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.
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.”