Reproducing Christians: A Missiological Look at Family Size
by David Feddes
Christians who seek to grow churches and to disciple nations must recognize the necessity of reproducing spiritually and biologically.
Europe is on a path toward Islam. According to Bassam Tibi, the foremost moderate Muslim scholar in Germany, “The problem is not whether the majority of Europeans are Islamic, but rather which Islam—sharia or Euro-Islam—is to dominate in Europe” (Caldwell 2004). Europe is on a path toward Islam. According to Bassam Tibi, the foremost moderate Muslim scholar in Germany, “The problem is not whether the majority of Europeans are Islamic, but rather which Islam—sharia or Euro-Islam—is to dominate in Europe” (Caldwell 2004). While opposing militant Islam (Tibi 1998), he evidently assumes that Muslims of some kind—whether tolerant or harsh—will become the reigning majority in Europe.
“The demographics are unmistakable,” says one analyst. “Europe is dying” (Weigel 2005, 4). As Princeton scholar Bernard Lewis told a reporter, “Europeans marry late and have few or no children. But there’s strong immigration [from Muslim countries]. At the latest, following current trends, Europe will have Muslim majorities in the population at the end of the twenty-first century” (Schwanitz 2004).
Predictions of a Muslim Europe are not based on Muslim aggression or on mass conversions of Europeans to Islam. Indeed, less than one percent of Muslim growth in Europe comes from converting non-Muslims to Islam. Rather, Muslim growth is occurring through immigration and especially through childbearing. The Muslim birthrate in Europe is currently more than three times that of non-Muslims. Biological growth could prepare the way for conversion growth, “particularly if Islam gains official recognition, becomes more established and institutionalized in Europe and enters a proselytizing phase” (Savage 2004, 28).
These educated guesses may turn out to be mistaken. But something significant is happening when a journalist wonders, “Is France on the way to becoming an Islamic state?” (Amiel 2004) or when a scholar writes of Eurabia (Ye’or 2005). In a Europe where most people are already indifferent toward Jesus, a growing Muslim presence is seen by evangelicals as another reason to prioritize Europe as a mission field (Moreau and O’Rear 2005).
The European situation does indeed indicate a need to redouble outreach efforts, but it also highlights something else: the importance of family size for the religious future of nations. If Europeans have few or no children, the continent’s future will be shaped by the religion of those who have more children. The same holds true around the world. As birthrates plummet among many populations, the future belongs to the fruitful, whether Hindus, Muslims, Mormons or devout Christians.
This must be factored into mission theory and practice. Christians who seek to grow churches and to disciple nations must recognize the necessity of reproducing spiritually and biologically.
THE RISE OF CHRISTIANITY
Christians tend to credit the expansion of Christianity in its early centuries to zealous missionaries, brilliant apologists and brave martyrs. Such heroes were indeed used by the Holy Spirit to convert many. But another key factor was that “Christian communities gradually out-bred and out-lived their pagan counterparts” (Longman 2004b, 35).
In The Rise of Christianity, sociologist Rodney Stark argues that “Christian fertility substantially exceeded that of the pagans…and helped Christianize the Greco-Roman world” (1996, 115). In “a male culture that held marriage in low esteem,” babies (except a male heir) tended to be unwelcome. By the first century of the Christian era, birthrates among cultured pagans had dropped below replacement level, resulting in “centuries of natural decrease.” Various emperors encouraged and even subsidized larger families, but such efforts failed. The empire could be sustained and the population maintained only by importing “barbarian” settlers from beyond imperial borders. “Meanwhile, in keeping with the biblical injunction to ‘be fruitful and multiply,’ Christians maintained a substantial rate of natural increase” (1996, 116-117).
Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Politics had recommended abortion and infanticide to limit population. Abortion methods were dangerous, often killing mother as well as baby. Unwanted babies who were not aborted were drowned or exposed to be killed by animals, harsh weather or starvation. Girl babies were less desired than boys and as a result more likely to be killed, producing a shortage of women and further limiting reproduction among pagans. Christians shunned these practices as murder (Stark 1996, 119-121). Indeed, some Christians even rescued pagans’ babies from exposure, adopted them and raised them as Christians—further swelling Christian numbers. Pagans engaged in non-procreative forms of sex, such as anal intercourse and homosexuality. According to Stark, “Christians were opposed to sexual practices that diverted sperm from the vagina….In all these ways did Christians reject the cultural patterns that were causing the Greco-Roman pagan population to decline” (1996, 126).
The Christian movement also grew through persuasion and conversion. It would be inaccurate to attribute Christianity’s growth in its early centuries entirely to biological growth and demographic factors. However, it would be equally erroneous to ignore such factors.
THE EMPTY CRADLE
The Roman Empire’s low reproduction rate is being repeated with a vengeance in today’s world. Indeed, earlier fears of a population explosion are now giving way to worries about a population implosion. “Never have birth and fertility rates fallen so far, so fast, so low, for so long, in so many places, so surprisingly” (Wattenberg 2004, 5).
In populations with low infant mortality and excellent medical care, an average birthrate of 2.1 babies per woman is necessary for a population to replenish itself. The birthrate must be higher to achieve replacement levels in countries with higher infant mortality, poorer medical care, devastating epidemics or major wars.
Europe’s average birthrate, according to United Nations estimates, has plummeted to 1.38 babies per woman of childbearing age. This is thirty-four percent less than replacement level (Wattenberg 2004, 25). The average birthrate in Spain and Italy is 1.2. Russia’s birthrate barely tops 1.1, prompting President Vladimir Putin to call it “a serious crisis threatening Russia’s survival.”
A birthrate of 1.1 means that the newest generation is barely half the size of the one before it. Decline compounds with each new generation so that the generation of grandchildren would be only twenty-eight percent of the size of their grandparents’ generation. Russia’s population is already declining. Germany is on track to lose the equivalent of the current population of East Germany by 2050. Plummeting birthrates also characterize many nations outside Europe. Total world population is projected to grow for a few more decades, thanks to increased life expectancy.
But China, Japan, Korea and other Asian nations are graying—and will eventually start shrinking. Chinese demographer Xiaochun Qiao speaks of a “4-2-1” society, in which one child must support two parents and four grandparents (Longman 2004b, 53). South Africa’s birthrate dropped by more than half in four decades. Brazil’s birthrate has been halved in the past thirty years (2004b, 25, 32). Similar trends are occurring throughout Latin America, Africa and much—although not all—of the Middle East. Even where birthrates top the “magic number” of 2.1, the impact of AIDS, wars and sub-standard healthcare can result in depopulation.
Birthrates have wide-ranging importance for economics, social ties, international relations (Huntington 1996; Savage 2004) and even voting patterns. According to David Brooks, “George Bush carried the nineteen states with the highest white fertility rates, and twenty-five of the top twenty-six. John Kerry won the sixteen states with the lowest rates” (2004). Birthrates can be studied from various angles and for various purposes, but the intent here is to gain a biblical angle of vision on birthrates and to grasp challenges and opportunities to grow churches and to disciple nations.
INCREASE IN NUMBER
Evangelicals aim to root their thought and practice in the Bible. In Genesis 1:28 God says, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.” Some Christian traditions argue that this is a command, a moral absolute for married couples, and that birth control is therefore sinful. Old Testament scholar Raymond Van Leeuwen calls this a “wrong turn.” He declares, “Genesis 1:28 is not a commandment, but a blessing” (2001, 58). If this is in fact not a commandment and if scripture does not specifically condemn artificial birth control, many Christian couples consider themselves free to have few or no children. However, even if these couples are not disobeying a divine command, they are refusing a divine blessing.
