The New York Times recently published a major article addressing one of the most significant developments in the modern world. The story, by Damien Cave, Emma Bubola, and Choe Sang-Hun, was titled “Long Slide Looms for World Population, With Sweeping Ramifications” (May 22), and it reports on the sharp global decline in fertility rates.
By mid-century, most societies worldwide—and not just in Europe—will have far fewer children, and their age profiles will be rising steeply. Populations will contract, with far-reaching implications for all aspects of life, including politics, economics, and culture. As the Times reporters note, without hyperbole, this is “a dizzying reversal unmatched in recorded history.” That’s not recent history; that’s all history.
As I described in my 2020 book Fertility and Faith, that change has epochal implications for all the world faiths, and especially for Christianity. The change foreshadows a precipitous decline in organized and institutional religion of all kinds, since fertility rates correlate so closely with religious practice and affiliation. It also decides where the largest Christian populations will be found in future decades (mainly in high-fertility, high-faith Africa).
By mid-century, most societies worldwide—and not just in Europe—will have far fewer children, and their age profiles will be rising steeply.
But foreseeing a world of low fertility doesn’t portend the end of religion as such. Undoubtedly the Long Slide will transform religions and religious practice in ways we’re just beginning to appreciate; and congregations of all kinds need to adapt to those new realities, just as they must absorb the implications of new kinds of technology. But this does imply a real transformation of many older assumptions about ways of “being religious.”
Churches and other religious bodies aren’t passive victims of change. They have the capacity to wisely respond to social currents.
The implications of the Long Slide are many, but let me focus on that core issue of aging. A low-fertility society is marked by an increasing proportion of elderly people, especially those in their 80s or older. That number will only grow as medical technologies advance. In the next 40 years, the number of Americans age 65 and older will grow from around 50 to 100 million, and their share of the population will grow from 16 to 23 percent. As soon as 2030, for the first time in U.S. history, the over-65s will outnumber the nation’s children. As the Times article notes, “Imagine entire regions where everyone is 70 or older.”
How does that affect churches? When my father was in his mid-60s, he joined an Anglican congregation in which the existing members were so ancient that they might have called this youthful interloper “Kid.” Such was the joke I made at the time; it’s scarcely a joke any longer. Congregations with that kind of age profile have become much more common, and not just among Protestant mainliners. This will increasingly be the norm for all denominations in years to come, at least among churches not reinvigorated by an influx of younger immigrants.
As soon as 2030, for the first time in U.S. history, the over-65s will outnumber the nation’s children.
But that aging revolution will have a double effect on churches. All evidence suggests that the speediest decline in fertility and religiosity is occurring among young adults and teenagers, who are very unlikely to join congregations as they grow to full maturity. And the many who don’t produce children will lack that obvious incentive to affiliate with congregations in later life. It’s particularly in the next two decades that the age profile of American churches will rise fast, to match what’s long been the European norm.
Rethinking Our Activities
As we ponder the consequences of such a change, we naturally consider the target age of the activities and services that congregations offer. Historically, a large proportion of church energy was directed at the young through education and rites of passage—from baptism and Sunday school through confirmation and First Communion, to organizing summer camps and vacation Bible schools. That was a large part, in turn, of what kept families faithful to their particular congregations. But now take children out of the picture—which is what’s happened across much of Europe—and that fact has contributed mightily to secularization. See Europe and weep.
By all logic, these vast new populations of the elderly should provide the basis for a fundamental rethinking of institutional religion and congregational life. Generally, all religious institutions must consider adapting to congregations with a much older demographic profile, and away from the earlier emphasis on younger families. It’s an open question what such a shift might mean in terms of theology, liturgy, or pastoral practice.
Adding to the effect of this change is the evaporation of the extended family structures in which older people might once have found support and companionship. Quite apart from immediate physical and medical needs, the plight of the lonely elderly will be one of the most pressing social problems in coming decades. Churches and other religious institutions potentially could provide older people with their most promising opportunities for social interaction, not to mention practical support networks.
Opportunities to Serve the Elderly
Congregations obviously serve an enormous demographic range, but most or all will have to confront these issues in coming years. Few, though, have responded with anything like the systematic care or thought usually reflected in activities offered to children—with schools and programs, and commonly with pastors specifically allotted to that age range.
Nor, more generally, do Christian thinkers and writers devote nearly as much time to developing theologies of aging. There are some important exceptions, but they are far outnumbered by works directed to young and teenaged audiences. The main exception to that rule would be in books about preparation for death, which are commonplace and vastly outnumber works intended to advise people how to live for several decades after their retirement from an active career. How can or should religious institutions target distinctive messages to the elderly?
The accelerating demographic revolution subverts or renders irrelevant so many activities that religions have long been accustomed to see as essential to their existence and their work. As those features fade, so religions of all kinds are forced to reconsider what their core purpose actually is; what is the heart of the matter. That exercise in rethinking could be prolonged and even painful, but the potential opportunities are rich indeed, and at a time of special human need.