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Stop Blaming COVID

December 16th, 2022 | 3 min read

By Jake Meador

A story from RNS:

For the first time since 2018, thousands of college students will gather a few days after Christmas to talk about God’s mission to the world and their place in it.

Organizers of Urbana 2022, a missions conference run by the evangelical campus ministry InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, expect about 6,000 at the conference, to be held Dec. 28-31 in Indianapolis.

That’s about 3,000 fewer students than organizers had first hoped for, said Greg Jao, chief communications officer for InterVarsity, and about 4,000 fewer than attended the Urbana 2018.

Later the article notes that in 2000, 20,000 students attended the gathering and that even in 1970, the conference drew 12,000. In the subhed, the story notes that “Organizers believe that the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and a struggling economy have likely caused attendance to falter.”

I don’t think it is COVID and blaming the economy also seems too easy to me.

Here are some of the realities facing us now, as conservative Protestants in America:

a) Demographics are just beginning to catch up to us. The data is a little divided because it depends on where you draw your cutoff points for defining generations, but at minimum we can say the Zoomers are not meaningfully larger than Millennials and some data sets indicate the Millennials are slightly larger. If you look at birth rate trends, the early 80s see a spike during the Reagan boom years—and those kids would have been college students in the late 90s and early 2000s.

Back then, we hovered around 15 births per 1000 people. The early 2000s see a drop of about one birth per 1000 people in the US so we got down to 14. So, probably, there are simply fewer college aged people now than there were in 2000. For now, there are slightly fewer. But today, we’re averaging 12 births per thousand.

So the picture here is only going to get worse over time and since “the number of college-aged people” is a lagging indicator by about 18 years, there really isn’t anything to be done about this as it concerns the 10-20 year outlook. The numbers are baked in and now we’re just waiting for people to age.

But that’s not the only demographic issue we have to consider: In 2000, the Boomers were the dominant generation and there were a lot of them, they had money, and many were evangelical thanks to the short-term success of the attractional movement. Back then about 30-35% of the country self-identified as evangelical. So they were pouring money into evangelical organizations, sending their kids to those groups, and promoting those groups within their (generally large) churches. Now the boomers are mostly all retirement age or older.

They’ve been replaced by the far smaller Gen X plus old cohort Millennials, whose financial means and prospects relative to the Boomers are wildly different. So Christian ministries are often not as well resourced or well supported.

(To be clear: This post isn’t really about IVF. It’s about the broader spectrum of evangelical ministries and the assumptions we’ve operated with for a long time. I know nothing about IVF’s particular situation. I’ve written books for IVP, but even there I know fairly little about how the IVP organization works as I mostly have only worked with editors and publicists over there.)

The scary thing is that this is just the beginning of the demographic crunch we’re likely going to be facing.

b) 40 million Americans have dechurched in the last 25 years. In 2000, that problem was so new and still so small that our ministries didn’t really feel it. Today, that reality hits hard. Combine “slightly fewer students” with “tons of young people have dechurched,” and you end up with way smaller ministries, gatherings, conferences, and so on.

This is where the demographic picture gets really alarming. If current trends hold, we are going to have far fewer mid career Christians in another 10-20 years. The Boomers will be completely off the board by then. Old cohort Gen X will be fading fast. Young cohort Gen X is tiny. So the old cohort Millennials will be the largest, oldest group. Then you’ll have the younger Millennials and Zoomers, which are slightly smaller as aggregate groups, will have way fewer church goers because of dechurching, and are generally having far fewer children. So by the time my kids—which demographers are calling Generation Alpha—are college aged (which is about eight years away for my oldest and 15 years away for my youngest) we may be dreaming of the days we could pull 6,000 young evangelicals for a conference.

2000 ain’t coming back. Heck, 1970 ain’t coming back. We need to be ready.

Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).