It may be true that the Bible does not condemn all contraception or obligate all Christian couples to have as many children as possible. Still, without setting a required family size for all Christian couples, it may be time for Christians to ask whether their attitudes toward childbearing are shaped by scripture and Spirit or by personal preference and cultural conformity. Even setting aside the question “Is birth control wrong?,” we must still deal with the Bible’s answer to the question, “Are children a blessing?” God promised Abraham, “I will bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore” (Gen. 22:17). In Egypt, “the Israelites were fruitful and multiplied greatly and became exceedingly numerous” (Exod. 1:7). Later, God told Israel that in the case of faithfulness, “The fruit of your womb will be blessed,” but in the case of unfaithfulness, “You who were as numerous as the stars in the sky will be left but few in number” (Deut. 28:4, 62).
The prophet Heman’s many children “were given him through the promises of God to exalt him” (1 Chron. 25:4). Obed-Edom and his wife (who housed the ark of the covenant for a time) had eight sons, “for God had blessed Obed-Edom” (1 Chron. 26:5). Children of the godly not only bring honor and joy to their parents but also make a wider impact: they are “mighty in the land” (Ps. 112:2). Households and communities thrive only when God builds and defends them, says Solomon in Psalm 127—and abundant offspring play a key role in this:
Sons are a heritage from the Lord, children a reward from him. Like arrows in the hands of a warrior are sons born in one’s youth. Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them. They will not be put to shame when they contend with their enemies in the gate. (Ps. 127:3-5)
Some contemporary Christians have regarded a quiver full of children more as a joke to be chuckled about than as a divine blessing to be welcomed. Others, including prominent missiologists, have grimly described population growth as “frightening” (Neely 1993, 274) or even as one of “the four horsemen of the planetary apocalypse” (Thomas 1993, 363). But large families of Bible-believing Christians are neither a threat nor a joke; they are blessings for carrying out God’s mission in his world. Facing a cultural and religious confrontation with too few offspring is like facing a battle with too few arrows. Churches (or nations) that defy Solomon’s wisdom and have too few children even to replace themselves are choosing a path of decline and defeat.
Some might argue that the new covenant changes things and that our mandate in Christ is to multiply through mission, not through biological growth. But the New Testament does not contradict the Old Testament; salvation does not undo creation and the spiritual does not oppose the physical. Married couples among the early Christians did not reject making babies in favor of making converts; they did both, following the full counsel of God. Bible believers today can likewise increase in number by accepting God’s blessing of multiplying offspring and by following Christ’s call to make disciples of all nations.
MIGHTY IN THE LAND
According to Phillip Longman, “Not since the fall of the Roman Empire has the world ever experienced anything on the scale of today’s loss of fertility” (2004b, 35). Christians filled the population void then, and they can do so again. In many parts of the world today, low birthrates provide churches with an unprecedented opportunity to grow dramatically as a percentage of the population, simply by having a quiver full of children and faithfully bringing them up in the Lord.
If Christian couples would average six children in a culture where the overall birthrate is 1.3 (as in Japan or Europe), the Church could multiply its share of each new generation more than fourfold. In just three generations—less than a century—a Christian group that had been one percent of the population could be raising two-thirds of all newborns.
Six children may sound extreme. (Full disclosure: I am the fifth of six children; my wife and I have eight.) However, even if Christian couples would average just four children in a society with a 1.3 birthrate, the result would be a threefold expansion in the Church’s percentage of each new generation (if evangelism merely kept pace with losses). One percent could grow to nearly thirty percent by the third generation.
Biological growth and faithful childrearing might even aid mission effectiveness. After all, as long as Bible-believing Christians are only a negligible percentage of a population in a certain country or region, they are easy to ignore. But as their number grows, the potential army of witnesses and evangelists grows. The Christian faith becomes harder and harder to overlook; it must be taken seriously.
Relating reproductive math to religion may seem crass, but facts must be faced. Consider Mormonism. In describing the rapid rise of early Christianity, Stark points out, “The Mormons have, thus far, retraced the same growth curve” (1996, 14). Mormon growth is due in part to mission successes, but also to bountiful birthrates.
