Research: Pockets of “Youthfulness” in an Aging Denomination

US Map with Membership Death Rates
The aging membership of mainline denominations has been a continuing concern for many years and for good reason.  But since denominations do not track the ages of all their members, it is impossible to make an accurate comparison between the age of a denomination’s membership and the age of the general population.  To gain some clarity about patterns of aging in the United Methodist Church within the United States, the Lewis Center has examined one key indicator — death rates.  At first, it may seem peculiar to focus on death rates. But while not an exact indicator of age, death rates do help show patterns that should correspond generally to age.  This is because 75 percent of deaths in recent years occurred among people aged 65 and older. 

Comparing the death rates of each United Methodist annual conference with the death rates for the geographic area served by that conference, one finds a mixed pattern of age trends across the denomination, including areas of relative “youthfulness” within a denomination that is generally aging. 

  • Three conferences report death rates that are 30 percent or more lower than the general population in their areas. These conferences are the Alaska Missionary, North Georgia, and Oklahoma Conferences. They represent 7 percent of 2007 membership in the United Methodist Church in the U.S. (UMC) and 6 percent of attendance.
  • Six conferences report death rates from 19 percent to 8 percent lower than their general population.  These conferences are the Central Texas, North Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Rio Grande, and Alabama-West Florida Conferences.  They represent 10 percent of 2007 UMC membership and 9 percent of attendance.
  • Five conferences report death rates that generally match those of their general populations.  In the Kentucky, Missouri, New York, Tennessee, and Texas Conferences, death rates fall within 5 percent of the state rates (from 5 percent below to 5 percent above).  These conferences represent 11 percent of 2007 UMC membership and 10 percent of attendance.
  • There are also fourteen conferences that appear to be older than the general population, but not by much.  These conferences report death rates at least 6 percent higher than their general population but no more than 19 percent higher.  The majority of the conferences in this category are in the Southeastern and Northeastern Jurisdictions. These conferences represent 31 percent of 2007 UMC membership and 30 percent of attendance.

These findings show there is no monolithic picture of an “aging church” across the entire United Methodist Church. Nevertheless, there are significant regions of the United States that confirm the general perception of a church that is much older than the surrounding population.  These are the thirty-four conferences reporting death rates 20 percent or higher than their general population.  These conferences represent 41 percent of 2007 U.S. membership of the UMC and 45 percent of attendance.  All the annual conferences in the Western and North Central Jurisdictions, with the exception of one conference in each jurisdiction, are found in this category.  However, such conferences are found in every Jurisdiction.

These findings suggest that reaching people whose age is representative of the general population in one’s area is a goal that appears to be well within reach for many annual conferences.  Indeed, some conferences have already shown that it can be done. Moreover, these data suggest that it is possible to reach people at least close to the age of the general population in regions where many church indicators have not been particularly encouraging recently — or example, in part of the Northeastern Jurisdiction.  Finally, they suggest that it is possible to reach people a bit younger than the general population even where most churches are small if there is a balance within the area of larger, growing churches. 

To view the entire report, Pockets of “Youthfulness” in an Aging Denomination: Comparison of Membership and General Population Death Rates within United Methodist Annual Conferences, click here.

What are some things that annual conferences can do to seek and maintain a membership that is the same age as the general population or younger?

  • Reach new populations, which tend to be younger and more diverse than traditional United Methodist constituents. The younger population of the United States is considerably more diverse racially and ethnically than the older population.
  • Help existing congregations increase their worship attendance. The higher the worship attendance of a congregation, the more likely it is to reach younger populations.
  • Begin new congregations, which generally reach new populations and younger populations at a higher rate than existing churches.
  • Monitor what is happening to mid-size and large congregations as a percentage of annual conference churches. Most annual conferences are doing well at increasing the number of small membership churches, particularly as formerly large churches become small, but a healthy age balance is more likely when there are strong and stable cohorts of churches of all sizes.
Download a copy of the report.