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.