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Close Up: Church assesses implications of aging membership

5/1/2003 News media contact: Tim Tanton · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.

NOTE: "Close Up" is a regular UMNS and UMC.org feature on current issues. Photographs are available.

A UMNS and UMC.org Feature By Amy Green*

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Longtime member Doris Jones worships at First United Methodist Church in Superior, Neb. Years ago, the church was a vibrant place of worship, with more than 500 members. Its size now nearly half of what it was, the church is increasingly struggling to meet its bills, the Rev. Dorthea Fairbanks says. A UMNS photo by Rick L. Houchin. Photo number 03-155, Accompanies UMNS #252, 5/1/03


LINK: Click to open full size version of image
Worshippers file out of First United Methodist Church in Superior, Neb., following Sunday services. The congregation is not unlike many within the United Methodist Church. With an average age of 57, the denomination s members are among the oldest of any in the United States - and that has congregations across the country rethinking their futures, since the elderly often are their most active and generous members. A UMNS photo by Rick L. Houchin. Photo number 03-156, Accompanies UMNS #252, 5/1/03


LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A mix of young and old gather for worship at First United Methodist Church in Superior, Neb. As manufacturing jobs began to disappear from this close-knit, rural community in the state s southern half, so did new residents who could keep the congregation growing. A UMNS photo by Rick L. Houchin. Photo number 03-157, Accompanies UMNS #252, 5/1/03


LINK: Click to open full size version of image
Tanner Kranjek (left) and Kelcey Knoell wait their turn for scripture readings as the confirmation class participates in Sunday services at First United Methodist Church in Superior, Neb. Years ago, the church was a vibrant place of worship, with more than 500 members. Its size now nearly half of what it was, the church is increasingly struggling to meet its bills, the Rev. Dorthea Fairbanks says. A UMNS photo by Rick L. Houchin. Photo number 03-158, Accompanies UMNS #252, 5/1/03
Years ago, First United Methodist Church in Superior, Neb., was a vibrant place of worship, with more than 500 members. Some have remained there for 50 years.

But as manufacturing jobs disappeared from this close-knit, rural community in the state's southern half, so did new residents who could keep the congregation growing. The congregation became older, and contributions decreased. Its size now nearly half of what it was, the church is increasingly struggling to meet its bills, the Rev. Dorthea Fairbanks says.

"We were a very active church," she says. "Now, [members have] lost their spouses, or because of health reasons (being active is) not possible. And what I see with the younger people is they're so busy with school and other things, the church kind of takes a back seat."

The congregation is not unlike many within the United Methodist Church in the United States. With an average age of 57, the church's members are among the oldest of any U.S. Christian denomination. As younger people leave and older members die, this attrition decreases the church's membership and financial bases. The trend is a reflection of the nation's aging population, and nearly all denominations are experiencing it, especially mainline Protestant traditions such as the United Methodist Church.

"The future of the United Methodist Church really rests in the hands of older adults," says the Rev. Richard Gentzler, director of the denomination's Center on Aging and Older Adult Ministries in Nashville, Tenn. "Many churches have a majority of folks who are 60-plus."

Those adults account for many of the denomination's pastors and bishops as well as members turning out for worship services and church activities. They also account for much of the contributions each year.

Meanwhile, the denomination's U.S. membership has declined gradually to 8.3 million people in 2000, according to the most recent figures available. However, worship attendance has remained the same-or, in some regions, increased--implying that younger generations are in the pews but may be reluctant to join.

Their fast-paced lifestyles have made family time a priority, says Craig This, director of the Office of Research and Planning at the church's General Council on Ministries in Dayton, Ohio. He says many congregations have done a poor job at incorporating that idea into their activities and points to the growing Mormon church's emphasis on family.

Keeping up with change

In Albuquerque, N.M., few members of the 1,100-member First United Methodist Church had been reaching out to the community in recent years, business manager Terry Shoemaker says, and she believes it has been the same throughout the denomination.

"As people's lifestyles changed, the United Methodist Church was not changing along with them," she says. "We're starting to feel the effects of that."

The congregation has since made a variety of changes. It has organized several small groups, from a Bible study group to a dinner group, and has put more emphasis on the family. For example, teen members spend evenings baby-sitting at the church to allow mothers and fathers a night out. In December, families were invited to the church to wrap Christmas presents together.

The idea is to get members to church throughout the week, not just on Sundays, Shoemaker says. The congregation still is an older one but now is drawing more young families, and Shoemaker is optimistic about its future.

Other congregations have not been as lucky. Trinity United Methodist Church in Dayton closed in December, just three months shy of its 100th anniversary. With no youth groups or new baptisms, the church of about 20 mostly retired members was struggling financially and had virtually no hope for recovery. Members had planned to celebrate their church's centennial with a catered dinner. Instead, they marked the church's end.

