As their congregations age, churches are changing.
“In the boom years, the churches focused their personnel, resources and finances on young families with children, so we did not get good at focusing on older members,” said Rev. Dr. David Jones, senior pastor at Decatur First United Methodist Church. “Now we have predominantly older members.”
Signs of the aging of local congregations show up from the pews on Sunday mornings to the kinds of programs churches are offering on weekdays.
The changes are needed, church leaders say, because many older, mainstream congregations are growing smaller and are facing new demands as their participants grow older.
A 2015 survey of more than 35,000 Americans by the Pew Research Center found that while roughly seven of 10 U.S. adults identified with some branch of the Christian faith, that percentage had dropped by nearly eight percentage points from a similar survey in 2007. At the same time, Pew found the median age of mainline Protestants had risen to 52, up from 50 in the 2007 survey, and the median age of Catholic adults was 49, up from 45 in the earlier survey.
Although Pew found that while the American public was growing less religious overall, there were no signs of a drop in commitment among those Americans who maintained their beliefs. “Indeed,” Pew said in a press release, “by some conventional measures, religiously affiliated Americans are, on average, even more devout than they were a few years ago.”
Pew found that 89 percent of Americans surveyed believed in God (down from 92 percent in 2007), and 63 percent were “absolutely certain” God exists (down from 71 percent in 2007). In Georgia, the 2015 study reported, more than 92 percent said they believed in God and 74 percent were “absolutely certain.”
Some religions are growing. Pew reported that non-Christian faiths as a group increased by 1.2 percent points, to 5.9 percent of the total. In Atlanta, Zenkai Taiun Michael Elliston, abbot of the Atlanta Soto Zen Center, which turns 40 years old this year, has noticed new people of all sorts coming to his center. “We’re getting a steady influx of people from their 50s up and a steady stream of people who are younger,” said Elliston, who’s 75 himself and takes part in daily meditations at the center. “It’s mainstreaming.”
Decatur pastor Jones, who’s turning 65 and retiring himself this year after 43 years with United Methodist churches in northern Georgia, believes the aging of mainline congregations is making church leaders rethink some of their offerings.
“I think it’s safe to say in general that the churches of this country were not well-prepared for the longer life spans [and needs] of what seems to be a caregiver generation,” Jones said. “If we saw this coming, we didn’t prepare for that.”
Now, churches are looking for ways to reach and serve a generation of retirees who must care for aging parents but who are also more active, and more interested in being engaged in the world, than previous groups of retirees have been. “We’ve got to pay attention to issues people in my generation are focusing on,” he said. “The church can’t do church the way it did in the ‘50s and ‘60s,” he said.
That can mean changes as small as restriping the church gym so seniors can play “pickleball,” a paddle-and-ball game growing in popularity as older players begin to move on from basketball, to as large as offering sessions of “Vacation Bible School” for adults, Jones said.
At Glenn Memorial United Methodist Church near Emory, Rev. Susan Pinson, minister for children and older adults, says it’s not unusual to see church members in their 70s and 80s taking part in programs. Seniors knit prayer shawls, prepare meals for the homeless and take church-sponsored trips to various locations around metro Atlanta and elsewhere, she said.
An 88-year-old member recently signed up for a church trip to Costa Rica. “When we have 60-year-olds come with us, we joke they’re the young ones,” Pinson said.
At Second-Ponce de Leon Baptist, one of Buckhead’s huge church complexes, Senior Pastor Dr. Dock Hollingsworth said his church targets two groups for new members: young marrieds and recently retired seniors.
Both groups are moving in large numbers from the suburbs into the city, he said, and some members of both groups seek the kind of traditional church experience Second-Ponce offers. “This Baby Boomer group that’s retiring is an increasing part of our population,” Hollingsworth said.
He says the church hopes to attract people who are “retired, but not ready to go pick apples.” That means bringing in people who aren’t necessarily traditional church members, such as couples that have two residences, one in Buckhead and one in the mountains or at the beach, and won’t come to their home church every Sunday.
It also means offering members of his congregation a chance at community or volunteer work of substance. “Once these hard-charging Buckhead professionals retire, they’ve got to have something to hold on to,” he said. “The church is an ideal expression of that.”
The church provides volunteer programs within the city of Atlanta, such as tutoring for children at nearby schools, and is exploring starting ministry in Cuba, he said. One recently retired church member recently contacted Hollingsworth, the minister said, to ask how he could create a ministry around bicycle repair.
“We’ll put you to work doing stuff that matters,” Hollingsworth said. “Now that you have made a whole bunch of money, we’ll give you something to do that matters.”