Lily Jones Howard grew up in a church in southern California with a burgeoning children’s and youth ministry. The church held afternoon and evening AWANA clubs and ran separate junior high and high school youth groups. She compares that to the church she and her husband and two children attend now. The median age of members, she guesses, is about 65 or 70. “The pastor has said explicitly that children are the lifeblood of the church,” Howard said. The congregation makes an effort to welcome young families like hers.
In the near future, an increasing number of American evangelicals may find themselves with church experiences like the Howard family’s for one principal reason: evangelicals with children are slowly becoming harder to find.
Americans in general are having fewer children today than they did two generations ago. Spiking after World War II, the fertility rate declined to around two lifetime births per woman in the ‘80s and has hovered there since, according to the Pew Research Center. Evangelicals, however, had maintained higher than average fertility rates until recently, according to University of Oklahoma sociologists Samuel Perry and Cyrus Schleifer.
Perry and Schleifer analyzed data from several decades of the General Social Survey (GSS) and found that, between 1972 and 2016, conservative Protestants went from having six percent more children than mainline Protestants to roughly the same number. Painted in broad strokes, what this means is that evangelicals now seem to be having about the same number of children as anybody else in America.
Demographers, politicians, and pundits are all concerned about head counting as the 2020 US Census approaches on top of a presidential election. Some are concerned about the economic and social burdens of an aging population, while others worry about each new person’s carbon footprint.
Evangelicals also weigh seemingly conflicting concerns. Some see God’s command in Genesis to “be fruitful and multiply” as paramount, while others glean from the creation story a responsibility to steward creation, which might mean having fewer children.
How does having children fit into a broader vision of God’s kingdom? What values are informing—and what values should inform—our decisions around family size?
Declines Across the Board
Perry and Schleifer set out to explore how differences in religious commitment and belief might intersect with denominational affiliation in influencing childbearing decisions. Taking 44 consecutive annual samples of around 1,500 people who had completed their childbearing years (ages 45 and over), they compared the number of children born to Catholics, mainline Protestants, and conservative Protestants. Then they asked how factors like biblical literalism and regular church attendance affected family size.
According to their results, fertility has declined across Christian denominations, from an average of 2.7 children ever born in 1972 to 2.3 in 2016. The researchers looked at the effect that church attendance and a more literal view of the Bible had on a person’s family size. If mainline Protestants and Catholics attended church regularly, childbearing slightly increased. However, among conservative Protestants fertility rates declined regardless of attendance levels.
Perry surmises that this difference has to do with how evangelicals define themselves. “If you’re evangelical, you’re already pretty conservative,” he said. Church commitment and taking the Bible more literally come with being an evangelical. Within mainline Protestants and Catholics, however, there is a noticeable split between liberal and conservative types. Regular church attendance and belief in a literal interpretation of the Bible among these two groups, Perry said, indicate more traditional values, which correlate to higher fertility.
Economist Lyman Stone contends, however, that people who are more religious are still having more babies than others. “When you look at specific beliefs or religious behavior—religious people are becoming more distinctive. We’re not seeing this huge turn. There is still some fertility decline, but it’s far more modest,” he said.
Stone, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, points to a single survey: the 2014 Pew Religious Landscape Survey (PRLS). Evangelicals averaged 2.3 children born, about 8 percent higher than the 2.1 national average. The Pew survey used a much larger one-time sample (over 35,000 adults) compared to the survey Perry and Schleifer used, which could make it a more accurate estimate of recent fertility rates.
Despite different outcomes, both Perry and Schleifer’s research and the Pew survey are in line with recent headlines: People are having fewer babies. Evangelicals are no exception.
The “Mainstreaming” of Evangelical Christianity
Mandy Cobb and her husband struggled for years to conceive and underwent multiple fertility treatments. Their son’s birth in 2015 was traumatic, including an emergency C-section and ICU stays for both mother and baby. They won’t be having more biological children for health reasons, and while adoption has been discussed, Cobb said, it would probably just be one. “Having more than two or three would alter my mental sanity.”