"The kids grow up and move away," laments the Rev. Bob Warner, who served as the church's interim pastor just before it closed. "What is it that has taken that generation away from us? Why are they going somewhere else?"

Mainstream Protestant denominations grew quickly after World War II, investing in social justice and other issues, says James Hudnut-Beumler, dean of Vanderbilt University Divinity School in Nashville. But evangelical denominations invested in new churches in burgeoning neighborhoods, drawing young residents with less-formal services and contemporary music.

Those churches flourished, while many Presbyterian, Episcopalian and Disciples of Christ congregations, like those of the United Methodists', grew older, he says. Still, he believes there are ways to rejuvenate mainline denominations. He feels their diversity and tolerance will appeal to younger generations and he urges congregations to be innovative with worship services.

"Theologically, we're more geared toward accepting, 'live and let live' and following a Jesus who will not throw stones," says Hudnut-Beumler, who is Presbyterian. "Our churches ought to be turning that to their advantage."

But without activities throughout the week to keep younger generations involved, they likely will move on, This says. For congregations without the resources, he suggests opening the building during the week for Scouting or Kiwanis Club gatherings.

Encouraging signs

At the 1,600-member Belmont United Methodist Church in Nashville, leaders have worked to give teens and young adults a special place in the congregation, whether it's in a leadership position or as a community service volunteer.

Teens serve on every committee in the church, and some are paired with adults who work with them as mentors. Two mission trips are planned each year for teens and young adults. The church also sends its college students care packages of tea, noodles and other goodies, and some students are pen pals with church members while away from home. When students return for Thanksgiving and Christmas, the church holds a special gathering for them so they can catch up with their hometown friends.

Jim Strickland, minister of church programs at Belmont, credits these efforts for the congregation's surging growth in this age group.

More churches are beginning to realize the importance of these efforts, says the Rev. Craig Kennet Miller, director of the denomination's Center for Evangelism through New Congregational Development. But more importantly, they're beginning to structure their youth ministries not around pizza parties but around lessons on the Bible and prayer - lessons that will keep them interested in church throughout their lives, he says.

"Yes, we do see that there is a graying of the whole denomination, but through the efforts of local churches, I think we're seeing a greater emphasis on reaching children and youth than we had maybe 10 to 15 years ago," he says.

United Methodist Church leaders - like all clergy - are encouraged by a new interest in worship among teens and young adults. Dubbed "millennials," this generation appears to favor the more ordered traditions of Roman Catholic and evangelical ministries, but that has not discouraged United Methodist leaders in recent years from organizing seminars to help congregations reach out to these young people.

In 1996, the denomination also created its Shared Mission Focus on Young People initiative to develop a strategy for rejuvenating the church. Composed mostly of youth and young adults, the initiative's work includes awarding $15,000 grants to congregations with innovative youth ministries. The Shared Mission Focus fills a void in the church, says Ciona Rouse, the initiative's communications and projects coordinator.

"After college, there's nothing really targeting young people," says Rouse, 23, who has struggled to find a church to fit her. "Young adults just kind of get lost."

The denomination has invested nearly $20 million for a four-year period in its biggest-ever marketing campaign, Igniting Ministry, with ads airing nationally since fall 2001 on NBC, CBS and 18 cable networks. Church attendance grew 22 percent during the campaign's first year, in part because of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. But the Rev. Steve Horswill-Johnston, the campaign's executive director at United Methodist Communications, credits the ads for attracting back to church many people who hadn't attended in some time.

And denomination leaders look with optimism at the church's growth among younger generations elsewhere in the world, primarily in Africa, Europe and parts of Latin America. The growth reflects the younger populations in these parts of the world, and denomination leaders welcomed pastors from Brazil to start Portuguese-language churches in New Jersey and Massachusetts, says the Rev. John Nuessle, executive secretary of conference relations for the denomination's Board of Global Ministries in New York.

Many of these efforts already may be taking effect. A massive gathering for youth, organized every four years by the United Methodist Board of Discipleship and the United Methodist Youth Organization, drew 9,000 to Knoxville, Tenn., in 1999, and organizers are planning for 12,000 this July.

While focusing on drawing young people, church leaders also note the gifts that elderly members bring, such as life lessons that can be shared with younger worshippers.

"Generation after generation, a group of new older people emerges who have raised their children and accomplished what they've wanted to accomplish in this world, and they turn their attention to, 'What can I give back?'" Hudnut-Beumler says. "That giving-back spirit has kept churches alive for decades."

Fairbanks is equally optimistic for her congregation's future in Superior. The church has made changes to lure new families, and she expects more changes will come. She has faith in her members' ideas for the church's future and their devotion.

"I really feel the church will be where the Lord wants it to be," she says. "It may not be the same as it was 10, 15, 20 years ago. ... (But) if we stay the same, we're not growing."

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*Green is a freelance writer living in Nashville, Tenn.

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