NCLS Research

Age profile of church attenders


Australian society is ageing. Life expectancy is the highest this century, while the birth rate is declining. The same ageing process is taking place in the churches.

However, significant differences exist between the age profiles of church attenders and the Australian population. While people of all ages are present in church, younger people continue to be under-represented.

The graph below shows comparisons with the Australian community for persons aged over 15 years. The church has greater proportions of people of people aged over 50 years and fewer under 40 years than the community.

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Some denominations are more attractive to young adults than others. Some 30% of attenders in Pentecostal denominations, 22% in the Baptist Church and 22% in the Churches of Christ are aged between 15 and 29 years; this compares to 12% in the Catholic Church, 11% in the Anglican Church and just 8% in the Uniting Church.

A comparison of 1991 and 1996 NCLS results shows that even among denominations with younger age profiles there are early signs of 'bracket creep'. That is, there are now smaller proportions of attenders in their twenties and a larger proportion of attenders in older age groupings than in 1991. This suggests that few denominations are immune to the problems of ageing. The comparison of 1996 and 2001 data has not been completed.

Why are young adults under-represented in church life? There are many possible reasons, a number of which have been discussed in other research publications, including Who Goes Where? (Kaldor, 1987).

One explanation for the under-representation of younger adults in church life is the effect of life stage. As adolescents move into their twenties, they are busy establishing careers. Most leave home and move beyond the direct control of parents. Such life-stage changes are disruptive of established patterns, including church attendance.

While life stage accounts for some of the age differences, it is only part of the story. Many observers are quick to point to cultural differences between the pre- and post-World War II generations. These differences can be seen in the adoption of different attitudes and values and the rejection by later generations of traditional religious practices and religious institutions.

If the observed differences are more generational than life stage, it is unlikely that the current grouping of young adults will ever exhibit the same high levels of church attendance currently found among older people. This has important future implications for all churches. One factor is the form of worship services found in different denominations. Chapter 5 of 'Taking Stock' highlights wide differences between younger and older attenders in the styles of music they find most helpful in worship. The widespread use of contemporary and informal worship in Pentecostal and some other Protestant denominations would partly explain the younger age profiles in these churches.

It is evident that, as a whole, the Australian church is lacking a critical resource. Younger people can bring energy, enthusiasm and fresh ideas to the churches.

From a purely pragmatic angle, churches are missing people who are of child-bearing age. This not only affects the present character of congregations and parishes but has significant consequences for the future. Chapter 7 of 'Build My Church' charts the possible impact of current age imbalances on each denomination over the next fifteen years. It is clear that the current lack of young adults will have a profound impact on the attendance levels of some denominations; that is, there may well be significant declines in the overall number of attenders.

NCLS Research has consistently demonstrated that across a whole range of aspects of church life post-war generations think and act differently from pre-war generations. This poses two challenges. Not only are young people outside of church life quite distant from traditional approaches to church life, but those who are church attenders approach their involvement in quite different ways. As will be seen in the following chapters, this is reflected in their beliefs, their approaches to worship and mission, and their attitudes to leadership.

It appears that denominations that have assisted post-war generations to express their faith in ways that are culturally relevant to them have fared better in the retention of attenders in their twenties and thirties than those that haven´t. Indeed, within the Anglican/Protestant sector, many young attenders have been switching to such denominations in a bid to find a suitable congregation.

A further caution needs to be made regarding what is a most pressing issue for the churches. The post-war group actually covers an increasingly wide spectrum of ages. No longer can we simply say that ‘young people´ are missing from the churches; those under 40 years are underrepresented. As the new century commences, the challenge of relating effectively to these age groups is not simply a case of connecting with one particular sub-culture but a range of sub-cultures.

Source: Initial Impressions, 2001 NCLS and Taking Stock, 1999

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