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Krieg Barrie

Suicidal tendency

Economy | Are the dismal demographics of America reflected in its evangelical churches?

Issue: "Another dark day in America," Jan. 12, 2013

There are two traditional ways for a nation or a society to propagate itself. You can have a lot of babies. And you can welcome people from other countries.

Historically, the United States has always done pretty well on both fronts. But according to The Economist magazine last week, America is now slipping badly on the baby front. And a whole lot of us are still trying to figure out what we think about immigration.

Such slippage has a powerful influence on the overall economy. The Economist asserts: “Although America’s fiscal problems are among the worst in the rich world, its policymakers long took comfort that, when it came to demography, its outlook was one of the best. Because Americans have so many babies and welcome so many immigrants, they had more room to deal with the coming burden of pensions and health care for the elderly.

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“But the savage recession of 2007-09 and its aftermath have not just deepened America’s fiscal hole; they have weakened those demographic advantages. America’s fertility rate has been falling since 2007, as has net immigration.” And a weakened economy makes the United States a less attractive destination for would-be immigrants.

Specifically, our government’s Census Bureau reported only five years ago that we were headed for a national population of 436 million by the year 2050. Last week, the same authorities changed that prediction to say we will have 400 million people—a drastic fall of some 9 percent.

So is the Christian community similar in these regards to the overall population? I tried hard a few weeks ago, while my wife and I were serving as greeters for the morning worship service at our church, to keep a mental record of how many children were in each of the families that walked by—and adding them up as they went. 

Two O’Briens. Four Waltons. Five Smiths. One Duncan. Five Berrys. Two Wests, with another on the way. Ten Bloemsmas. Twelve Engelses. Yes, 12. My mental calculator was whirring as the total approached something like 90 children, which I’d guess is comparatively healthy for a church of 240 members.

And I noted to myself, quite informally and a little smugly, that perhaps a dozen out of this group had been born in other countries.

But I couldn’t ignore some serious apprehension: To what extent should I worry that my church—and by extension, the evangelical church at large—has bought into the thinking of the secular culture? All this is apart from the claim—by many thoughtful statisticians who know evangelical churches quite well—that 80 percent of our young people will ultimately disappear from our churches and never return.

The Economist argues (but not always 100 percent persuasively) that “the main reason for the fall in both fertility and immigration is the economy. ... Children are expensive, so couples delay having them when their prospects are dim.” Wait a minute! I thought it was the other way around—that fertility and immigration were big shapers of the economy. But either way, it’s painfully appropriate to ask whether evangelicals have adopted pretty much the same superficial—and convenience-based—philosophy of parenting that characterizes the world at large. And if evangelicals are unable in the years just ahead to develop a singularly biblical approach to the immigration issue, we might argue whether they understand the gospel in the first place.

Unless someone can produce clear evidence to the contrary—solid indications that evangelical Christians today are quite different from the population that makes up their secular context—we’re in big trouble. If whole nations can die, so can local bodies of believers. Looking ahead to the next generation of our currently vigorous evangelical churches, is there reason to expect more than hollowed out and emptied congregations?

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.


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