Or consider Muslim growth in Europe. European Muslims are not having huge families; they average only three or four children. But that is enough to triple the birthrate of other Europeans. Europe’s apostasy and sterility create a vacuum, and Islam is one candidate that will occupy the void. However, a resurgent Christianity could yet reclaim Europe with a potent blend of evangelism and fertile families.
Reproductive math is a factor in the spectacular growth of Christianity in Africa during recent decades. The increase is due to fertility as well as fervency. While African Christians have been winning many converts, they have also been having babies, resulting in exponential growth.
In the United States, much of the population has low birthrates similar to those in Europe. However, devout Christians are more likely to have larger families. According to Longman, forty-seven percent of people who attend church weekly say that the ideal family size is three or more children. This is compared to only twenty-seven percent of those who seldom attend church (2004b, 34).
In many nations, Longman observes, “Faith is increasingly necessary as a motive to have children.” Under modern social policy, parents bear more and more expense in childrearing but reap less and less financial reward from their adult children. Government programs “redistribute the next generation’s income to parents and non-parents alike” (2004b, 34). As economic incentive for childbearing dwindles, religious incentive looms larger.
Longman, a secularist himself, warns of a worldwide “mutation of human culture” that “would drive human culture off its current market-driven, individualistic, modernist course, and gradually create an antimarket culture dominated by fundamentalist values” (2004b, 35). “Fundamentalists” are not necessarily as antimarket as Longman claims. But those who rate faith and family higher than finance will indeed multiply faster than those around them. “Those who reject modernity thus seem to have an evolutionary advantage” (2004b, 36). What a secularist calls “evolutionary advantage” may not be far from what the Bible calls being “mighty in the land.”
Churches grow and nations are won through making converts and making babies. To stress the former but not the latter lessens church growth and weakens Christianity’s long-term impact. Heeding the scriptures and understanding the times, mission theorists and practitioners must factor family and fertility into their overall mission vision.
Missiologists who find large families “frightening” and fear a “global apocalypse” due to overpopulation need to refocus. True mission aims to increase Church population, not to limit world population. Besides, there is no longer need to worry with Paul Hiebert that “the world cannot continue long with its current rate of population growth” (1995, 366). The world food supply has proven to be more than adequate for a growing population and “the world now faces the opposite problem: an aging and declining population” (Longman 2004a, 79).
Even the most ardent proponent of church growth may downplay the role of birthrates in Christian expansion. Donald McGavran’s Understanding Church Growth offers a token nod to having babies: “Biological growth is good growth.” But the book goes on to state that “the non-Christian part of the world’s population is growing faster than the Christian and seems destined to continue to do so. Should the Church rely on biological growth alone, the proportion of Christians in the world would grow smaller and smaller” (1980, 98).
This typifies a mindset which simply accepts that it would be normal for Christians to have fewer children than other people do. If some Christians turn out to have more babies than non-Christians, this is apparently not due to the expectations or exhortations of Protestant missiologists! In traditional tribal societies, children are considered a great blessing (Hiebert 1994, 141). As we have seen, children are also considered a great blessing in the Bible. When culture and scripture both support sizeable families, missionaries should not send a conflicting message. Rather, by teaching and example, missionaries and church leaders can build communities that treasure birth as well as rebirth. Religion impacts birthrates—if the religion clearly affirms and communicates the value of childbearing and if adherents are committed and not nominal (McQuillan 2004).
A syncretistic blend of Christianity and Planned Parenthood ideology is unbiblical and unhelpful for future flourishing. “Western Christian missions have been one of the great secularizing forces in history” (Hiebert 1994, 197). Too often this has impacted family size and structure negatively. When the mindset of modernity has accompanied the message of the gospel, it has “often led to the breakdown of extended family and kinship systems that were the moral foundations of a society” (Hiebert 1995, 175).
