We do often talk about birthrates at church. Well at least not in those terms. We discuss delaying conception until after we accomplish some life goal; we discuss how 1 or 2 kids is our ideal family size; and, we discuss why modern society no longer needs a family to have 12 kids. We examine birthrates through the lens of modern convenience and societal success. And as a result, evangelicals increasingly prize smaller and smaller families. At last check, the birthrate for Southern Baptist couples sits at 1.96, appreciably below the replacement birth rate of 2.1.
As Southern Baptists and as Bible believing Christians, we need to start looking at birthrates through the lens of biblical truth. But we need to do more than just talk. We need to act and act soon.
We need to begin advocating for large families. We need to encourage our young couples to have kids. The Bible commands it (Gen. 1:28). The survival of our churches depends upon it.
Why The Birthrate Matters
Let’s say we decide to be cool and start a new church plant called Last Baptist Church with fifty God fearing couples. Theses couples adhere to the Southern Baptist birth rate and have 98 kids. The couples’ kids grow up in great Christians homes where church attendance is a must. They attend Sunday school, Bible Drill, and Disciple Now weekends. They get baptized. Eventually, most of them go off to college. According to George Barna, somewhere between 30%-40% of these kids will stay actively involved in church. We will assume that our Last Baptist church is a really godly church and will go with the higher number, predicting that 40% of the kids stay involved. The next generation is now comprised of 39 people. Thankfully, studies by Steve Parr have shown that about 40% of those church kids who walked away from the faith will decide to come back to church. As time goes on, 24 of the kids who left will return to our church’s pews. The second generation now consists of 63 adults.
These 63 adults get together and start their own families. They have 61 kids. And they grow up, leave and come back. Last Baptist’s third generation now consists of 39 people. In a matter of three generations our Last Baptist Church will see it’s young adult attendance drop from 100 people to 39. After another generation has passed, the church adult attendance goes down to 24 and then 16.
Now this does not happen immediately. There is a lot of generational overlap. The initial three generations will all attend church together for some time. The church members will think that Last Baptist Church is relevant, expanding, and reaching people. After all it has gone from a 100 people to an average attendance of 202 people in a period of 30 years. Life is good; the Senior Pastor gets invited to speak at church planting conferences. But then the senior adults begin to pass away and the kids begin to leave. The population bubble bursts. As the second generation moves into the leadership roles, the church’s attendance slowly drops from 202 to 1126. Although the church begins to struggle, the sanctuary is still relatively full. After a few more years pass, the third generation moves into leadership. Now the average attendance is down to 79. And then bottom falls out when the fourth generation takes over. Only 56 people are regularly attending. You have 24 senior adults, 16 adults and 16 kids. The leaders of the church wonder what went wrong? They wonder were all the people went. And though the answer is simple, it is a hard one to swallow. The people were never born.
Admittedly, no church goes through such a simple, straight forward process as Last Baptist Church. People move off, join other churches, and new members come through conversion. There are a whole host of variables at play.
But in many cases, I believe those variables do not favor the church. Some little towns will see large portions of their second and third generations move away. Of those 63 kids, perhaps only 20-30 of them will actually stay in town. Instead of going up, the birth rate will most likely continue to drop with each succeeding generation. All of these factors will serve to expedite Last Baptist’s decline. Instead of taking 60 to 80 years, the decline I’ve described could happen in matter of 15-20 years. I believe that many little, country churches may be dying today because their previous generations did not have kids. Their bubbles have begun to burst.
I know that the birthrate is not the only thing that determines whether or not a church is about to die. Tom Rainer has written several good little books such as I AM A Church Member and the Autopsy of A Deceased Church that tackle many of the heart attitudes and bad theology that undo a church. I highly recommend them to all who want their church to thrive.
But a church’s birthrate must be considered. I believe that the birthrate is a contributing factor to a church’s decline. According to the book Spiritual Champions, almost 64% of all people embrace Christ by 18. Adults are not nearly as receptive as children. Only around 6% of people over age 19 will be open to the gospel. Can we and should we reach out to adults with the gospel? Yes! I have personally seen God radically transform fifty-year-old men and women. Yet a church that does not have kids will miss its best chance to reach one of the largest and most approachable demographics. As a result, the church that is content will a low birthrate is a church that is content with decline. The SBC is already seeing this phenomenon take place. Membership continues to drop despite our best evangelistic efforts. And unless birthrates change, I predict the decline will continue.
If we want our churches to grow, we must encourage our families to grow. Are you ready to do this?