I heard missiologist Alan Hirsch at a conference a few weeks ago. He was talking about apostles and prophets, evangelists and pastors and teachers as key to the mission of the church. Yet when someone asked him about how to stem the decline of our congregations, he ostensibly stepped aside from his missional theory and said something surprising. Hirsch pointed out that while congregations can develop strategies for outreach, what we need to do is have more children. He said that one of the most effective environments for discipleship is the home.
He’s right. At least for my sort of acculturated Mennonites (and I suspect this is the case for most mainline and near-mainline churches like ours), demographics have become ecclesial destiny. Since the 50s, we’ve transitioned to small families. The move had a sort of gospel sheen: less children meant our consuming less resources meant more was available for developing nations. A Kenyan believer once put the question to a pastor friend of mine. “Why do you only have two daughters? In Kenya, we want a big family!” Our friend responded by articulating the common thinking. “It’s because raising just one of our kids takes as many resources as raising your whole family. Just think of all the diapers!”
In any case, hadn’t Jesus said something about loving him more than mother and father, son and daughter? Perhaps, the idea goes, his words call into question family life with the prodigious investment of time and resources required. In that way of thinking, we ought be out making disciples in the world, not changing diapers.
But if having fewer children seems like a gospel value, it’s the Gospel of Malthus–a pessimistic view of the world that obscures economic and cultural obstacles to development and sees children primarily as mouths to feed. The effects on the church have been devastating, in at least three ways:
- Joining: Large families need–and beget–the social systems of the church. Large families want help with the kids on Wednesday night so they can catch a breather. They want catechism class and youth group and Sunday School and summer camp. And they commit time and money to make these things happen. They’re joiners. In my experience, large families in the church sense that they can’t go it alone. They need the church as much as the church needs them.
- Discipling: While focusing on new believers outside the walls of the church is good and vital, to do so exclusively is to neglect the natural way that congregations grow: disciples born and raised in the faith, and disciples adopted in from outside. The two are intertwined. Biological children open doors in the community that allow us to connect with folks who weren’t raised in the church. I can talk about Jesus quite naturally with the fourth grade soccer team because my son is on the team and I’m the coach.
- Witnessing to the Gospel of Life: Modernity has disconnected making love from making life and thus opened up the family to profound redefinition. The latest is the polyamorous phenomenon, which strikes my curmudgeonly old mind as only possible if intimate relationships don’t lead to children. There’s not going to be “new relationship energy” (see this article) when you’re up at 3 AM with a croupy baby. Large families help us give consistent witness to the gospel of life, a gospel which holds the spiritual and physical aspects of our humanity in unity.
Of course, marriage and children are gifts to be received with gratitude. We don’t always get to choose, and we have to be open to leading what Paul calls “the life that the Lord has assigned, to which God called you” (1 Corinthians 7:17). It strikes me that the loss of large families has likely been accompanied by the loss of vibrant spaces for singles within the relational ecosystem of the church.
There’s no easy way for the church to back down from modernity’s cliff. And yet, we got to this place by changing the way we thought about families and children. Maybe we can start by recovering the openness of heart that Jesus described when he said: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me” (Matthew 18:5).