I used to hear some variation of this: “We Christians haven’t been doing so well in the culture war, but in the long run we’ll prevail because we are having lots of kids, and the secularists aren’t.” This doesn’t seem to be true anymore. The birth rate of Christians–whether evangelicals, other conservative Protestants, and Catholics–has dropped so that it is little different from that of secularists.
America’s overall fertility rate has been about 2.1 births per woman, which is barely replacement level. For conservative Protestants, including Evangelicals, the number used to significantly higher, at 2.7. Today, that has dropped to 2.3.
So reports Liuan Huska, writing in Christianity Today, in an article entitled Americans Are Having Fewer Children. Evangelicals Are No Exception. She cites a study specifically attempting to correllate fertility rates with religious beliefs and church attendance:
[University of Oklahoma sociologists Samuel] Perry and [Cyrus] 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.
Huska also quotes Lutheran economist Lyman Stone, who notes that despite the overall decline in childbearing, religious people are still having more children than the non-religious, pointing out that the 2.3 rate is 8% more than the 2.1 rate.
Why are evangelicals having fewer children? Huska cites several reasons. Most conservative Protestants are now fine with birth control technologies, which they once had problems with, along with conservative Catholics. Some evangelical couples cite “stewardship of the earth” as the reason for not having children, buying the environmentalist line that each child is a burden on the earth’s resources and a contributor to climate change.
I suspect the bigger reasons are those common to nearly all Americans and the reason why there is a decline in nearly every demographic: Women are devoting themselves to the workplace. And, especially, couples are getting married later in life and women are having their first children at an older age.
At any rate, the declining birthrate among Christians means that churches will skew older and will decline in membership. According to Huska,
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.
How to shore up church membership, which has historically been related to children growing up in the faith? Making new converts is one answer (though Stone says that “Statistically, it takes about 30-40 Christians to evangelize one adult”). Another possibility is for churches to take advantage of immigration. Though immigrants tend to have higher a birthrate, Huska says, within a generation or two, it tends to drop to that of the host country. Still, welcoming legal immigrants can bring the fruits of the global revival of Christianity into American congregations.