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100 Million Later
By: Lyle E. Schaller

"Today we are 200 million strong...just one century ago, in 1867, reunited after a civil war, we were 30 million Americans, by 1915, following the largest immigration in all history, there were 100 million Americans. Today, 200 million strong, we are the richest, most powerful, best educated, best fed, housed, and clothed nation in the annals of man."

These words came from President Lyndon B. Johnson. They were part of his Foreword to a 76-page report, "200 Million Americans," published by the United States Bureau of the Census in November 1967. That report was based on estimates that the population of the United States would pass the 200 million mark by the end of 1967 or in early 1968.

These demographers anticipated that, in only 33 more years, the total population of the United States would reach 300 million in 2002, noting that it had required 52 years to go from 100 million to 200 million. For those readers interested in the comparative rates of change in America, after compensating for inflation, the number of dollars Americans contributed to charitable causes increased from $200 billion in 1996 to $300 billion a decade later.

Comparisons between 1968 and 2006 illustrate how the future often generates discontinuity with the past. Many Christian churchgoers in America today prefer continuity with the past, rather than radical changes in their relationship with a specific worshipping community. Discontinuity often is the primary motivation in switching their church affiliation. Discontinuity also helps to explain why it is more difficult to be an effective parish pastor today than it was 50 years ago.

Before reflecting on those trends and others, however, it may be useful to lift up a few measurable points of discontinuity. Between 1968 and 2006, the population of this nation increased by 50 percent but (1) the number of live births each year increased by only 22 percent from 3.54 million to 4.27 million, (2) the number of deaths each year increased by 23 percent from 1.95 million to 2.4 million, (3) the number of residents under age 5 increased only slightly from 19 million to 21 million, while the number age 65 and over nearly doubled from 19 million to 36 million, (4) the number of women age 20-29 who were currently married plunged from 67 percent to 37 percent, (5) the number of people killed in motor vehicle accidents, including pedestrians and bicycle riders, peaked at more than 56,000 annually in 1972 and was under 43,000 in 2006, (6) the number of currently widowed adults increased by only 27 percent from 11 million to 13.9 million, (7) the number of black-white bicultural married couples probably tripled since 1968 as the reported number rose from 167,000 in 1980 to 403,000 in 2006, (8) the proportion of the population age 18 and over who were currently married dropped from 76 percent in 1965 to 63 percent in 2006, (9) the proportion of married women, living with their husband, who were employed in the paid labor force increased by half from 40 percent in 1968 to 60 percent in 2006, and (10) the proportion of American households consisting of five or more people plunged from 22 percent in 1968 to 9 percent in 2006.

Several trends are difficult to document because the categories were redefined. For example, in 1968, the Census Bureau reported 9 million in a category defined by language as "Spanish." The replacement "Hispanic Origin" is defined by ancestry and in 2006 included 44.3 million residents. A special survey in 2005 reported 32.2 million Americans lived in homes where Spanish was "the language spoken at home." That compares with 216.2 million where English was the only language spoken in that home. It also is worth noting that, in 2006, the median age of the Hispanic population was 27.4 years compared to 37.8 years for white residents, 31.0 years for blacks, and 34.9 years for Asians.

The Generational Gap
From this observer's perspective, plus an array of statistical data, the easiest congregations for a pastor to serve were composed largely of Americans born in the 1900-1940 era. Most of them had been born into and socialized into the American culture and the American economy during an era that taught people to sacrifice, save their discretionary income, affirm and accept the expectations that institutions projected of the clientele, and work and live in a system largely governed by vertical authority structures.

As recently as 1970, approximately 40 percent of the 205 million residents of this country were persons born in the 1901-1940 era. By 2006, only 12 percent of the 300 million residents of the United States were born during the first four decades of the 20th century. Today, they are outnumbered by more than a 4-to-1 ratio by those born in the 1941-1980 decades.

