The Greying Church

The greater propensity of older people to religious belief and practice is a well-established sociological phenomenon. In particular, the disproportionate number of elderly worshippers in UK congregations has been documented in church attendance censuses undertaken by Christian Research and other agencies.

Some BRIN readers may have spotted references in yesterday’s media to new research exploring the implications of greater longevity for religiosity. This generated headlines such as ‘Study links faith to life expectancy’ (The Independent) and ‘Church pews are emptying because we are “living longer and don’t fear death”’ (Daily Mail).

The full findings are reported in Elissaios Papyrakis and Geethanjali Selvaretnam, ‘The greying church: the impact of life expectancy on religiosity’, International Journal of Social Economics, Vol. 38, No. 5, May 2011, pp. 438-52. The authors are, respectively, from the School of International Development, University of East Anglia and the School of Economics and Finance, University of St Andrews.

This is a commercial subscription journal from Emerald Group Publishing, and the paper concerned is not freely available online. The abstract and purchase options can be accessed at:

The article does not report major new empirical data, and the argument can be complex and heavily mathematical, but the following edited extracts from the abstract, introduction and conclusion will give some flavour of the content.

The authors set out to study ‘the mediating role of life expectancy in explaining cross-country differences in religious expression’. They utilize ‘a theoretical decision-making framework … separately examining the decision of young and old individuals with respect to religious participation.’

Religiosity is viewed through a cost-benefit lens, the assumption being that ‘demand for religiosity is determined by the relative benefits and costs of religious adherence when alive and in the afterlife.’ A ‘three-period model of discrete time’ is deployed, corresponding to ‘the young and old intervals of one’s lifetime’ and the hereafter.

‘Decisions at each point in time depend on expected social and spiritual benefits attached to religious adherence (both contemporaneously, as well as in the afterlife), the probability of entering heaven in the afterlife, as well as the costs of formal religion in terms of time allocated to religious activities.’

‘Most religious beliefs link to some degree the cumulative amount of religious effort to benefits in the afterlife. Increases in life expectancy, in effect, discount these after-life benefits against the life-time costs of religious participation, which often come in the form of sacrificing time and income.’

‘Hence, increases in life expectancy encourage postponement of religious involvement, particularly in religion doctrines that do not necessarily link salvation (or afterlife benefits more broadly) to the timing of religiosity.’ Ageing congregations are seen as the inevitable consequence of this process.

The inference drawn is that ‘religious establishments should anticipate to attract older members, particularly in countries which have high life expectancy or expect significant increases in life expectancy (e.g. due to improvements in medical care or decline in critical infection rates). An increased life span allows for postponement of religiosity, without necessarily jeopardising benefits in the afterlife, which are anyway discounted far in the future.’

‘While many religious organisations place particular emphasis on increasing youth membership, they should not lose sight of incentives needed to attract older people.’

On the other hand, ‘current socio-economic benefits can counterbalance the negative impact of life expectancy on religiosity and hence encourage religious involvement. Religions that largely delink salvation/damnation to the timing and amount of religious effort will particularly need to resort to such means to boost membership numbers.’

‘Any contemporaneous benefits linked to religious participation (e.g. in the form of expanding a person’s social circle, communal activities, spiritual fulfilment, support and guidance) are likely to weigh more heavily in the decision-making process compared to what might happen in the less certain and far distant afterlife.’

A Church of England spokesperson, quoted in the Daily Mail, said the study ‘made a number of assumptions about why Christians want to share their faith … Age really isn’t the important thing. It is the duty of every Christian to share the good news of the gospel with those who haven’t heard it, irrespective of age.’

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