When it comes to an ageing church, there is more to the story. Yes, churchgoers are ageing overall, but where young adults can be found, they give a confident and positive report of their experience.
In 1966 a landmark study called 'Religion in Australia' concluded that a person’s age made little difference to whether or not they went to church. In 2022, five decades after the massive social and cultural changes of the 1960s and 1970s, this is no longer the case.
Younger people are missing from Australian churches, and the churchgoing population is ageing. Before 1966, if a young adult moved away from church involvement they would return once they had their own children. But the 'Baby Boom' generation that filled the Sunday Schools in the 1950s left church life in the following decades and mostly didn’t come back.
So where are we now?
Since 1991 the general Australian population has aged, with those aged over 70 years old rising from 10% to 15%. In the same period, the percentage over church attenders over 70 has increased from 16% in 1991 to 36% in 2021.
Catholic and Mainstream Protestant attenders have the oldest age profile, in contrast with Pentecostal churches, which have the youngest age profile.
The reality is that it is no longer just the young adults who are missing from church life. All age groups under 60 years are less represented across churches. The evidence is that each subsequent generation is even less connected to an experience of church life.
However, among the young adults who do attend church, there is a more positive picture. Aged 15 to 30 years, they fall into the Gen Z and Gen Y (or Millennials) cohorts. We learn from the Australian Community Survey that 3 in ten young adults say they attend church at least once a month.
2021 NCLS results show that nearly half of all young adults joined their church in the past five years. Some moved from other churches, but nearly one in ten (9%) young adults are newcomers without a church background (vs 5% of overall church attenders).
Young people tend to cluster, with the result that while many churches have no young people, some churches have clusters of young people together.
Young adults in the 2021 NCLS Survey are most likely of any church attender age group to report that:
In terms of leadership development, compared to other age groups, they are more likely to say:
The gap between church and community remains substantial and has increased over time, presenting very significant challenges, locally and across denominations. However, the young adults surveyed in the 2021 NCLS Survey give some encouragement. Those who took part in the NCLS are very happy with their experience of church. In many ways they are the most positive and satisfied. They are empowered, equipped and enabled to be fully part of their faith communities.
References: Mol, H. (1971). Religion in Australia: A sociological investigation. Melbourne: Thomas Nelson (Australia).
Watch this brief video presentation on the age of Australian churchgoers, from the webinar "Who's in the Pews?".
2021 National Church Life Survey by NCLS Research and 2021 Census of Population and Housing by the Australian Bureau of Statistics.