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What to Expect When No One’s Expecting

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By Doug Ponder

Overpopulation fears are vastly overstated. As surprising as it may seem, the bigger threat is population decline. In 1979, for example, the world’s fertility rate was roughly 6 children per couple; today it’s just 2.52.[1] Moreover, birthrates are falling everywhere. In fact, only 3 percent of the world’s population lives in a country whose fertility rate is not declining.[2]

This decline is especially apparent in the West, where America’s birthrate has fallen to a record low for the second straight year. At 1.93 children per couple, America does have the highest birthrate of any western nation, yet we still fall below the rate needed to sustain our population (2.1 children per couple). In other words, if it weren’t for immigration, our population would be dwindling. Forget ‘be fruitful and multiply’—we aren’t even replacing ourselves.

In addition to theological concerns about the increasing cultural divergence from the Bible’s positive vision for children and families, falling birthrates bring teleological, or consequence-based, concerns too. Simply put: a declining population is an aging population, which means a decrease of people in the workforce, a slowing down of the economy, and a runaway federal budget that struggles to pay for social security, Medicaid and other public programs that many people depend upon for survival. This is why experts warn that things are about to get very bad, very fast, as the impending European crisis is increasingly showing us.

If it weren’t for immigration, our population would be dwindling.

Who Is Having Fewer Children? Why? And Why Now?

Sociologists have identified many factors contributing to the decrease in birthrates today: the shift away from an agrarian society, desires to attain higher and higher standards of living, the delaying of marriage until late 20s or early 30s, the increase of women in the workforce, the reform of marital laws allowing for “easy divorce” and the Pandora’s-box-like effect of the birth control pill with the sexual revolution that followed its release. All these factors are largely known and statistically demonstrable.

Yet there’s one factor greatly affecting modern birthrates that is sometimes overlooked: the correlation between religious faith and family size. Barring individual exceptions in cases of infertility, illness and/or exceedingly unique ministry callings, the stats show that the more religious someone is, the more children they tend to have. No small wonder, then, that America’s birthrate continues to decline as church participation plummets and the number of religious “Nones” continues to rise.

I have seen this same trend in my city. My house sits on a diverse block in a historically diverse neighborhood. My neighbors vary in age from students to retired folks. Our skin tones span the spectrum. Singles and couples and families live here. Even our socio-economic range is great, with low-income houses situated right across the street from several dual-income families, one of which includes an anesthesiologist (who is apparently not short on funds).

Yet despite all the diversity on my block, one feature that cuts across generations and ethnicities and income levels is the correlation between religious faith and family size. Every Christian couple on my block has three or more children; every non-Christian couple has one or zero. Ye shall know them by their fruitfulness.

Now I realize that one city block is hardly an acceptable sample size for serious sociology. But I’ve observed the same trend across my city for more than a decade. Anecdotal though it is, I am shocked to say that I can’t think of even one non-Christian family I’ve met in Richmond who has three or more children. (My wife can’t either.) While it could be the case that we just need to get out more, it turns out that our observations line up what the national data reveals: the more religious someone is, the more children they typically have.

The unending cries of a newborn can force our self-centered satellites out of orbit.

“Facts Are Our Friends.” – Ed Stetzer

The current birthrate trends indicate some interesting future scenarios. To begin with, the number of atheists and agnostics, despite a recent uptick from the “de-conversion” of nominal Christians, is predicted to decrease substantially over the next century almost entirely because they have so few children.[3] Again, this trend matches what I have observed. With all due respect to many of the kind atheists and agnostics I know, the frank ones will tell you that their own personal happiness is their main moral compass. Yet that way of living is a recipe for very few children, if any, because children pose an obvious and immediate threat to a self-centered life, as some anti-child couples happily admit.

The truth, of course, is that we are all tempted to live as if the world revolved around Me, which means that children are actually one of God’s gifts of grace (if we receive them rightly). The unending cries of a newborn can force our self-centered satellites out of orbit. And as these new “neighbors” take center stage, for a few brief years parents are compelled to respond, to take action, to grow up into the kinds of people who regard others before themselves (Philippians 2:4; Mark 12:31). In other words, parenting is hard but good, and the gospel teaches us to see that hard and good are not opposites. Instead, the words “worthy sacrifice” and “cultivated blessing” come to mind (cf. Galatians 6:9).