Cobb is a full-time working mother, coordinating a radiation program for a technical college in Georgia. “I absolutely love what I do,” she said. Knowing that she wants to keep working, having a lot of children doesn’t make sense financially. “The more kids I have, the more I’d be working to pay for childcare,” she said.
While Cobb’s story can’t be reduced to sociological trends, it offers a glimpse into how evangelicals’ thoughts around childbearing are changing.
In the latter 20th century, evangelicals began shifting from their separatist, fundamentalist roots and engaging more across society. The changing role of women, said Baylor University historian Philip Jenkins, is one of the biggest factors influencing downward fertility trends. Research shows an inverse correlation between women’s educational attainment and family size. As evangelical women like Cobb increasingly work outside the home, it changes their calculus around family size.
Another related factor is marital status and age at marriage. Evangelical marriage rates dipped from 59 to 55 percent between 2007 and 2014, according to Pew. They follow the pattern of Americans as a whole, marrying at later ages and sometimes foregoing marriage and children altogether. Delayed marriage, Stone said, may explain much of the fertility decline in the past two decades, as married women have more children than unmarried women.
This all points to the larger trend Perry identified—the “mainstreaming” of evangelicals since the 1970s. Simply put, evangelicals are absorbing many of the values of the surrounding culture, which itself is becoming less religious (26 percent of American adults identified as “nones” in 2019, up from 17 percent in 2009).
Changing Views on Children
Victoria Riollano and her husband live in Northern Virginia and have six children, from ages one to 12. Her family gets plenty of stares when they leave the house. “Once you get to three, people start looking at you like you have three heads,” she said. As their numbers grew, Riollano felt called by God to stand up for her family, rather than accept the assumptions. When people remark, “You have your hands full,” she replies, “I’m so blessed,” or “Yes, but they are good helpers,” pointing to the older children. She doesn’t want her children to get the message that they are a nuisance, which is how she felt growing up as one of two children.
For Riollano, raising children is an integral part of her calling as a Christian. She goes back to Genesis 1:28, when God blessed Adam and Eve and told them to, “Be fruitful and multiply.” “That’s part of our commitment to God. Children are for keeping the name, the legacy alive,” she said.
Riollano contrasts her view to that of her generation, which she said sees children as optional, having them “if it’s convenient for me.” Indeed, views of children have changed dramatically from past generations, when children were integral to the family economy, whether as farm hands or wage earners.
The widespread availability of contraception has also changed how we think about childbearing. A century ago, noted the Baylor researcher Jenkins, everyone had about the same number of children, regardless of religion, because they didn’t have options otherwise. While some forms of contraception were available earlier, it wasn’t until the 1970s that the use of reliable, long-term birth control such as the Pill and IUDs became commonplace.
“Protestants jumped into the contraception and birth control movement with two feet,” said Wheaton College theologian Emily McGowin. “We didn’t think a lot about what we were buying into.” It’s no surprise to McGowin that we are still struggling to articulate a consistent, faithful vision for children and families. Theologically, “it’s going to take a good hundred years to actually come to terms with this,” she said.
In the meantime, declines in fertility rates bring new urgency to these questions: Why have children? What are families for?
Are Children Biblically Mandated?
Many evangelicals would agree with Riollano that childbearing, if you’re able to, is part of the biblical mandate in Genesis. “We are told that children are a blessing and gift from God,” the economist Stone said. “There is a cultural change going on among Christians—we are choosing not to read the biblical passages about the joy and beauty and excellence of large families.”
Others question whether God’s command to Adam and Eve applies to us today, or whether it was even a command at all. “We’ve already multiplied,” said Lisa McMinn, sociologist and writer in residence at George Fox University. “There is a population and resource issue, and the best way to love our children and to love the future’s children and to love, really, all people, or all children, will be to limit our family size,” she told CT in 2010.
