Back In 2013, it seemed that everywhere I went, I was having conversations with my age peers about their changing relationship with their local church. I’d been wrestling with the same questions as my friends and acquaintances were about faith, identity, belonging, and my relationship with the world around me, and a good many of those questions were linked to church life.
I put together an informal survey that collected some basic demographic data and then asked respondents to tell me whether they were more, less, or just as involved in their local church as they were a decade earlier. Then I asked them to tell me why. I was hoping for 50 or 75 answers.
I got more than 500. Throughout this month, I’ll be sharing some of what I heard from respondents, as well as some thoughts I received from pastors and church leaders when I did a follow up survey with them. A social scientist or statistician would have inquired about the church affiliation and belief system of the respondents. I didn’t, as I was simply trying to get a reading of what people were experience. I am grateful I had the privilege of hearing from people from a wide variety of Christian faith traditions.
Two-thirds of the respondents were female. Approximately 90% of the respondents of both genders were over 40 and under the age of 65.
Of those who answered the question about marital status, 76% are married and nearly 6% are separated or divorced. The figure that surprised me: 17% reported their status as single, never married.
35% had been attending their congregation for 10 or more years, 25% for 4–9 years, 19% for 1–3 years, 9% for less than a year, and nearly 12% reported that they did not attend church. A few people added some words of explanation. A couple of those explained that relocation and travel kept them from regular church attendance. Others listed their status as occasional visitors. One watched church services online, and a couple of others said they do not attend an institutional church. One of those noted, “After ten years at the last church, and lifetime attendance, intentionally quit”.
When asked to describe the demographics of the church they’d most recently attended on a regular basis, 64% reported that there was a generous mix of all age groups in the congregation. An additional 21% reported that their congregation was comprised mostly of people over age 40. 17% said the church they attended was made up of families with children under 18, and 2% said they attended a congregation of singles and young adults. A couple of the commenters noted that age diversity wasn’t an issue in their church, but ethnic and racial diversity was. A couple of others explained that their congregation was connected with a local university or campus ministry. Some of those who attended a church that skewed older said they were always looking to attract young families. One person asked, “When did I get old?”
I asked those who weren’t attending a local congregation about their future plans in this regard, and heard from 23% of those taking the survey. 75% said they had no plans to change what they were currently doing. An additional 25% said they planned to connect with a new congregation. A whopping 0% said they planned to return to their former congregation. Though a few expressed contentment with their current unaffiliated status, most of the commenters expressed sorrow over what they’d experienced in the past at a local church:
- “I was very hurt by my experiences and when I tried to stand up and tell about the very wrong things that were going on, no one would listen or get involved”
- “Hoping to find a community, but losing heart”
- “Tired of the a church that uses all the right Christian lingo with no substance behind it”
- “I consider looking for a new church, but I sort of expect more of the same – to be used and left unappreciated, or worse, find that my gifts are invalidated because I am a woman, or because I have disabled children”.