Unfortunately, Christians have not done particularly well at resisting the factors that negatively affect childbirth and our culture’s attitude toward children. While Christians do have, on average, almost twice as many children as agnostic or atheist couples, we still have far fewer children than we once did. For this reason Muslim births are on pace to outnumber Christian births as soon as the year 2035.[4] Leaving prejudiced xenophobia completely aside, that prediction should be a grave cause for concern for anyone who cares about religious liberty, human rights and the equal treatment of women—not to mention the truths of Scripture and the claims that Jesus made about himself (John 14:6).

Be Fruitful and Multiply… with Joy!

My seminary president, Dr. Danny Akin, once preached in chapel that there is a missiological purpose in the biblical command to “be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28).[5] And while the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20) shows us that “be fruitful and multiply” finds its corporate fulfillment in more than merely having children, it can never include less than having children—for God cannot redeem those who do not exist.

A word of clarification: I do not think this means that every Christian couple must maximize the total number of children they have, without spacing or limitation of any kind.[6] Nor does it mean that couples who want children but can’t have them should feel any shame. On the contrary, to affirm that children are good while not being able to have children yourself demonstrates a deep contentment in Jesus and a lack of envy and its bitter fruit. (Also, if you or someone you know is dealing with infertility, please know that God feels your pain, loves you as his child and has not left you, forsaken you or sidelined you in his glorious plan to redeem the world.)

So then, in view of both the trends that signal the impending crisis for western civilization and the Bible’s positive vision for family and children,[7] allow me to offer an exhortative observation: One of best ways for Christians to be positively countercultural today is to marry young, start a family early and have more than two children for the glory of God and the good of society. And when your neighbors ask you “for a reason for the hope that is in you” in the midst of the crazy chaos of a home that’s fit to burst, point them to Jesus, the love that he has for little ones and the kind of joy that can persist even in the absence of a full night’s sleep.

[1] Jonathan Last, What to Expect When No One’s Expecting: America’s Coming Demographic Disaster (New York, NY: Encounter Books, 2014), 8.

[2] Ibid., 92.

[3] http://www.pewforum.org/2017/04/05/the-changing-global-religious-landscape/

[4] Ibid.

[5] I don’t recall the sermon title or date of delivery, but that puts me in good company with the author of Hebrews, who wrote, “Somebody somewhere has said…” (Hebrews 2:16).

[6] Those who want to argue that because God opens and closes the womb Christian couples must therefore be open to having as many children as possible will find it difficult to prove what the Bible never plainly commands. Furthermore, I have found that even the strongest proponents of the providence of God still lock their doors at night. Nevertheless, parents with seven kids and the humble willingness to receive “as many children as God gives us” are probably closer to the biblical vision of the family than the family with one kid, two dogs, and a host of excuses for why they “already have their hands full.”

[7] The very first thing God said to us, as beings made in his image, was this: “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it…” (Gen. 1:28). Thus we were made to fill God’s world with culture that reflected his glory and with people who could join us in this task. In this way, raising children is an essential component of the calling that God has given to those who get married, because it is the first step in God’s plan to fill the world with people who will enjoy him forever (Habakkuk 2:14). Furthermore, God repeatedly gave this command so that we wouldn’t miss the point or think he was only talking to other married couples: Genesis 9:1, 7; 17:20; 28:3; 35:11; 48:4; Leviticus 26:9; Jeremiah 23:3; 29:4-6; Ezekiel 36:11). In fact, God once rejected the worship of his people when they refused to bear children, saying, “You cry out, ‘Why doesn’t the Lord accept my worship?’ I’ll tell you why! Because the Lord witnessed the vows you and your wife made when you were young. But you have been unfaithful to her, though she remained your faithful partner, the wife of your marriage vows. Has not the one God made you? You belong to him in body and spirit. And what does the one God seek? Godly children from your union. So be on your guard, and do not be unfaithful to the wife of your youth” (Malachi 2:14-15).

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  • current events
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Doug Ponder

Doug Ponder (M.Div., Th.M. Southeastern Seminary) is the Teaching Pastor at Remnant Church in Richmond, VA. He also serves as Dean of Faculty and Professor of Biblical Studies at Grimké Seminary. He and his wife, Jessica, have four sons.

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