Data from the Pew Research Center has revealed the youngest and oldest religious groups in the United States. The numbers show Protestant mainline denominations are aging fast, and could be headed for steep membership declines unless they make major changes soon.
The Presbyterian Church (USA) and its splinter denomination the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) count the oldest congregants in their midst, along with the ultra-liberal United Church of Christ (UCC). The median age within these denominations was 59 years old. This was more than a decade older than the median age of the entire U.S. population, which was 46 years old.
“Only about one-in-ten adults in these denominations are under the age of 30; the same is true of Anglicans, United Methodists and Episcopalians and members of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod,” Pew Religion Editor Michael Lipka wrote in an article July 11.
Each of the 14 oldest religious groups in the U.S. was a Protestant denomination. But it’s the mainline denominations that were in the worst shape. Mainlines represent six out of the eight oldest groups studied, and each of these six denominations has a median age of 55 years old or above. The youngest mainline denomination included in Pew’s report was the American Baptist Churches USA, with a median age of 50 years old.
Only one Protestant denomination ranked below the U.S. average age – namely, the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The median age in this denomination was 45 years old, one year younger than the average U.S. age. The Seventh-day Adventist Church has 1.1 million members in North America. It remains ideologically conservative, relatively orthodox, and “among the most racially and ethnically diverse” denominations in the country, Lipka reported in November 2014. He added that Seventh-day Adventists broke down along the following lines: “37% are white, while 32% are black, 15% are Hispanic, 8% are Asian and another 8% are another race or mixed race.”
Median ages within non-Protestant Christian denominations – the Roman Catholic Church (49 years old) and the Orthodox Church (40 years old) – were lower than any of the mainlines. The same was also true of non-traditional sects with ties to Christianity: Unitarian Universalists, Jehovah’s Witness, and Mormons.
Other non-Christian traditions included in Pew’s data were younger than all mainline denominations and most Protestant churches. The average age within Judaism was 50 years old. Buddhists (39 years old), Muslims (33 years old), and Hindus (33 years old) all enjoyed median ages below the national average.
This also applied to non-religious groups: “Nothing in particular” (34 years old), agnostic (34 years old), and atheist (34 years old). The relative growth of “nones” in America has drawn significant commentary from media, academics, and religious groups alike, including the Institute on Religion and Democracy.
This data indicated where mainlines and organized Protestantism may be headed. “For example, religious groups whose members are younger may be more likely to grow, not only because those members will live longer, but also because more of them are still of childbearing age (and thus have a greater chance of passing on their religion to their descendants),” Lipka said.
Lipka drew the data for his article from Pew’s 2014 Religious Landscape Study.