Some medical missions and Christian-supported NGOs have done more to provide contraceptives to converts than to proclaim the blessings of a full quiver. Some mission agencies avoid hiring people who have large families as missionaries. Some faith missions cap the number of children for which missionaries can receive financial support. Such measures may limit short-term costs for agencies—but may also limit long-term church growth. Missionary couples who have few or no children offer new believers a “fewer is better” model. This could have a serious negative impact on the size and strength of the Church in generations to come.
What about couples whose calling to mission in risky situations “leads them to forgo the blessing and task of parenting” (Van Leeuwen 2001, 58)? Without judging particular cases, it must be noted that such a question sets mission in opposition to a growing family. But perhaps an integral part of mission is to be a growing family among those being won.
While birthrates can accelerate church growth, zeal for evangelism remains vital—not only to reach those outside the Church but to retain those born within it. The Church which loses its mission vitality tends to lose its own children to the world. Biological growth and evangelistic growth are mutually supportive, not mutually exclusive. Biological growth can increase the size and impact of church outreach. At the same time, life-changing mission that brings in newcomers also wins the hearts of the church’s young. All church growth ultimately depends on God. The Lord who opens the womb is the same Lord who opens the heart.
Some evangelicals are fond of saying, “God has no grandchildren.” This may sometimes be a useful warning against nominal religion, but it can also be a negative, self-fulfilling prophecy. A theology in which every new generation must start from scratch reflects Western individualism and may weaken the long-term impact of Christianity in a culture and reduce the number of disciples in future generations. Mission should seek to win individuals, of course, but also to produce multigenerational impact and multiplication.
Evangelical missions sometimes tend to focus on the next few years, paying little regard to the next few centuries. Some visionaries emphasize exposing all people groups to the gospel by a certain target date. Some church growth strategists aim to ignite rapidly spreading movements among people groups, hoping to gather vast numbers to Christ in a short time (Garrison 2000). Such goals manifest a healthy desire to make disciples of all nations and a firm faith that the same Holy Spirit who produced mass conversions on Pentecost and other occasions can still do so today.
Without detracting from such goals, due consideration must also be given to the vast multiplicative impact of fruitful families expanding the number of Christians from generation to generation. This will enhance understanding of Christian growth in the past, enable honest scrutiny of present assumptions and practices and encourage a pro-family, pro-childbearing approach in future mission.
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Brooks, David. 2004. “The New Red Diaper Babies.” The New York Times. December 7.
Caldwell, Christopher. 2004. “Islamic Europe?” The Weekly Standard, 10:4.
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Hiebert, Paul G. 1994. Anthropological Reflections on Missiological Issues. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books.
_____ and Eloise Hiebert Meneses. 1995. Incarnational Ministry: Planting Churches in Band, Tribal, Peasant, and Urban Societies. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books.
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Stark, Rodney. 1996. The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
Thomas, Norman E. 1993. “Church-State Relations and Mission.” In Toward the 21st Century in Christian Mission. eds. James M. Phillips and Robert T. Coote, 363-374. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans.
Tibi, Bassam. 1998. The Challenge of Fundamentalism: Political Islam and the New World Disorder. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press.
Van Leeuwen, Raymond C. 2001. “Be Fruitful and Multiply.” Christianity Today 45(14): 58.
Wattenberg, Ben J. 2004. Fewer: How the New Demography of Depopulation Will Shape Our Future. Chicago, Ill.: Ivan R. Dee.
Weigel, George. 2005. “Is Europe Dying? Notes on a Crisis of Civilizational Morale.” New Atlantic Initiative. March-April. Accessed January 12, 2007 from http://www.aei.org/nai.
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David Feddes has served as a church planter and as host of the “Back to God Hour,” the international radio broadcast of the Christian Reformed Church. He is director of the Center for Advanced Studies at Crossroad Bible Institute in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
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