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Baptist born? Baptist bred? Baptists and low birthrates
September 25, 2006
By Russell D. Moore, Senior V.P. for Academic Administration, Southern Seminary

I was Baptist born. I was Baptist bred. And when I die, I'll be Baptist dead. So goes the old pulpit cliche about Baptist identity. A recent study, however, shows that there's not a lot of Baptist breeding and birthing going on these days.

The September 2006 issue of Religion Watch looks at a current Princeton University scholar's study unveiled at the Association of the Sociology of Religion meeting on the link between denominational affiliation and birthrate. The study, conducted by Conrad Hackett, is unique, Religion Watch says, "since it isolates the various denominational affiliations."

Hackett discovered that Mormon families have the highest fertility rate (an average of 2.69 children born to women 20-44) followed by Mennonites (2.45). Liberal denominations such as the Episcopal Church (1.84) trailed.

Conservative denominations such as the Church of God (Anderson, Ind.), the Church of the Nazarene and Pentecostal groups had high birth rates. The Southern Baptist Convention had a pitifully low birthrate of 1.96, just barely above the Episcopalians and well below the notoriously liberal United Church of Christ.

Hackett's study is hardly the final word. More research needs to be done. I wouldn't be surprised if his data is skewed. But the question must be asked, why would our birthrates be so low?

Hackett argues, according to Religion Watch, that it has less to do with theology as with whether or not a congregation encourages a "natalist culture" (that is, a culture that promotes procreation). He ties it specifically with the percentage of women with a bachelor's degree (only 11 percent in the Church of the Nazarene; 30 percent among Southern Baptists).

I think Hackett is right about the "natalist culture." I think he's wrong that this is unrelated to theology.

What are the common threads here? Granted, some, such as the Latter-day Saints, have a dangerous theology that unbiblically ties personal salvation to the family structure. Others, such as the Mennonites, are largely counter-cultural, outside the mainstream of American consumer culture. Still others, the Pentecostals and the Nazarenes, are outside the economic mainstream, with members who are more typically rural or working class.

I wonder how many Southern Baptist parents tell their newly married children to "wait till you get settled" before having children so "you can enjoy each other," as though children will mean the end of romance. I wonder how many Southern Baptist churches greet a family with four or more children with a snide comment from a baby boomer about whether "you know what's causing that."

I wonder how many Southern Baptist churches these days devote time in their youth groups to teaching young boys to prepare for the glory of fatherhood? I wonder how many churches recruit older women to teach our girls that the greatest success they can find is not to be the first Southern Baptist female president of the United States but to be a wife and mother? Is it indicative of how far we've fallen for the American dream that it would be controversial in some conservative Southern Baptist churches even to say this?

It is time for us, as Southern Baptists, to recognize that our success can kill us. As a denomination that once was derided as "redneck" and backward, we're now invited to the Rotary Club meetings. We're being elected to Congress. Our young men are successful, suburban and careerist, and our young women are, too. And we think that's a sign of health. Meanwhile our baptisms go down, and our birthrates do, too. It turns out keeping up with the Episcopalians can have a downside.

This doesn't mean that we should equate fertility with spirituality. God is going to call some believers not to marry so that, like the apostle Paul or Lottie Moon, they can devote themselves totally to Great Commission service. Others will not be blessed with large families, or with children at all. But, at the same time, can't we insist that our view of children be dictated by the book of Proverbs rather than Madison Avenue or Wall Street?

Let's pray for churches that welcome children, embrace families and seek to evangelize and disciple our little ones, and the little ones in our neighborhoods whose parents will never join them in the pew. Let's pray for churches that won't idolize the dual income, no kids picture of success mirrored on our television screens. Let's teach our boys to want to be husbands and fathers, and our girls to want to be wives and mothers. Let's press the Gospel upon a new generation, win them to Christ, baptize them, teach them and see the Lord call them to the pastorate, to missions and to lay leadership.

Let's pray for busy baptisteries and crawling cradle rolls. Otherwise, it doesn't matter how respectable we are in the community or how large our capital budgets are. Without a next generation, we'll just be Baptist dead.

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