One difference is the younger generations display a lower degree of inherited institutional loyalties and prefer horizontal partnerships over vertical structures of authority. They also bring a larger and more varied set of expectations with them when they "shop" for a church home. Many also display greater interest in helping to pioneer the new rather than in being "junior partners" in attempting to perpetuate the old. Since only the very large Protestant congregations are able to mobilize the resources required to fulfill these expectations on quality, relevance, and attractive choices, one consequence is the Christian churchgoers in America today can be found in disproportionately large numbers in relatively new nondenominational megachurches.

Are We A Marrying People?
Chapter IV in that 1968 report was titled "Marriage." It began with a five-word sentence: "We are a marrying people." From a parish pastor's perspective, the obsolescence of that statement may represent the greatest point of discontinuity between 1968 and today.

The number of marriages per 1,000 population hit a new low in 1932 at 7.9 marriages per 1,000 population, peaked at an all-time high of 16.4 in 1946, and was down to 7.2 per 1,000 population in 2006.

If the annual marriage rate is calculated on the basis of 1,000 unmarried women age 15 and over in the population, it has fluctuated since 1920 between a new low of 56.0 per 1,000 unmarried females age 15 and over in 1932, up from 92.0 in 1920, to an all-time peak of 118 in 1946 to a new low of 55 in 1989 to 51 per 1,000 in 1995 and to an estimated 46 per 1,000 unmarried women age 15 and over in 2007.

By contrast, the annual divorce rate hit an all-time peak of 17.9 per 1,000 married women in 1946 (double the 8.8 rate in 1940), dropped to 8.9 rate in 1958, climbed to 12.4 per 1,000 married women in 1968 and set a new all-time rate 18.2 five years later in 1973. In recent decades, comparable data is no longer available because of the increase in the number of opposite-gender couples living together but not married. One consequence is the number of households that included a married couple living together increased from 48 million in 1968 to only 58.2 million in 2006, an increase of only 22 percent contrasted with the 50 percent increase in the population. The number of single-parent families headed by the father more than quadrupled between 1968 and 2006 from 1.2 million to 5.1 million, while the number headed by a single-parent mother increased slightly faster than the rate of population growth from 5.3 million to 8.4 million. Together they accounted for nearly 30 percent of all households with children.

What's the Point?
The decades required for what is now the United States of America to reach the 200 million mark in population in early 1968 coincided with a time when most Christian congregations in this country could function effectively as a geographically defined parish and build their identity on their denominational affiliation, nationality, language, skin color, the location of their real estate, perhaps the personality of a long-tenured minister as the pastor, and the middle of a wide theological road. The shift from a producer-driven culture to a consumer-driven economy has moved to the top of the agenda this question: "Who are the people God is calling us to reach, attract, serve, assimilate, nurture, challenge, disciple, and equip for ministry? How can we do that?"

One consequence of placing those two questions on the agenda is the need to replace tradition with a customized ministry plan as the reference point in making decisions on critical policy questions such as real estate, the staffing configuration, finances, schedules, and governance. A second consequence is an expanded role for the laity, while a third is specialists are replacing generalists. A fourth is the competition among the Christian churches in America for future constituents is at an all-time high. One consequence of that competition is the ecumenical movement appears to have peaked in influence in the third quarter of the 20th century.

A fifth point of discontinuity with the past often surfaces when the focus is on purchasing land (a) for a permanent meeting place for a new mission now meeting in temporary facilities or (b) for a landlocked congregation seeking to raise the ceiling on its future. The old search was for a 3-to10 acre site. Today, it is more likely to begin with the question (a) "How can we be competitive?" or "(b) "How much land do we need for our next off-campus ministry or second site?" A common answer today is, "Somewhere between 20 and 75 acres."

This expanding discontinuity with the past explains why so many policy-makers in American Christianity are wishing that next year will be 1955 or 1960, back when life, at least in retrospect, was simpler.

Lyle E. Schaller is a retired parish pastor and parish consultant. His most recent book, From Cooperation to Competition, was published by Abingdon Press.

Copyright 2009 by Lyle E. Schaller

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