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and practice of
The Lewis Center is building a new vision for church leadership grounded in faith, informed by knowledge, and exercised in effective practice.
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.
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—for 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.