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From death to life

Is there any way to reverse the church’s declining membership?


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From death to life

“I don’t think people fully grasp how much of Protestant Christianity is going to die off in the next 3 decades.”

That was the first line of Ryan Burge’s tweet showing the age distribution of various Protestant traditions in America. Burge, a Baptist pastor who teaches at Eastern Illinois University, often posts interesting and useful graphs about religion in America. This particular graph shows the age distribution for 26 Protestant traditions—from Lutherans, to Congregationalists, to Methodists, to Presbyterians, to Baptists, to Pentecostals, to nondenominational churches. Brightly colored and easy to read, the graph demonstrates at a glance that Protestant churches are considerably grayer than the population at large. Hence, Burge’s concluding line: “There’s no major denomination where a majority are under 45 years old!”

No doubt, church attendance in America is in decline. The rise of the “nones” has been well documented, and younger generations are less interested in church than their parents and grandparents were at their age. When it comes to the churching of America, there is plenty of bad news to go around and plenty of challenges ahead.

And yet, Burge’s helpful graph does not support Burge’s exclamatory conclusion. His conclusion that “there’s no major denomination where a majority are under 45 years old” may be correct, but it is not demonstrated from the evidence he provides. Burge’s data, taken from the 2020 Cooperative Election Study, only provides information for adults 18 years and older. The graph says nothing about the percentage of children in the various Protestant denominations.

Even if one does not consider children as members of the church (as Presbyterians do), it is still misleading (not intentionally so, I’m sure) to make a comparative statement about those “45 and over” versus those “under 45” when the “under 45” half of the pie doesn’t include anyone under 18 years old. The more accurate conclusion from the graph would be: “There’s no major denomination where the number of 18-44-year-olds is greater than the number of those over 45.”

Why am I belaboring this technical point? Because I believe the percentages—though probably not great for any denomination—would look more encouraging for conservative denominations if the data included children.

Socially acceptable liberal theology doesn’t keep young people in the church.

For example, let’s compare the United Methodist Church (UMC) with my denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). In Burge’s graph the two denominations have an almost identical percentage of those 65 and over (41 percent and 40 percent respectively). One might conclude, then, that both denominations are about to die out. But this would be to ignore the presence of children. Both denominations indicate “non-communing members” (i.e., baptized children) in their membership statistics, giving us a rough indication of how many children are in the denomination. The number is imperfect because many children go through a communicants’ class and become full members before turning 18, but the numbers can at least give us an order of magnitude.

In 2020, the United Methodist Church had 6,268,310 professing members and 449,660 baptized members. By comparison, the PCA had 299,891 professing members in 2020 and 78,330 baptized members. Obviously, the PCA is a much smaller denomination, but we can still compare percentages. While baptized members were only 7 percent of the total membership in the UMC, baptized members were 20 percent of the PCA’s membership. This is not far off the percentage of 0-18 year-olds in the nation at large (22 percent). Undoubtedly, the PCA is in a much healthier position than the UMC.

I’ve noted before that the mainline churches are literally dying. They have been in steep decline for almost six straight decades, so that year after year mainline denominations are consistently getting older, whiter, and smaller. Many conservative denominations aren’t doing great either, but they are, at least, doing less poorly.

So what should be our takeaway from yet another largely discouraging—though less so, if you include children—report on the state of church membership in America? Three things.

First, changing to fit the mood of the culture is not the answer. Reimagined Christianity—where core doctrines are abandoned and ethical standards are thrown out the window—may appeal to the deconstructing and to cultural elites, but it is no way to win the lost. Socially acceptable liberal theology doesn’t keep young people in the church either. According to Burge’s graph, only six Protestant traditions have at least 25 percent of their adult population in the 18-35 year-old bracket. All six are evangelical as opposed to mainline.

Second, if you don’t want your version of Protestant Christianity to die off, the strategy is pretty simple: have more kids and keep them in the church. It has always been the case that most people in the church get in the church because they were born and raised in the church.

Third, when all hope seems lost, why not try God’s way of reaching the lost? Preach faithfully, pray fervently, and be ready to give an answer for the hope that is in you. Ultimately, it’s up to God to save sinners. Jesus will build his church however he sees fit. But we can do our part by getting the gospel right and getting the gospel out. Those are the ingredients God still uses to bring people, churches, and denominations from death to life.


Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung is the senior pastor at Christ Covenant Church (PCA) in Matthews, N.C., and associate professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary (Charlotte). Prior to the summer of 2017, he pastored at University Reformed Church in East Lansing, Mich. Kevin holds a Master of Divinity from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and received his Ph.D. in early modern history at the University of Leicester. He is the author of several books, including The Biggest Story, The Hole in Our Holiness, Crazy Busy, and Just Do Something. Kevin and his wife, Trisha, have nine children.


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