Meghan Rogers-Czarnecki, who has two biological children and one adopted child, sees it as a story of God creating humankind to watch over and care for creation. “That’s really our purpose. We’ve morphed it into just caring about people,” she said. Even caring for people, she added, involves stewarding its resources for future generations.
Rogers-Czarnecki grew up in a Quaker church in Oregon where creation care is central to their faith. If she had taken the time to think through things more thoroughly when she and her husband first married, she said, she would have just adopted. In a time when non-renewable resources are being rapidly depleted and the disastrous effects of climate change are becoming apparent, “it seems irresponsible to grow our population,” she said. This applies especially in America, where we consume such a disproportionate amount of the world’s resources. And, Rogers-Czarnecki added, “many kids need homes.”
Stone believes such thinking is misguided. Carbon emissions are the problem, not population, he said. It is an issue of “policy, resource allocation, and innovation… It puts the cart before the horse to try to fix climate change by reducing the number of people who will enjoy the world we save,” he said. Stone sees stewardship—of the earth and of one’s finances—as for the sake of the family, not the other way around.
But, McGowin points out, there is not one unbroken view of family throughout the Bible. The Old Testament has a different vision than the New Testament, which itself is not particularly family-friendly. “Jesus very much relativizes biological family for the sake of discipleship to him. Paul is ambivalent about it,” McGowin said.
From McGowin’s perspective, the family gains its significance in the new covenant in relationship to the church. “The church is the institution, the body, that will endure into the new heavens and earth. The body of Christ is primary. The primary work of the family, as part of the household of God, is to make disciples—disciples of the parents as well as the children. This doesn’t necessarily mean you should have more (kids),” McGowin said.
Matthew Sleeth, founder of the creation care organization Blessed Earth, argues that Jesus’s command to make disciples of all nations (Matt. 28:19) outweighs the Genesis command. “We are to ‘teach,’ not out-procreate, all nations,” Sleeth wrote in Serve God, Save the Planet.
Aging and Shrinking Communities
The Washington Post recently ran a dismal report on Maine, the oldest state in the country with a fifth of the population older than 65. Its growing number of older adults require more home health care and nursing homes, but there are not enough workers. As a result, an increasing number of elderly people are not getting the care they need, and families struggle to fill in the gaps. According to the article, Maine’s situation is a preview of the nation’s future.
Evangelical churches are aging along with the rest of the country. The median age of evangelical adults rose from 47 to 49 between 2007 and 2014, according to Pew. While evangelical numbers continue to grow, they are starting to decline as a percentage of the nation’s population. Perry and Schleifer predict that, if fertility rates continue along the same downward trend, the evangelical population will start to shrink.
Some denominations are already shrinking. The Southern Baptist Convention, for instance, the largest denomination in the country, lost 1.4 percent of its members from 2007 to 2014, according to Pew. The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod lost .3 percent. While adults leaving the denomination play a role, most of the declines, Perry said, may have to do with people having less children.
Using Pew numbers for current fertility rates, as well as rates of adults leaving and entering denominations, Stone calculated the average number of children that women would need to have in order to maintain current numbers. Baptists would need a minimum average of 2.58 children per woman. In 2014, the actual number of children they had per woman over 45 was 2.27. In contrast, Pentecostals, who bring in more members through conversion than they lose to apostasy, need only an average of 1.89 children per woman for their denomination not to shrink. In 2014, they were having 2.7 per woman.
Some may look at the numbers and see a need to shore up evangelism efforts, bringing more converts into the faith to make up for losses from lower fertility. Stone points out the need to be realistic. “Statistically, it takes about 30-40 Christians to evangelize one adult,” he said.
North Park University theologian Soong-Chan Rah sees another way. “The standard approach to church growth has been biological and conversion growth,” he said. A third element, however, is immigration.
