Demographic change isn’t coming, it’s here!
Canada reached significant milestone in 2015. For the first time in its 150-year history, the number of seniors is greater than the number of children. The figures, released by Statistics Canada are glaring: 16% of Canadians were 14 or younger on July 1, while 16.1% were 65 or older. This demographic reality will have a profound impact on everything from health care to retirement planning, from community development to demands on social services. This change in demographics will also impact on the church — in fact it already does.
More and more Anglican congregations are confounded by a stark reality: lots of folks with grey hair are sitting in those pews. How is this societal change impacting the church and what can we learn from it?
Here’s what we know. Those over the age of 65 — known as the “Great Generation” — are among our most loyal and generous givers. They comprise my parent’s generation and their values include commitment to church, economic security and the importance of family. They have achieved the middle class dream through hard work and perseverance. For this age demographic, Sunday will always be The Lord’s Day. This group represents nearly 50% of the church-going population.
The next largest age demographic — and the one spiriting the most immediate change — are those born from 1982–2005, known as “Generation Y.” According to a Pew Research Study from March 2014, Generation Y is less inclined to go to church and more likely to challenge authority. They lead busy lives and love technology. Higher education is important, but work isn’t an end in itself; work is merely a way to help afford leisure, comfort and style. Generation Y can be the next “great generation” if we can find a way to connect with them.
Millennials — as members of Generation Y are also known — represent a significant challenge to the church. The church is an institution vested in tradition. The pace of change can be glacial; with conflict arising around the use of music, the length of the liturgy, the content of sermons, the hours of service, who can be ordained and who can be married. Issues that challenged previous generations are of little consequence to this new generation (as my 16 year-old tells me on a regular basis). In a June 2013 article, The Economist characterized Millennials as less religious, more liberal, people who support marriage equality, are less endeared to life-long charitable causes, but, they will give generously if there is evidence that their donation will make a difference.
Millennials are already changing the shape of church. They are, as Christian Chiakulas wrote in the Huffington Post, interested in churches where they can connect with others, seek volunteer opportunities that are very specific, care about good preaching and programs and want to be taken seriously. When a preacher states an historical fact, many Millennials will fact check the accuracy on their smartphones right in the pew.
We can see how these different values will have a significant impact on church life. Worship centres will be smaller and portable — because fewer will be attending. Volunteer roles and responsibilities will need to be adapted, made shorter, be more fulfilling and less demanding — they don’t want to be worship-only attendees. Religious services will be flexible with start times later in the day or during the week — after all, Millennials are not likely to rise until noon on Sunday anyway. This great disturbance in the church need not lead to its demise but failure to respond to it will certainly go along way to aiding it.