19 years ago when I was a first year seminary student, I remember a book being discussed with great enthusiasm by some friends who were taking a Global Christianity class. The title was The Next Christendom, by Philip Jenkins, and it predicted the rise of Southern Christianity (as in the Global South – Africa, South America) as the future center of the Christian faith, while Northern Christianity (Europe and North America) declined. At the time that was a shocking claim to me – Christianity’s most vibrant home for centuries was Western Europe, and although it had begun to decline there, American Christianity seemed to defy the path of Europe, remaining strong and adaptive. The US had been the main base from which global missions over the last 150 years had “gone to make disciples of all nations,” winning thousands of converts.
Today, Philip Jenkins’ predictions look more and more prescient. American Christianity is statistically declining after remaining steady for decades, following the trajectory of Western Europe. And one of the saddest and most fascinating contributors to this trend? The birth dearth in America. In two articles Jenkins recently wrote (here and here; his new book on the subject is here) he explores the connection between low fertility rates and declining religiosity. Jenkins is quick to point out that “correlation does not mean causation.” He and his colleagues are not certain whether it is the decline in religious commitment that causes low birth rates, or vice versa. They are quite sure, however, that the two go hand in hand.
“It’s scarcely necessary to determine an exact sequence of change, since the two factors—fertility and religiosity—work so closely together and developments occur within a short time span.”
The decline of baby-making in America over the last 13 years is a massive change with far-reaching implications. Since 2008, the Total Fertility Rate has dropped in the US from 2.1 to 1.7, almost a 20% drop. The replacement TFR is 2.1 (in other words, for the population to remain stable, neither growing nor declining, the average number of children per woman is 2.1). The 1.7 TFR will lead to a declining American population unless we continue to see a steady flow of immigration (a complicating factor: below-replacement fertility rates exists across most of the world today, which means that the number of immigrants will decline, which in turn means that we may shift towards fierce competition between nations for those immigrants). It also means that we will see what sociologists call an inverted age structure – the number of elderly will far outnumber the young. Who will pay for social security? Who will take care of the aging? These are all likely to be pressing concerns in the coming decades if the trend to have fewer children continues.
It is also interesting to speculate why people who have few or no children end up being less committed to practice their faith. Speaking personally, when my children were born, my faith in God’s magnificence, power, mercy and love was truly reinforced. I was convinced as I held those babies that God is amazing. I also knew that I did not have the power or the wisdom to raise these little humans apart from plenty of help outside of my own meager wisdom. In other words, in those sublimely transcendent moments of the births of my children, I knew that God was real and that I needed His help.
In other words, in those sublimely transcendent moments of the births of my children, I knew that God was real and that I needed His help.
Looking out more broadly, how many people have told me that they came to NAPC because they wanted their young children to have a faith foundation (and found that they needed the same foundation as much or more than their children)? How many people have told me that they were invited by a friend whose kids played soccer or did ballet together? A few moments’ reflection leads us to see that there is a strong link between fertility and faith.
The very first command God gave humans was to “be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28). Today we are seeing a rebellion against this command, and it is sobering to consider what that will portend in the coming decades if the trend continues (nations with rock-bottom TFRs like Finland, Estonia, Italy, Japan, and Australia have begun to incentivize their citizens to have more children, with limited success). Meanwhile, in our corner of the world, we want to embody an “alternative lifestyle,” so to speak. One of the most poignant and powerful ways to display the goodness of God’s creation and the joy of keeping His commandments might simply be to get married, stay married, have babies and raise them with the primary goal of teaching them to follow Jesus. The language that we Christians use to describe our children might shift from ambivalent, joking sarcasm (“how can you survive with so many kids?” “Don’t you know how the process works?” “I can’t wait to have some peace and quiet when they leave.”) to unabashed gratitude.
The new radicals are not those who question family structures and forego children until late in life in order to pursue personal fulfillment – those are the most commonly held bourgeois values of our time. No, the true, new radicals are those who pursue marriage in their 20’s, have a bunch of children, and raise them for God’s glory. This is not easy, inexpensive or heartbreak free. But it is exceedingly joyful.