Numbers worth watching

Church attendance is declining and those who go to church are getting older. In some places, religious affiliation may disappear altogether. That is the consensus of a blog looking at a recent study by the Episcopal Church, another looking at religious attendance in England, and a third study looking at religious affiliation around the globe.


Frederick Schmidt says “The stork doesn’t bring babies and it doesn’t bring a new generation of Christians either. If we don’t nurture a younger generation in the faith, they aren’t coming.” He writes on Patheos about storks and canaries.

According to data gathered by the Pension Fund for the Episcopal Church, in 2002 there were 13,616 clergy. Of those, thirty were under the age of 30, 195 were under the age of 35, and 399 were under the age of 40. Today, the average age at ordination is 44 and the average age of active Episcopal clergy is 54.

The age demographics in the pew are no better. In 1965, the Episcopal Church had 3.6 million members and Episcopalians constituted 1.9 percent of the U.S. population. Since 1965, however, membership has declined precipitously. The net result is a graying church.

The average Episcopalian is 57 years old. If that benchmark does not change, roughly half of the church’s membership will die in the next eighteen years. And that is as good as it gets. Since 60 percent of Episcopal congregations have a membership of 100 or less, the rate of decline will probably pick up speed.

As important as my tradition is to me, I would never argue that the fate of The Episcopal Church and the Church are one in the same. But we are the canary in the Protestant mineshaft—along with the Disciples, UCC, and Presbyterian Church, USA. When we finally fall off the perch, blue with exhaustion, the rest of mainline Protestantism might want to take note. The undertaker is coming.

British Religion in Numbers shows that while the proportion of people attending worship in the Church of England is slightly higher, the overall number of people who attend worship in England continues to decline. Individual denominations have all attracted members at the expense of Roman Catholics, but today the total number of people who attend worship anywhere is about 3.25 million down from 5.25 million in 1980.

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Meanwhile, Discovery.com reports on a study that has been submitted for review to the American Physical Society’s journal, Physical Review Letters, that looks at the religious affiliation of nine countries going back 150 years. The bottom line: some countries are approaching 100% religious non-affiliation.

Researchers applied a mathematical model to census data — some dating back 160 years– from nine countries. The United States was not included because the country’s census does not ask citizens about religious affiliations.

In the Netherlands, where nearly 50 percent of the population claims no religious affiliation, the model projects that number to increase to 70 percent by 2050.

Further down the road, non-affiliation might approach 100 percent, the study predicts.

The model is based on two theories about human behavior, researchers say. When competing groups are vying for members, the unit with more people is considered more attractive to prospective joiners. In addition, groups that boast a higher social, political or economic utility are viewed as more appealing, too.

“In some countries — apostasy [renunciation of a religion] is considered a crime,” Daniel Abrams, a co-author of the study and assistant professor of engineering sciences and mathematics at Northwestern University, told Discovery News. “Here, the utility of identifying with a religion is extremely high.”

In all census sources, Abrams says people were given the opportunity to check off a listed religion, “other” if one’s religion was not included or “none,” indicating no affiliation with a religion. For the study, researchers counted “none” as non-affiliated and all others as affiliated with a religion.

Also, he points out these trends don’t measure spirituality or an individual’s religious feelings, but rather how people identify themselves.

“Being affiliated with a denomination is not the same as believing in God or believing in any aspect of a religious ideology,” Abrams said. “And being unaffiliated with a religion doesn’t mean you don’t believe in God, but simply that you don’t want to be a part of a denomination.”

Another expert thinks these distinctions are important to highlight.

“The loss or even extinction of religious affiliation does not necessarily mean the end of ‘religion,'” said Anthony Petro, an assistant professor of religious studies at New York University, who was not involved in the study. “Trends in American religion since the 1960s have actually moved away from denominational modes of self-identification and affiliation and toward a rise in spirituality.”

Category : The Lead

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5 Comments
  1. tgflux

    Am I the only one NOT running around “like a head w/ a chicken cut off” (old joke) about this?

    Yes, as I age, I will still want a worshipping congregation and a priest for the sacraments…

    …but I’m not going to lose sleep over the notion “The Church May Become Extinct!”

    We’re called to be faithful: to share the Gospel, as God gives us gifts to do so.

