According to the latest census results, Christians are getting older, with the average age now being 51. Where has it all gone wrong, asks Graham Nicholls, and what can we do about it?
As the phased release of detailed data from the 2021 census continues, the latest information does not seem to read well for the future of Christianity.
On face value, baby boomers (people currently aged 58 to 76) appear to have raised a generation of non-religious children.
Census data shows that the average age of the population is 40, an increase of one year since 2011. But at the same time, among the people who identified as “Christian”, the average age was 51, an increase of six years since the previous census.
Those identifying as Muslim had an average age of 27 years; also a slight increase, but not as marked as that among Christians.
This is a cause for urgent prayer and winsome evangelism
22.2 million people self-identified as having “No religion” and they were younger than the overall population of England and Wales, at an average of 32 years. Only 8.8 per cent of this group were aged 65 years and over, which compares with 18.6 per cent of the overall population. Christianity had the greatest percentages among the over 65s.
The last generation
The simple - and perhaps simplistic - explanation is that Christianity is increasingly ‘an older person’s thing’, and that baby boomers are the last generation among which Christianity is followed by the majority.
Speaking as a boomer (at the bottom end, just to be clear!) I am not sure that this is simply because Christians my age have failed to pass on their faith. Theologically, we know that faith doesn’t run through families.
Perhaps the explanation is that my generation is more nominally Christian, and therefore their own children are even less likely to use ‘Christian’ as their default cultural or religious identifier.
For boomers and Gen X, the main arguments they faced in evangelism were around science and creation. For Millennials, Christians are often seen as being on the wrong side of the argument on issues of sexuality and gender, and as being part of our colonial past. The debates in some churches have likely turned away those who nominally associated with the Church.
Young people need to see authentic, Christian living in their homes
Younger generations are also growing up with less Chistian influence in their schools, and less experience of church, even at life events such as weddings and funerals.
But whatever explanations are given, these numbers should cause Christians a great deal of great sadness. Fewer younger people want to be associated with Christianity, or regard it as positive influence on society. Fewer people are regularly hearing the good news of Jesus Christ.
Competing with the world
Many prefer other idolatrous religions – the quasi-religious experiences of being part of a cause like environmentalism, the authority of science or the well-established gods of material wealth, fame, and family.
If the Church tries to out-compete those gods, but without the life-changing message of the gospel or the authority of scripture, we will always lose.
But we need not panic. Many of our churches, often within the evangelical and Pentecostal circles, are experiencing growth and most have stable numbers. The general decline in attendance and desire to associate is more pronounced among the traditional, established churches perhaps because they have abandoned the gospel, or at least the authority of the Bible.
Christian parents need to engage sensitively on these issues with their kids. It is not enough to simply take our children to church. We must pass on the faith, knowing that only God can save, but he might use us at the means.
Young people need to see authentic, Christian living in their homes. We need to help our children see how to graciously argue their corner, take a stand and turn the tide of secularism.
This is a cause for urgent prayer and winsome evangelism. We long for such a revival that many more truly want to say: “I follow Christ as my Saviour and Lord” on the next census.