Congregations desperate to reach young adults may also want to keep in mind that holding on to their older members is no sure thing, new research indicates.
Nearly three in 10 older adults made a major change in spiritual homes within just an 11-year period, according to a study that is one of the first to target religious switching among older populations.
The study also found the practice was most common among conservative and mainline Protestants. Catholics and black Protestants are more likely to stay in the same religious group.
"These data strongly indicate that older adulthood is not always a period of religious stability," University of Michigan researchers R. David Hayward and Neal Krause report in the Review of Religious Research.
"A significant proportion of older adults change their religious affiliations, many of whom appear to change repeatedly in a relatively short period of time."
The issue of meeting the needs of older members is critical to the bottom line of U.S. congregations. Just ask all the churches, mosques and synagogues limping along on the strength of endowment bequests.
But a strong relationship with a faith community also can be a critical factor in the health of individuals in the final stage of life.
Research in the emerging field of religion and aging suggests significant relations between an active religious life and positive health outcomes, from lower rates of depression to reduced death anxiety.
The upshot for congregations: Do not take older worshippers for granted.
Researchers have long noticed a life-cycle effect in religious affiliation in the U.S., with many teens becoming inactive after leaving the house and returning to religious communities as they get married and have children of their own.
Commitment often rises with age until ill health or lack of mobility makes it difficult to attend services.
In the 2007 Baylor Religion Survey, more than four in 10 adults 70 or older said they attended services weekly or more; just three in 10 participants ages 18 to 29 said they attended at similar high rates.
But it is not a simple case of nature over nurture, of individuals following a developmental script from adolescent exploration to a preoccupation with mortality at the final stages of life.
A new international study by Hayward and Krause found factors such as cultural differences and material well-being also seemed to play a role in the relationship between aging and religious involvement.
The study analyzing data from more than 700,000 individuals in 80 nations from 1981 to 2013 revealed that religious involvement tended to decrease in periods where national wealth increased.
Aging was associated with greater service attendance and importance of religion in a large majority of societies, but there was no significant relation in Africa and "mixed results" in Asia and the Islamic world.
"Religion involves a complex web of social and psychological phenomena, and thus, changes in an individual's involvement in it cannot be fully understood without also understanding the dynamics of religious change in the broader culture, and vice versa," Hayward and Krause wrote in the current issue of the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology.
More research may be needed to explore why older individuals switch faith communities, but what is becoming increasingly evident is that religion and spirituality matter a great deal to older individuals.
And it is important to find the right ft.
Why it matters
On a personal level, research indicates, religious activities such as prayer and belief in a loving God who is looking out for them can help older adults promote optimism, reduce depression and increase life satisfaction.
A study of 65 residents of five Texas nursing homes found the most common way people reported coping with stress appeared to be a stoicism "deeply rooted in their religiosity, specifically their trust in and gratitude toward God." All but six of the residents interviewed said they were religious, regularly praying and reading the Bible, researchers reported.
So researchers can see both why it is important for older adults to be in a supportive congregation and why leaving a long-established spiritual community late in life could jeopardize the individual's well-being.
"There is risk that change in this period may be do damage by disrupting important social support networks," Hayward and Krause declared.
So what can religious individuals and communities do to let older members know they are valued and respected? Plenty, ministry advocates say.
Congregations could start with providing transportation to services for individuals with limited mobility, and making sure the sanctuary is accessible to people with disabilities.
Even simple gestures could make a difference: A friendly word or smile on Sundays; expressing interest in the lives of elderly members both by listening and offering a hug to someone who may not receive human touch the rest of the week.
Integrating people of all ages into the life of the church, from social programs to participating in the liturgy, also is an important step, advocates say. For those members no longer able to come to the sanctuary, being visited in the nursing home or assisted-living facility can be a sign to them of God's love.
In the end, what older adults want is the same as what believers of all ages want: Spiritual sustenance and a sense of meaning in the face of mortality.
Image by Stefan Kunze [CC0], via Pexels