CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (BP) – The average age of most members of protestant faith groups is graying, a Harvard University’s broad Cooperative Election Study (CES) reveals. The average Southern Baptist adult was 55.2 years old in 2020, ranking the faith group the 13th oldest among 45 studied in the nation. Southern Baptists ranked 15th in the same study in 2008. The Lutheran- Missouri Synod has the oldest members today, with an average age of 58.7. Muslims have the youngest at 32.2.
Ryan Burge, an American Baptist pastor and Eastern Illinois University professor who writes extensively on the intersection between religiosity and political behavior, said the data is reflective of a declining birth rate among white Americans, the majority demographic among mainline religions in the U.S.
“First and foremost, it’s the fact that white people are getting older in this country. Fewer white people are being born every year,” Burge said. “The baby boomers were largely a white generation. Younger generations are less white, so a lot of these traditions are predominantly white. … I think that’s a big driver, sort of what’s going on overall in America.”
But he said the numbers hold lessons for congregations in discipleship and evangelism.
“It says that a lot of congregations are going to be losing lots of people through death over the next 10 or 20 years,” Burge said. “I always liken this to a Styrofoam cup. Churches are a Styrofoam cup, and they all have leaky holes in the bottom of them, whether that be people who die or whether people who leave, there’s water coming out of the cup.
“There’s really only two ways to fill the cup up. One, is to either bring new people into the church – convert adults. The other is to keep the young people who grew up in your church as still members of your church as they grow into adulthood. And it seems like many churches, the water’s coming out of the bottom more than it’s filling in the top.”
Churches need not only to focus on bringing new people in, he said, but also on retaining those already in the church.
Could the data show that God is blessing people with longer lives?
“That is something to keep in mind too,” Burge said. “A lot of these older traditions are widow ladies and things like that, that’s true. If you look at the oldest denominations, they’re typically what we call mainline denominations, United Methodists, Disciples of Christ. Those are denominations that have very high incomes and very high education, which we know are two factors that relate well to life expectancy. So that’s all related together as well.”
The younger age of immigrants, who are more likely to practice such faiths as Islam, and the increasing religious diversity among Americans are other factors Burge identified as drivers of the data. In addition to Muslims, at the younger end of the spectrum are Hindu, with an average adult age of 38.9; Orthodox, 39.7; the Nones, 42.9; Atheists, 43.7; Agnostics, 44; Mormon, 44.1, and Buddhists, 44.3.
In addition to Lutheran-Missouri Synod; the grayest denominations are United Methodists, 58.4; Other Methodists, 57.9; Disciples of Christ, 57.6; the Episcopal Church USA, 57.2; the Pentecostal Holiness Church, 57; the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, 56.1; the Presbyterian Church USA, 55.9; Other Presbyterian, 55.6, and United Church of Christ, 55.5.
Harvard’s CES study included more than 61,000 American adults at least 18 years old.