    But we’re explicitly told we are NOT responsible for “the growth.” It seems perfectly possible to me that the institutional church dying out IS part of God’s Plan.

    I keep coming back to the parable of the two sons to whom the Father said “Go and work in the vineyard”. One says he’ll go, but then doesn’t. To me, that is the VERY picture of the contemporary Christian: all talk “Jeebus, Jeebus, Jeebus!”, no actual WORK for the Gospel (indeed, too many Christians are working to THWART the Kingdom of God! >:-/)

    Then there’s the other son, who says “No, I won’t work in the vineyard” . . . but then does go. Many, MANY secular humanists (by no means all) are like this. They may kvetch against Christians, but ARE actually doing the work for peace, for justice.

    I have faith that the Gospel itself can never die, until God’s Will Be (Fully) Done. Can God work solely w/ that “second son”? You betcha God can!

    JC Fisher

    [That said, see what Elizabeth Kaeton said here. We need a more user-friendly website, and better-done PR! PR that can be practiced by the masses—so to speak—of Episcopalians, not just out of 815.]

  2. Lois Keen

    There must be some reason we are being inundated with all these statistics that show we are dying, slowly and painfully. What I don’t see anywhere is just what we are to do about it. The people I serve in good faith became Sunday worshippers for whom the church is a refuge and a place to drop the load of living in the world the other six days of the week. They are what the church taught them to be.

    Now we need to be missionaries, evangelists. Church solely as refuge is not proclaiming the gospel except to the already converted. What are we to do to turn this around? What are the people I serve supposed to do?

    I know the elders have to learn to let go of the power, the control and not just invite younger people to shape us, but also let the church be shaped by them. That’s not going to be easy to do and it’s not going to happen just because I say it has to happen. There has to be compelling evidence that the elders, who became the kind of church they are honestly, won’t be left in the dust.

    I for one have only one direction: prayer. I pray and I wait and meanwhile I and the people I serve do the best we can. I am sorry, world, that we have become so irrelevant.

  3. C. Wingate

    The most telling number there is not that big dip in the young adults (though it is certainly bad enough) but in the disparity between the under-20 and 35-49 set. The latter group doesn’t contain all the parents, but it contains a lot of them, and it is substantially larger than the number of kids. However much one wants to talk about the stork, the fact is that, on some level, the stork does bring a crop of new church leaders, if only because they have to be born. We seem to be having kids at way below the replacement rate, so unless we are extremely aggressive about evangelizing, which we will never be given the current focus on inclusion as a kind of social action, we cannot keep our numbers up. It’s all well and good to be friendly to homosexuals, but we need to be friendly to young families too. And I’ll bet, TCF, that those secular humanists are doing worse than we are in reproduction; I’m guessing that they rely heavily on evangelizing us (and disaffected evangelicals and Catholics even more so) to keep from dying out.

  4. Clint Davis

    This is Advent. Read all the Advent parables. The answers are there. But unlike the 4 weeks of pretty candles and hanging greens and coming babies, this is the waiting time, this is the dark before the dawn, this is the time when we have no choice but to pray and especially to WATCH, to keep our eyes and our hearts open enough to find our way through. This is the time when faith in the most important sense of TRUST is the only thing that will save us. But it is only when we have nothing to lose that we have everything to gain. Only here, in The Real Advent, will our hearts be softened enough for us to begin to match up in reality to all the promise that we know we have. WATCH and pray.

  5. Sean McDermott

    75% of Americans are either moderate or conservative. http://www.gallup.com/poll/145271/conservatives-continue-outnumber-moderates-2010.aspx

    Yet, the Episcopal church at the national level pushes hard left policies, whether it’s trying to equate Good Friday with Earth Day, the entire Episcopal Network for Economic Justice or what you’ll find on this website any given day. 3 out of every 4 Americans don’t believe what the national church is pushing – the nation Episcopal Church is the face of the church. My suggestion would be to focus on God and less on Economic Justice and Earth Day.

    In case you’re wondering I’m not for TEC to begin a shift to the center or right – church is to worship God. You use the lessons you learn in church to apply to the rest of your life. While there are more American’s who identify as Conservative (I’m not one of them) than any other ideology, I would still not be in favor the Episcopal church at the national level adopting “conservative” positions even if it did swell our membership.

    Yours in Christ,

    Sean McDermott

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