Rah points out that while many white evangelical churches are seeing membership declines, immigrant and ethnic minority churches are thriving. “There is an incredible movement of people around the world coming to us. Immigrants are a population stop-gap, able to fill in where the post-boomer generation did not have the numbers.”
Many immigrants are also committed Christians, Rah said, and fill in a spiritual gap. “We’re looking at this answer God sent. But because of our nativism, racism, and anti-immigrant stance, many Christians are not receiving it.”
While immigration may be part of the answer, it may not be enough, especially for the long-term, Jenkins said. The birth rates of immigrants, which is typically higher, synchronizes with the general population after a generation or two. Fertility rates in sending countries are also plummeting. Mexico, for instance, has seen a decline in total fertility from about 7 per woman in the 1960s to 2.2 today.
Digging Down to the Values
Whether one leans toward moral arguments for having more or fewer children, “it’s easy to cast all of this as bad or good, being dualistic, rather than think about the core values that are driving [the trends],” McMinn said.
Evangelicals are having fewer children for many, overlapping reasons. Perry encourages Christians to consider how secular values influence our own, such as whether consumerism drives us to work more to have more stuff, making a big family more unfeasible. “To what degree am I being influenced by what Jesus wants me to do or to what degree am I internalizing or reflecting what the broader society says I should prioritize?” he said.
At the same time, Perry said, many families are limiting their size because women want to play a broader role in society outside of childrearing, which he affirms. “If reversing this trend requires women not going to college and not going to work, it’s going to be difficult to get in front of the church and scold women for earning, exercising their gifts, and putting their kids in daycare,” he said.
While Europe has long had a reputation for generous family leave policies, in recent years some European countries have begun offering more aggressive economic incentives to encourage women to have children and reverse population decline. Hungary, for example, where far-right president Viktor Orbán recently put forth a “procreation, not immigration” policy, gives large families steep tax breaks and interest-free loans. “At the core of a lot of those policies is a concern about [a white population] being outbred,” Perry said. If we are having more children to “fight off the brown hordes” that will change a nation’s culture and makeup, Christians may have a prophetic voice in speaking against such values, while still supporting family-oriented policies.
Parenting into the Future
In Portland, Oregon, Daniel Holcomb and his wife and three children live in a 900-square-foot house with a big yard. They’ve thought intentionally about their house size and the number of children they have, considering their own social and emotional parenting capacities and their family’s impact on the environment.
Holcomb, who grew up as a missionary kid in East Africa and has traveled extensively, has seen the financial strain of having extremely large families. He has also seen the emotional and elder care gap families experience when, in only a generation or two, they shrink from having eight or ten children to having just one or none.
In Portland, he regularly comes up against anti-human sentiment, a sense that people are what’s wrong with the world and shaming those who do have children. He talks with his children, ages 3 to 9, about these messages. He wants them to have “an understanding that they are created in God’s image” but at the same time know that “humans can be really bad stewards of the environment.” They talk about endangered species, how ecosystems work, and how even spiders and ants play a role. On their own property, they’ve created a forest-garden with plants and flowers that will sustain the bee population.
Holcomb and his wife wrestled with the environmental impact that children would have but concluded that their children could have a positive impact for future generations. “We try as much as we can, even at a younger age, to encourage each of the kids to be protectors and good stewards of the natural world around them rather than just seeing it as resources to be used and exploited,” Holcomb said.
Recently, seeing firsthand how services and care can break down when there are not enough younger people to fill positions, he has also started to view childbearing in terms of being a good neighbor. It is a way that “Christians can have the numbers to care for either their actual parents or parents in the body of Christ,” Holcomb said.
Holcomb acknowledges that he can’t control the outcome. “We hold their futures loosely. They’re their own people.” Not everybody is called to it, he said, and not everyone is able to. But for those that do, “it can be one of the longest-term discipleship relationships in a person’s life. Having children can be a way to bless the world and others.”
Liuan Huska is a writer living in the Chicago area. Her forthcoming book on chronic illness is publishing with InterVarsity Press.
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