Freakiligious: Stuff you didn’t know you needed to know about the American Church

Posted on February 4, 2014 by


LineGraph2The Mounting Imperative for Evangelism

There are two ways to grow the Church: fertility and conversion[1].

Of the two, the most time-tested method of growth is fertility: Christ-following parents tend to disciple their children in the faith, creating a pattern of devotion across generations. Following this line of logic, the more children Christ-following parents have the greater the likelihood that the Church will grow.  Such trends have been well-documented in religious research.  For example, social scientists Michael Hout, Andrew Greeley, and Melissa Wilde demonstrated that in comparison with mainline denominations, such as the Episcopal Church, the enormous growth of conservative Protestant denominations, such as the Southern Baptist Convention, in the late-twentieth century is due to the fact that women from conservative denominations had, on average, nearly one more birth than their mainline counterparts.  Accordingly, 76% of the observed growth in conservative Protestant denominations can be attributed to higher fertility rates.  This should come as no surprise given that the Abrahamic covenant (Genesis 15) is couched in fertility language. After God tells Abram in a vision that he will be greatly rewarded, Abram questions the blessing due to the fact that he was childless.  Then, using the intensity of creation, God tells Abram to stare at heaven, promising that his offspring will be as enumerable as the stars.

The point of this ancient covenant and modern research is that faith has primarily been passed down through families. But here’s the rub:  What happens when fertility rates drop and fewer children are being discipled in the faith?

This has been the case over the last fifty years.  Social scientists estimate that in 1965 conservative Protestant mothers birthed, on average, around three children; whereas mainline Protestant mothers birthed two children[2].  By 1975, this number dropped to a little over two children for conservative Protestant mothers and under two children for mainline Protestant mothers; causing the Protestant population to remain relatively stable (two parents spiritually reproducing two children).  However, in keeping with general fertility trends, both conservative and mainline Protestant mothers are now birthing, on average, less than two children.  This means that there are now fewer children growing up in Christ-following homes than there are Christ-following parents[3].  Given this trend, the answer to the aforementioned question is simple: the Church will shrink.

Unless…we ramp up efforts to evangelize.

In contrast to the Abrahamic Covenant, the New Covenant offers adoption (e.g. conversion) into God’s family for any who will believe, both the Abrahamic descendent and non-descendent. Yet, as Hout, Greeley, and Wilde point out, conversion to the Church accounts for only a quarter of its growth over the last half-century. Thus, if we are to stop the population decline of Church, we must increase our evangelistic efforts.  The mounting imperative over the next half-century is for evangelism to account for 40 to 50% of the Church’s growth.

On the one hand, be encouraged:  You’re doing the work.  You are laborers in the field. On the other hand, now more than ever, the imperative is for you to seek those who want to be adopted into God’s family.  Here is an exercise that may help you gauge your evangelistic efforts:

  1. Examine your Campaigner attendees (Campaigner attendees are a good indicator of those in the discipleship process compared to Club attendees).
  2. Count how many attendees have parents who attend church with any sense of regularity (and don’t just count parents who attend evangelical churches).
  3. If this number is more than 59% (in other words, six out of ten Campainger attendees have parents who attend church somewhat regularly), you and your leaders should examine ways in which you can increase evangelizing efforts.
  4. If this number is less than or equal to, 59%, good for you. Keep it up!

At this point some of you may be wondering why Church growth is important.  Aren’t we just counting “butts in the seats?” Yes, but in order for the Church to have any cultural relevance it must maintain a critical mass.  Due to a decreasing fertility rate, this critical mass is beginning to erode.  So, let this be a rallying cry for your ministry – evangelize.

[1] Technically, immigration is a third way.  However, since immigration is often tied up in fertility, I’ve decided to leave that discussion for another time.

[2] Catholic fertilities generally followed conservative Protestant trends until 1975, after which they have followed mainline Protestant trends.

[3] By contrast, the current fertility rate for Mormon mothers is approximately three children.