No, ‘Being Fruitful and Multiplying’ Won’t Save the Church

In February of 2023, Kevin DeYoung, the senior pastor at Christ Covenant Church and associate professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary, penned an article for WORLD where he pushed back against the idea that Protestant Christianity was dying out. DeYoung argued that while church attendance in the U.S. is certainly down across the board, conservative denominations have a distinct advantage over their mainline counterparts: Conservative Christians, DeYoung’s argument implies, tend to have more children. In one of his closing points, DeYoung told readers that if they didn’t want their “version of Protestant Christianity to die off, the strategy is pretty simple: have more kids and keep them in the church. It has always been the case that most people in the church get in the church because they were born and raised in the church.”

DeYoung’s strategy is a dubious one, to say the least. Just because someone was raised in the church does not guarantee that they’ll stay with the faith as an adult. A 2017 study from the evangelical research firm Lifeway Research found that two-thirds of young adults who attended a Protestant church regularly as teenagers say they also dropped out for at least a year between the ages of 18 and 22. In 2022, the analytics and polling company Gallup revealed that while regular attendance to a place of worship may have some positive impact on a child’s future spiritual commitments, only 38 percent of those who attended services regularly when they were young say they attend regularly as adults.

It would appear that most people raised in the church do not, in fact, stay in the church.

In recent years, there’s been an uncomfortable shift in how the topics of marriage and families are being framed. Rather than simply acknowledging marriage and family as moral goods, children and families are frequently put forward as the solution for preserving Christianity amidst its perceived cultural decline.

To be clear, marriage and family are good things. Scripture often portrays children as a blessing from God (Exodus 1:15-21, Psalm 128). As Christian activist, author, and mother Hannah Bowman wrote for Sojourners, parenting is a vocation built on love and faithfulness.

But it seems that in a desperate attempt to salvage their waning numbers, many conservative Christians have elevated reproduction to a place it was never meant to occupy. If this growing emphasis on Christian childbearing continues, it will almost certainly have serious consequences — not just for churches in the U.S. but for Christianity as a whole.

It harms the gospel

The first problem with this theology of fecundity — the theological conviction that producing more offspring will perpetuate your belief system — is found in Christ’s great commission. Before he ascended into heaven, Jesus instructed his followers to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19). Christ had come to reconcile all people to God and create a beloved community that was not defined by our biological ties. So long as an individual sought to love God and follow his will, they would be embraced as a family member in the eyes of Christ (Mark 3:31-35).

Jesus spent his entire ministry tearing down the walls that separated “outsiders” from God and his community. He praised the faith of foreigners (Matthew 15:21-28), defended the disabled (John 9:3-5), and sought out the people whom society had pushed away (Mark 2:15-17). After his resurrection, his disciples continued this work and the church swelled to include gentiles (Acts 9), eunuchs (Acts 8:26-40), and even enslaved people (Philemon). The kingdom of God cannot be achieved through strategic breeding but can only be made real by throwing open the doors of the church and welcoming the “outsider” into our midst. To do anything else would go against the heart of the gospel (Galatians 3:27-29).

It harms single people

Unfortunately, the consequences of this child-centered Christianity don’t end with bad theology. It also further marginalizes and denigrates single people from their community of faith. The church is supposed to be a place where individuals can find dignity, worth, and fellowship regardless of their marital or parental status. But in reality, single people are often neglected, or worse, treated with open disdain by the very people who are supposed to support them.

A prime example of this took place in August 2022, when Shane Morris, a senior writer at The Colson Center and host of the Upstream podcast, tweeted about childless millennials: “Without the natural connections and belonging that literally emerge from marriage and fertility, the latter years become very cold and lonely. Those ‘Friendsgivings’ will get old, quickly.”

After receiving enormous backlash, Morris doubled down on his comments in an article for WORLD, where he accused childless millennials of being both selfish and shortsighted. Though Morris did acknowledge that some people are called to be “mothers and fathers in the faith” I still understand his basic message to be this: If you aren’t having children, then you’re a self-centered waste of space.

Morris’ attitude reveals the inherent danger of a child-centered Christianity. If the main focus of Christianity becomes getting people to have more children — especially as a way of preserving orthodoxy — then, at some point, single and childless people will be branded as enemies. Needless to say, this is a path Christians should avoid. Rather than trying to breed a new generation of believers, the church should be focusing its energy on those who are already occupying their pews. Churches should be building warm, faith-filled communities that people want to be a part of — regardless of whether they have children.

It harms the church

The worst thing about this theology of fecundity is that it completely fails to understand what the church was designed to be.

The night before his crucifixion, Jesus poured water into a basin, wrapped a towel around his waist, and proceeded to take the role of a servant by washing his disciples’ feet (John 13:1-17). This powerful act of humility was a reminder to his followers that the son of God had not come seeking power for himself, but to serve, and that they were called to serve others in turn (Mark 10:43-45).

This is what the church was always meant to look like: a place where those who mourn are comforted, where the poor in spirit are enriched, and where those seeking mercy can find grace (Matthew 5:1-11). A local congregation could be bursting with noisy families who all share the same doctrinal values but without this selfless love, the building might as well be empty.

Today, the church in the United States is arguably most recognized for its continued mistreatment of the LGBTQ community, an embrace of extremist politics, and an overall attitude of pettiness and cruelty. Adding more children to the mix is unlikely to change this. Numbers can help balance a church ledger, but they cannot alter the human conscience or rescue us from our failings. What the American church needs now isn’t more children — it’s repentance. We need to recognize that we have made mistakes and ask God for forgiveness. And then we need to work to mend what is broken (1 John 1:8-10).

Christians must rebuild our communities so that a person’s worth is not determined by their children, and we must value spiritual families as much as we value biological ones. Most of all, we must recognize that the future of our faith lies in the people around us now — the neighbors and acquaintances who are quietly seeking God and waiting for us to extend a hand in hope and friendship. That way, even if the number of Christians was whittled down to a mere handful, the love and glory of God would in no way be diminished.

This is the church that Christ came to build. All we have to decide is whether we’re willing to join in the labor.

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