Demographic destiny?

I knew that mainline congregants tend to be older than the general population. The average member is about 58, whereas the average American is age 38. The latest survey from Hartford Seminary fills in the picture with this piece of data: in more than half (52.7 percent) of mainline Protestant congregations, a third or more of the members are 65 years old or older.

When Hartford's veteran researcher David Roozen reported this figure recently, he added a kicker: given that life expectancy in the U.S. is 78, this means that these congregations are likely to see a third of their members die over the next 15 years.

Looking at similar data, Lovett Weems, a researcher at Wesley Theological Seminary, has been talking about a "death tsunami" beginning in 2018 that will deliver a crippling blow, in membership and finances, to mainline churches. (It also means that ministers will be doing lots of funerals.)

Data like this concentrate the mind. And foster desperate searches for the elusive magical formula that will reach young adults.

Weems at least offers a practical suggestion to churches looking at the demographic change ahead: Don't manage your finances year by year. Make a major downsizing effort now, save your resources and plan for a "smaller, more vital" future:

Acknowledge that things are not the same as in years past, and the previous financial baseline is no longer realistic. . . . Make the difficult but ultimately life-saving decision to reduce the financial baseline to one that is more realistic for the new circumstances. It is from this new and more appropriate baseline that the church can begin to build strength for the future. One of the reasons churches tend to do better after such a financial recalibration is that energy previously sapped through maintaining financial survival now can be spent for outreach and ministry.

Sounds good, but how realistic is that? Wouldn't most congregations say that the money they are spending now on building, program and staff is devoted to outreach and ministry--precisely what is needed now and in the future?

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Destiny?

 

Getting leaner doesn't necessarily mean getting better in mission and ministry.  Merging strengths, while some still exist, makes perfect sense.  Selling properties and land, letting go of worshipping the past and walking into the future with strength has been and still is always appealing to me.  In 40 years of parish ministry I tried twice and failed to get it done twice.

So, I'm familiar with the local difficulties.  What is needed is Judicatory (Diocese, Conference, etc.) to provide real support and encouragement and even incentive, if not a bit of pushing, to make it happen.  Judicatories are not often willing to shrink to grow.  I call it re-employing assets.  The Roman Catholic Church in NY has done it by moving resources, for example, from Brooklyn to suburban counties with great success.  If the denomination won't get behind it, in most cases you will not over come local inertia, because many congregations would rather slowly die than make deep changes to newly grow in mission and ministry.

 

Destiny

Getting leaner doesn't necessarily mean getting better in mission and ministry.  Merging strengths, while there are still some left, makes perfect sense.  Selling properties and land, letting go of worshipping the past and walking into the future with strength has been and still is appealing to me.  In 40 years of parish ministry I tried twice and failed to get it done twice.

So, I'm familiar with the local difficulties.  What is needed is Judicatory (Diocese, Conference, etc.) to provide real support and encouragement and even incentive, if not a bit of pushing, to make it happen.  Judicatories are not often willing to shrink to grow.  I call  it re-employing assets.  Walmart, Sears and others do this often.  The Roman Catholic Church in NY has done it by moving resources, for example, from Brooklyn to suburban counties with great success.  If the denomination won't get behind it, in most cases you will not over come local inertia, because many congregations would rather slowly die than make deep changes to newly grow in mission and ministry.

Thanks for this

I live in a small city with roughly 15 mainline churches, all of them feeling the pinch of this downward spiral already, all of them hoping that just around the corner will come the charismatic pastor or music director, the amazing program, something that will turn life around. But mostly they end up shuffling members between themselves. None of them have a great youth program or a compelling ministry to their senior citizens or deep, intensive adult education. Why oh why, I wonder, don't they combine their efforts? Two or three worshipping communtieis, then great program leadership that is funded both by dollars and volunteers. Are we really so attached to our buildings that we can't ask these questions?

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