By Linda Green
United Methodist News Service
NASHVILLE — United Methodists are dying faster than other Americans.
A study, “Pockets of ‘Youthfulness’ in an Aging Denomination,” has found that death rates for members of The United Methodist Church, where the average age has risen to 57, are about a third higher than the national average.
The Lewis Center for Church Leadership, based at United Methodist-related Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, examined the death rates of those 15 years and older in the denomination’s 62 U.S. annual conferences as an alternative way to look at the issue of aging in the church and the general population.
In 2001, the United Methodist death rate was 130 percent of the U.S. death rate for those 15 years and older. United Methodists died at a rate of 14.5 per 1,000 church members, compared to Americans dying at a rate of 11.2 per 1,000 people.
Four years later, in 2005, the United Methodist death rate as a percentage of the U.S. death rate was 134 percent. The number of United Methodist deaths was 13.9 per 1,000, while the general death rate of those 15 and older was 10.4 per 1,000.
“There is no future for The United Methodist Church in the United States unless we can learn to reach more people, younger people and more diverse people,” declared the Rev. Lovett Weems, director of the Lewis Center.
“Reaching new populations - which tend to be younger and more diverse than traditional United Methodist constituents - needs to be a high priority,” he said.
The comparison of death rates is not a perfect instrument for study, but “it is something that can be compared over time to identify trends,” Weems explained. Death rates do help show patterns that generally correspond to age, he added. “Seventy-five percent of deaths in recent years occurred among people aged 65 and older.”
In 2000, the U.S. Census Bureau, which does a population count every 10 years, counted 281.4 million people in the United States. Of this number, 72.3 million, or 26 percent of the U.S. population, were under age 18; 174.1 million, or 62 percent, were ages 18 to 64; and 35 million, or 12 percent, were age 65 and over.
Members of mainline denominations were younger than the population in the 1960s, the study says, but since the 1970s, churches have been serving a membership older than the general population.
Methodism blossomed in America during the 19th century and early decades of the 20th century. However, the denomination has steadily gone gray since 1975, and with 8 million members in 2009, it is smaller, older and less diverse than the country’s population.
For most U.S. annual conferences, the membership death rates run significantly higher than the general population surrounding them, Weems said.
However, in nine conferences, church members appears to be younger than their surrounding general populations and other conferences are close to matching their general population age.
Need for diversity
Weems said the death rates in the annual conferences do not reveal a monolithic picture of an aging church across the entire U.S. connection, but they do show a church that is much older than the population.
“Looking at the death rate comparisons nationally, one can observe some slight improvement in the United Methodist death rates, but they are still much higher than the national average,” the study stated.
The study’s findings suggest that reaching people whose age is representative of the general population is a possibility for many annual conferences, Weems said. But that goal will take effort.
Attracting younger and more diverse members is the goal of the denomination’s Path 1 initiative and one of the denomination’s areas of focus.
“For annual conferences, starting new congregations is key,” he noted. “For congregations, a willingness to listen to younger people and to change to become a vital multigenerational church is essential.”