Tuesday, January 26, 2010

They Shall Not Grow (Old) ?

Following the release of the latest batch of CofE attendance stats, various media reports picked up on a separate study, released at the same time, on the age and ethnic profile of the Church of England. The conclusions are based on survey data, so there may be some margin of error, but with a sample of 110,000 people, it's probably not going to be massive.

'Celebrating Diversity in the Church of England' noted that the average Anglican is a white 61-year-old woman. The 'youngest' Diocese, London, still has an average age 6 years higher than the average UK citizen (54, compared to 48). Of the 43 Dioceses, 24 have 50% or more in the 'over 65s' age bracket. Being positive, that shows that the CofE has great appeal to a certain age group. Put negatively, it means that, all other things being equal, in 20 years those Dioceses will be half their current size or smaller.

But here's an interesting thing. Yesterday I posted a table of the changes in adult attendance over 2001-8. A reminder of those Dioceses which were growing, and by what %

London 9.1
Southwark 6.4
Manchester 3.9
Ely 3.2
Hereford 3.1

I've excluded Europe, because it's not mentioned in the diversity survey. Now, compare and contrast with the Dioceses with the most balanced age profile, in this case, those with the smallest number of people in the over-65's category. The figure below is the % in this age group:

London 28%
Manchester 38%
Southwark 39%
Oxford 40%
Bristol 41%
Ely 42%

What immediately jumps out is that all but one of the growing Dioceses are amongst the top 6 in terms of youthfulness. The exception, Hereford, is the 4th 'oldest' Diocese, with 56% over-65s. But they must be doing something right. The presence of Bristol (actually doing quite badly growth-wise) is odd, and I don't know how much of a boost Oxford gets from all those students at the big university churches.

It makes sense: if there is a wider spread of age groups in church, anyone turning up on a Sunday is more likely to find someone who is 'like me'.

Two challenges:
1. Helping 'older' churches to think missionally about their natural age group. The CofE has tended to see older people as 'normal' churchgoers, rather than a mission field, but there are more and more churches who are recognising that, as the Rolling Stones draw their pensions, there is much more diversity among the SAGA generation, and much more to be done in making the gospel relevant and accessible to silver surfers, as well as to the devotees of the BCP who probably don't share the same worldview as the Stones' Baby Boomer generation.

2. Growing younger: I had a call the other day from a retired vicar who, at 70, is the youngest member of his church. Is it possible for a church like that to engage with younger people, or is it a question of starting again? At the same time there are other local, rural churches, who have started up after-school clubs, or used their resources to invest in a childrens worker.

I try very hard to discourage some of our rural congregations from beating themselves up about the lack of children and families in church, encouraging them to focus on their natural age group. But at the same time, we have a problem.


  1. For a number of years I ministered in a church where the vast majority of people were of retirement age and up. This particular church was very good at drawing in those of similar age by appealing to a sense of memory and "calling people back" to what they once knew. This strategy worked well because for many there was the shared experience of having been to Sunday School and other forms of Church involvement. This church operated on a permanent "Back to Church Sunday" mentality.

    However, this approach assumes that there is some Christian collective memory to work on. This now is far less the case than it was and therefore puts the above church in a difficult position. How can people recall what they never learned in the first place? That whole approach therefore needs to be revisited. As you say, we have a problem.

  2. I think you're right. My sense is that there needs to be a mixed economy of outreach alongside a mixed economy of church. Something different will work for each generation: Survivors (born pre-war) and some Baby Boomers will do the Back to Church thing, but many Boomers are more into 'spirituality', if they're into anything.

    I'm hopeful that the church has moved out of the Silver Bullet phase of the late 20th century where there was one solution that would sort everything out, and it was healing/Alpha/Wimber/Toronto/expository preaching/cell church/etc.

    We have cells, Alpha, Back to Church Sunday, a cafe service, Messy Church, an attempt to integrate baptism prep and childrens groups, etc. The single pool of Christendom has become a matrix of interconnected pools, and we need a smaller, customised boat in each one.