Death Tsunami

Death Tsunami


Okay I admit it.  I like statistics. I like bar graphs and trend lines and pie charts too.  So when the rector of the church where I work came across the information and video clip below from the United Methodist Church I was fascinated.

Here’s a synopsis:

  • Membership in mainline denominations has been decreasing steadily for a number of years.  The United Methodist Church (UMC) was the first to record the trend, and because of this and even more alarming current data, we can consider them the “canary in the coal mine” as my rector says.
  • But as membership declined, financial giving continued to increase until 2009.  What?  The data now tells us that this is because fewer people gave more money.  In all my congregational development training and experience, this is a big warning sign. It can mean “circling the wagons” to keep the church afloat, as well as a sign that we’re doing a poor job of teaching stewardship. Either way, it is not a sign of a healthy church.

But as we climb out of the current recession, won’t giving to churches go back up?  No, says Lovett Weems of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership.  And I agree with him.  Why?

Because the baby boomer generation, of which I’m one, is aging!  Between 2018 and 2050, as my generation dies, the death rate in the U.S. for non-Hispanic whites and African Americans (the two largest constituencies of mainline churches) will be higher than at any point in our history since the advent of antibiotics. A death tsunami.  The death rate in the U.S. which is currently flat will begin to climb and will hit a steep upward trajectory in a decade.  Our churches are currently not replacing us – or even planning for how to replace us – at a rate that will come close to keeping most church doors open.

The data and argument are compelling in my opinion, but so is the call to re-set our evangelism and financial baselines.   Rather than work harder to maintain the institutions as they are (maintenance and circling the wagons), denominations and individual churches have to ask some hard questions (mission).

Weems says about the UMC (and this applies to Lutherans, Episcopalians…), “As with any organization facing the future after 45 years of unabated decline in its constituency, there must be a stepping back to a new and lower baseline in order to move forward.  Otherwise, all energy must go to maintain the old unrealistic financial baseline. The purpose of resetting the financial baseline is to free the preoccupation from money to reaching people for Christ through vital congregations. The criteria that matter going forward must be around reaching people, and the whole system needs alignment toward that goal. “

How are we focusing on evangelism?  For those of us with a judicatory structure (dioceses, synods…) the call for action is even more pressing.  How are our dioceses helping their churches plan for this future?  Dioceses: How are you teaching and resourcing your churches to face this future?

You can read more and watch the video here.

Carolyn Moomaw Chilton writes and blogs as a spiritual discipline and an invitation to conversation with others. She is currently on staff at Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia as the Assistant for Evangelism and Stewardship.

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