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The Steward: November 2015

Demographic change is here

By Peter Misiaszek

Canada has reached a milestone. For the first time in its nearly 150-year history, the number of seniors is greater than the number of children. The figures, released by Statistics Canada on Sept. 29, are glaring: 16 per cent of Canadians are 14 or younger, while 16.1 per cent are 65 or older.

This demographic reality will have a profound impact on everything from health care to retirement planning. It will also impact the church – in fact, it already does. More and more Anglican congregations are confounded by a stark reality: lots of folks with grey hair are sitting in the pews.

Two young women look at their mobile phones.
Photo by Garry Knight, via Wikimedia Commons.

How is this demographic change impacting the church and what can we learn from it? Here’s what we know. Those over the age of 65 are among our most loyal and generous givers. They comprise my parents’ generation. Their values include commitment to church, economic security and the importance of family. They have achieved the middle-class dream through hard work and perseverance. For this age demographic, Sunday will always be The Lord’s Day.

Another large group in our society – and the one spiriting the most immediate change – comprises those born between 1982 and 2005, known as “Generation Y.” According to a Pew Research study, Generation Y is less inclined to go to church and more likely to challenge authority. They lead busy lives and love technology. Higher education is important, but work isn’t an end in itself; work is merely a way to help afford leisure, comfort and style.

Millennials – as members of Generation Y are also known – represent a significant challenge to the church. The church is an institution vested in tradition. The pace of change can be glacial, with conflict arising around the use of music, the length of the liturgy, the content of sermons, the hours of service, who can be ordained and who can be married. Issues that challenged previous generations are of little consequence to this new generation (as my 14-year-old tells me on a regular basis). In a 2013 article, The Economist characterized Millennials as less religious, more liberal, and supportive of marriage equality. They are less endeared to life-long charitable causes, but will give generously if there is evidence that their donation will make a difference.

Millennials are already changing the shape of the church. They are, as Christian Chiakulas recently wrote in the Huffington Post, interested in churches where they can connect with others and seek volunteer opportunities that are very specific. They care about good preaching and programs and want to be taken seriously. When a preacher states an historical fact, many Millennials will check the accuracy on their smartphones right in the pew.

We can see how these different values will have a significant impact on church life. Worship centres will be smaller and portable – because fewer will be attending. Volunteer roles and responsibilities will need to be adapted to be made shorter, more fulfilling and less demanding; Millennials don’t want to be worship-only attendees. Religious services will be flexible with start times later in the day or during the week – after all, Millennials are not likely to rise until noon on Sunday anyway. All of this will have a significant impact on stewardship and giving. Next month I’ll discuss how we can begin to do stewardship differently in order to reach out to Generation Y.

Peter Misiaszek is the director of Stewardship Development.