 1 Cor 13:11 NIV.

If true then this suggests that the process of Church decline starts with a drop in the number of young adults, and in particular men, in Church. A Significant statistic here is that in the last 20 years 49% of men under 30 left the Church! More evidence of the importance of this group comes from research by the George Barna in the USA, that shows while 17% of the families follow a mother into becoming Christians, 93% follow a father into becoming Christians. It seems that young men and especially fathers may be the key people groups to reach to retain younger folk in the Church, yet if a Church has a growth strategy it focuses on the children’s and youth ministries.

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