The Coming Death Tsunami

October 5th, 2011
US Death Rate, 1968 to 2050

In the past several years, the world has witnessed the horror of two massive tsunamis, first in Indonesia and more recently in Japan. The loss of life and devastation surpass what most can imagine.  Those in other parts of the world are now learning about the fear with which our Asian neighbors have lived for centuries as they have experienced “minor” tsunamis and the terror that accompanies even small earthquakes and tsunami warnings.

In the Scriptures, prayers, and hymns of our tradition, our psalmists and poets described dire situations in the most compelling words they could find—a flood of mortal ills, as in the summer drought, a famine of compassion, life shaken as by an earthquake. Some images have become so familiar that we may no longer be moved by these stark words. Even so, one must be cautious when using analogies or metaphors that mirror such tragedies, recognizing that the effects of physical disaster differ from the results of the dire situations writers attempt to describe.  

So it is with the language of a death tsunami. American death rate statistics show we are in the middle of a plateau of 8.9 deaths per 1,000 people. What follows the plateau can be called a death tsunami, and will have a major impact on many churches in the United States.  This language is harsh and difficult to hear, as is the potential catastrophe challenging our church.

  • It is predicted that between 2019 and 2050, there will be more deaths and a higher death rate than at any time since 1940s when medical advances such as antibiotics were introduced.
  • The total number of deaths each year is predicted to go up every year until 2050 as Baby Boomers pass away.
  • It is predicted that there will be 50 percent more deaths in 2050 than in 2010.
  • The majority of these deaths will be older non-Hispanic whites and African Americans.

The Dilemma

Countless churches have fewer worshipers today than they did ten or twenty years ago.  Most of them, however, have budgets as large as or larger than they did when they had more constituents, even after adjusting for inflation. Such a congregation manages in the early years of decline by the greater giving of their fewer participants. As things get tighter, the lowering of expenditures combined with greater per capita giving maintains financial stability. 

A church then gets to a point at which attendance has declined so much that making the budget each year becomes the preoccupation of the church and its leadership. Each year they search for that one new source of income or cut in spending so they can manage to make their plan. They also realize that even these yearly heroic efforts will not be enough going forward as they note the high percentage of their annual giving that now comes from those over age 70. 

At some point along this journey, such a church has to make a basic decision.  One option is to continue to live one year at a time and do whatever it takes to get by—even if necessary decisions harm long-term viability, and even knowing the church may, in the not too distant future, close. 

But there is another option taken by some churches facing these circumstances. The second option is to acknowledge that things are not the same as in years past, and the previous financial baseline is no longer realistic. The church makes the difficult but ultimately life-saving decision to reduce the financial baseline to one that is more realistic for the new circumstances. It is from this new and more appropriate baseline that the church can begin to build strength for the future. One of the reasons churches tend to do better after such a financial recalibration is that energy previously sapped through maintaining financial survival now can be spent for outreach and ministry.

A Window of Opportunity

Congregations with wise leaders recognize the emerging situation described above while there is time to reset their financial baseline and still have a critical mass of faithful members who can provide the foundation for a new smaller but more vital chapter. Life can continue about as it has in the last ten years with adjustments around the edges to get through yet another year.

But a major financial reset is required over the next five to ten years to position the church for seismic changes ahead due to the lack of alignment between the makeup of the denomination's membership (age and racial) and the realities of today's United States. As with any organization facing the future after 45 years of unabated decline in its constituency, there must be a stepping back to a new and lower baseline in order to move forward. Otherwise, all energy goes, of necessity, to maintaining the old unrealistic financial baseline.

Survival is Not the Goal

To talk of survival does not mean that survival is an end in itself. The survival sought is not for an institution and certainly not for institutional forms or entities. Church leadership is a response to God’s love and action in the world revealed most clearly in Jesus Christ. Christian leadership is a channel of God’s grace as it seeks the fulfillment of God’s vision, and such leadership emerges out of the history, beliefs, and traditions of faith communities. While religious leadership always has a theological beginning, a theological grounding will not ensure either the discernment of or fulfillment of God’s vision. The task for each generation is to help the faithful discern an appropriate engagement to meet changed circumstances, new realities, and emerging needs. To do so, they must have an accurate assessment of those circumstances, realities, and needs. To the extent that leaders are able to accomplish these tasks, there is vitality and renewal within the religious tradition.

Faithful leadership understands the church not as an institution to serve and maintain but rather as an embodiment and instrument of God’s aims revealed in Jesus Christ. The church indeed is to be Christ in the world, called to embody Christ’s presence and participate in God’s work of healing, reconciliation, redemption, and salvation in the world. Denominations become yet another of the “earthen vessels” in which the church seeks to carry the gospel. As with all such vessels, there is a temptation to focus on the container and not on the rich contents.

The time to make choices is now--while there are still choices to make. Otherwise, circumstances will very likely make the choices for us in the future.

Gross, Not Net

David McAllister-Wilson, president of Wesley Theological Seminary, makes an important point in saying that in the coming years, churches should focus more on the “gross numbers” than the “net numbers.” Normally this advice would make no sense. If a church receives twenty-five new members in a year while losing fifty members, it would generally be meaningless to focus on the gross gain of twenty-five rather than the net loss of twenty-five. But just as gross figures can be deceptive when viewed apart from the net, so also the net figures may be equally as deceptive in the coming years.

Because of the coming death tsunami, it may be very difficult for churches to show net gains in a host of categories. Looking only to the net numbers will not only lead to discouragement but may tell a false story of the spiritual energy of the congregation. Churches have relatively little control over losses, especially deaths. Churches have tremendous power to affect gains. So, even if the net figures for professions of faith minus deaths or new members minus lost members are negative for several years in a row, as long as the gross numbers for professions of faith and new members consistently increased during those years, there is reason to celebrate. The increasing gross numbers represent the church’s spiritual vitality far better than the net figures. And it is precisely this positive energy needed for the years ahead.


Excerpted from Lovett Weems’ Focus: The Real Challenges that Face the United Methodist Church, part of the Adaptive Leadership Series from Abingdon Press. Used by permission. Download a complete chapter in PDF format below.

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