July 14, 2016

The Question of Age

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There is a question that comes around a least once a year in our lives. Someone asks us, “How old are you?” Sometimes we embrace it – like when we turn 16 or 21 – because it presents new privileges. Sometimes we push it away – like when we turn 40 or 50 – because it feels like something is closing. But, somewhere, in most years, we face the question of age.

So, how about your congregation? “How old is your congregation?” I find that when I ask congregational leaders this question, they almost always want to tell me about when their church was founded. But, that really isn’t the answer to the question.

Congregational age is best seen using a ratio that is determined in the following way: Take the number of children/youth regularly in the church under age 18 and divide it by the people in the church age 18 and over. That answer gives you insight into your real age.

Here’s how it works. Suppose a congregation has 200 active people. Of that total, 50 are younger than 18 and 150 are over that age. Divide 50/150 and it results in an age of .33.

Now let’s think about this in human terms. The ratio tells us that in this church there is 1 child/youth for every 3 adults. As you look over worship, you might see two parents and two children. Next to them, is an empty nest couple. On the other side 1 single older adult and 1 single 20-30 something. In this picture, you have 3 adults for each child. But suppose the picture looks like this. Two single parents, each with one child. Next to them are 4 single older adults (3 women & 1 man). Do you see the difference in the pictures? First determine the age, then look at how the human picture unfolds.

This ratio might seem a bit whimsical, but consider this idea. 110 years ago – in the era of large families – the age ratio was often as high as .6 or .7.  Today, healthy congregations, in an era of smaller families, are pretty healthy if the age ratio is at about .27 – .30 depending on the actual human distribution as we saw using the example above. When the age ratio starts falling below .25, however, no matter how the people are distributed, Sunday School and youth ministry often struggle.

So here’s the challenge. Calculate your age for each year in the past decade. Chart it. Ask yourself, “Are we getting older or younger?”  Consider the human picture that fits that ratio in your church. Then, make every effort to staff, utilize volunteers and lead your congregation to help build a younger church – because more often than not, staying young is foundational to being a healthy church.

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