U.S. Protestants are less likely to belong to “mainline” denominations and more likely to belong to “conservative” ones than used to be the case. Evidence from the General Social Survey indicates that higher fertility and earlier childbearing among women from conservative denominations explains 76% of the observed trend for cohorts born between 1903 and 1973: conservative denominations have grown their own. Mainline decline would have slowed in recent cohorts, but a drop-off in conversions from conservative to mainline denominations prolonged the decline. A recent rise in apostasy added a few percentage points to mainline decline. Conversions from mainline to conservative denominations have not changed, so they played no role in the restructuring.
Mark Chaves, Congregations in America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004), 33. Michael Hout, Andrew Greeley, Melissa J. Wilde, “The Demographic Imperative in Religious Change in the United States,” The American Journal of Sociology, 107: 2 (Sep 2001): 468-500.
Now, these are old statistics — 1903 to 1973 — and I think we’ve recently seen a dramatically increased outflow from the mainline denominations to more conservative ones over homosexuality, rejection of the authority of scriptures, and many other issues. Nonetheless, fertility rates do tell a story.
You see, prosperity reduces fertility rates. It’s a worldwide phenomenon. When a nation’s standard of living goes up, its birthrate goes down. As a result, Europe isn’t reproducing at replacement rates (one reason they are so reluctant to send their sons to war), while the Muslim world and Latin America are bearing enough children to be rapidly growing.
You’d think it would be the opposite — that we’d have more children when we get to where we can afford them. But wealth tends to make us self-indulgent, and many couples who make very good money prefer to maintain a certain lifestyle in preference to having children or very many children. And historically, the mainline churches have had wealthier members than the more conservative ones — on the whole.
Now, part of this phenomenon is also driven by the Catholic Church’s opposition to birth control, meaning that Catholics have much higher birthrates than Prostestants. But it’s also driven by the syncretic nature of American Protestantism — that is, we Protestants are as likely to derive our values from the surrounding culture as from the Bible (don’t we live in a Christian nation?). And so those of us who have more than two children are considered a bit odd. Four! Are you kidding? Why?? (I have four sons.) It’s just assumed that we should make childbearing decisions on a purely selfish basis. That’s our culture.
But Christianity changes everything, even our decisions as to family size and lifestyle. And while I’m proud to have brought 4 solid Christians into this world via natural birth, I’m much more impressed with two young couples at my church. These families already have more than 2 kids, and so are well beyond quota. But they’ve decided to adopt orphaned children from Ethiopia — as a way of living out their Christianity in the most intimate, personal way possible.
Frankly, such an idea wouldn’t have even occurred to my generation. We were pretty outlandish having four kids. And so I’m touched and impressed by the authenticity of those who so love Jesus that they’ll reach halfway around the world to rescue children in this way.
(Luke 18:15-16) People were also bringing babies to Jesus to have him touch them. When the disciples saw this, they rebuked them. 16 But Jesus called the children to him and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”
Caring for children and youth
It’s a widely observed phenomenon that many young people leave the church in college and return when they marry and have children. And when this happens, they look for a church with a great program for children.
Now, to some extent, we risk catering to the consumerism of such people, offering a valuable service in exchange for attendance and a check. The trick is to see the children’s/teen program as something other than a product to be sold on the open market. Rather, the mission of those programs should be two-fold: (1) to bring the children to a strong, personal faith and walk with Jesus and (2) to bring the parents to a strong, personal faith and walk with Jesus. Thus, children’s ministers and teen ministers should be looking for ways to build the faith of the parents as well as the kids. At least, that’s how I see it.
Some of this is as simple as getting the parents involved in the ministry. People come to believe in what they do. If the parents help plan devotionals, mission trips, and projects to serve the poor, their experiences will make these things matter to them — just as it will for their kids.
And so, while I admit the difficulties, if the ministers would make a point to involve the “fringe” parents who aren’t the very best volunteers and the most spiritual, they may find that these parents are transformed as they encounter Jesus in the works of their ministry — which would be the best possible service to the children of these parents.