Sunday, March 25, 2012

Death Tsunami To Hit Churches in 2018

Attention all clergy.  Brush up on your funeral conducting skills.  Why?  In a Christian Century blog, Lovett Weems, a researcher at Wesley Theological Seminary, has been talking about a "death tsunami" beginning in 2018 that will deliver a crippling blow to mainline churches.  Apparent he and another researcher, Hartford Seminary's David Roozen, have looked at the age demongraphics of mainline churches and discovered something that many of us intuitively know:   "MAINLINE CHURCH MEMBERS ARE MUUCH OLDER THAN THE GENERAL POPULATION." 

The average age in mainline churches is 58.  The average American is 38.  While this is rather striking, it is even more compelling to note that a third of our church members are 68 or older. I see this every Sunday when I attend church or serve as a supply priest.  Last winter I supplied in a small, rural Midwestern parish on several occasions.  The vast majority of the members were over 80 and  I felt like a youngster at 75.  When I attend services at my own parish, many of the people are my age and older. Given that the life expectancy in the United States is now 78, it means that one third of mainline church members will die over the next 15 years. 

According to Century Blogs, "Weems offers a practical suggestion to churches looking at the demographic changes 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."  He goes on to suggest that "churches tend to do better after such a financial recalibration because energy previously sapped through maintaining financial survival now can be spent for outreach and ministry."

I have called for downsizing in my own denomination since I started writing and thinking about it.  But I don't see much happening yet.  Unfortunately, when congregations decide they can no longer afford to pay the diocesan or judicatory assessments, then downsizing on the regional and national levels will take place.  I understand that in my diocese the money is not coming in and the budget is facing a major shortfall.  Based on this, downsizing will be done by default, not by creative plans for a more vital future.

A well established formerly wealthy parish in my community is already rapidly losing members by death.  They conducted more burial services last year than ever before.  Not only that, their pledges and derivative income is down.  This may be due to both the death tsunami and lack of interest.  Nevertheless my brothers and sisters, brush up on your burial conducting skills.  You will be doing of lot of these in the next few year.


  1. Reports from areas where native fishing populations were on the sea well prior to a tsunami, they could sense the change out of their accumulated experience. As a result, they were able to save themselves and their families from death. As well, animals headed up land while humans who were not native to the areas or had the skills of the ocean tribal fishermen, were caught unawares and many perished. We may already be past the early warning period, but I hope not. A few of us have been trying to sound the warnings. And, as you mention, the statistics technicians can now see the wave of demographic loss at a distance. Bishops, priests, deacons and lay folk-- wake up and find hope in sizing up and sizing down to ride out the wave! Planning is what you do until something happens. Scouts say, "Be prepared. Leave your camp site cleaner than you found it." The pilgrimage to a new place has begun, and that is where we can find hope and freedom to find Christ in the new realities that await us. Move now!!!

  2. One quick way to cut expenses is to eliminate the clergy/ spouse retiree health supplement that most receive. One diocese has obligations of over $100,000. This is of course, paying for the supplemental insurance that most lay people have to pay themselves. Our pension is one of the most generous in the world, and this minor cut would not cause anyone to be impoverished. That would free up enough resources to plant two new congregations a year.

  3. To anonymous, whomever you are. Certainly the elimination of supplemental insurance for retirees and spouses would free up money for something. This would have to be addressd by the CPF trustees who would then decide whether or not to change the rules. But is starting new congregations in the traditional way the answer? I suggest that it isn't. The answer to me is obvious. Introduce a new Celtic Model where the Holy Sprit moves freely and new hope is garnered through the circular, flat, non-hierarchical model where the face of Christ is found in every human being.

  4. "I have called for downsizing in my own denomination since I started writing and thinking about it." When you announced the blog you said it was a group of retired clergy who were heading up the charge. It's interesting that now that you are "out" of the system, meaning no longer dependent on it, that you can claim the need for such radical change. Which btw isn't radical it is the 1960's model of groovy utopia feel the moment free for all nothingness. Using the the title of celtic to make it seem erotic and interesting.

    What do the celts have to teach us? Not much. That model of church rose up in a society that was a gathering of small tribal groupings that were based in clan organizations. They did in fact have structure and some of it is closer to the cast system in india. Some clans had wealth and resources, others had less. Also the communities had economies that were local and based in farming, animal husbandry and fishing. The communities where ruled by feudal lords, land owners and subjected to the absolute rule of kings and princes. It seems a model so far away from the current society and ways.

    How could a model (which is not a model but a utopian ideal) that has its basis in a society of farmers and people who never left town relate to the uber connected ultra transient society of today? It can't and it won't. Maybe it will work in a small group of retired clergy who no longer need to pay attention to politics, nor have to work with vestries and don't need to deal with Bishops. Why? Your essential treating each other as equals- but it is a false reality.

  5. Your critique has merit. Nostalgia comes in many forms; however, beside cutting supplements, what else do you offer? There is little evidence that starting new congregations has much merit for now. Please,if can, enlighten us all?

  6. Ronald Reed, you are correct that planting more churches like we currently have is not productive. If it were, our current churches would be thriving.

    The issues facing the mainline churches are many. First, we are fundamentalists about the wrong things. We easily allow preachers in pulpits who say "The resurrection of Jesus is a metaphor, but did not happen," while we would run the same preacher off if he replaced the organ with a guitar. (Not that guitars are the answer).

    Second,is that we assume the church is here for our sake, rather than seeing the church as a lighthouse/life boat (choose your metaphor) for the sake of the world. We want people who will fit in nicely. This leads us to seek church growth for the sake of institutional survival. No one joins a church in order to keep that church alive. They will join if they find life there.

    Third, our mainline seminaries take faithful Christians and try to educate the faith out of them. There are many classes that teach the future clergy that Jesus did not really rise from the dead. There are very few classes that remind the students that our ministry is entirely dependent on the work of the Holy Spirit. Consequently, we have a majority of clergy who rely on their own cleverness and charm for their ministry. Education is good, but not the kind that our seminaries have engage in for the last 50 years.

    There are more, but I would need to start my own blog if I were to enumerate all of the challenges I see.

    So, to my original point, planting new churches like we have now is a sure way to deplete our resources.