A Southern Baptist theologian said future growth of the Southern Baptist Convention must come not only from the baptistery, but also the bedroom.
Citing a study that for the first time compares birth rates of religious denominations, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary professor Russell Moore lamented a “pitifully low birthrate” for the Southern Baptist Convention when compared to more fruitful traditions like Mormons and Pentecostals.
According to the study in the September 2006 issue of Religion Watch (which is not available on-line), Moore said, the SBC birthrate stands at 1.96, “just barely above the Episcopalians and well below the notoriously liberal United Church of Christ.”
Mormon families had the highest fertility rate (with an average of 2.69 children born to women 20-44) followed by Mennonites (2.45). Conservative denominations including the Church of God (Anderson, Ind.), the Church of the Nazarene and Pentecostal groups also had high birth rates
Conrad Hackett, a doctoral student at Princeton University, said the trend has less to do with theology than whether a group fosters a “natalist culture,” meaning one that promotes procreation. Hackett viewed education as a defining factor–30 percent of Southern Baptist women have bachelor’s degrees, compared to 11 percent of women in the Church of the Nazarene.
Moore, dean of the school of theology and senior vice president for academic administration at the seminary in Louisville, Ky., said he doesn’t oppose women getting college degrees but disagreed that the trend toward smaller families is unrelated to theology.
“Many of our churches seem to value upward mobility more than family,” Moore said,
The formerly blue-collar and rural SBC is now the white-collar establishment, Moore said. “That may be good for our self-image, and perhaps it is good for our political clout. But is it good for our souls, or for our future?”
“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,” Moore wrote in a column in Baptist Press. “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 or to tithe more money as a monied Southern Baptist bank executive but to be a wife and mother.”
Moore challenged Southern Baptists to “outbreed the Mormons and out-preach the Pentecostals.”
A moderate Baptist ethicist dismissed Moore’s comments as “nonsensical, nascent nattering” without basis in the teachings of Jesus.
“Jesus taught faith, not fertility, as the entry point into Christianity,” said Robert Parham, executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics. “He never encouraged large families. He did define Christian family in terms of loyalty to God, not genes.”
“When Jesus’ mother and brothers came for him, he said, ‘My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it,'” Parham said, referring to Luke 8: 19-21.
Moore urged Southern Baptists to “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,” he said. “Without a next generation, we’ll just be Baptist dead.”
Moore isn’t the first Southern Baptist leader to advocate larger Christian families.
Southern Seminary President Albert Mohler wrote an article in 2003 describing married couples who choose not to have children as guilty of “moral rebellion” against God’s design.
In a Chicago Tribune story last year, Mohler said under-population is one of his concerns. “We are barely replenishing ourselves,” he said. “That is going to cause huge social problems in the future.” The reporter described the reference to “demographic shifts that might occur.”
In August 2005 EthicsDaily.com carried feature a story profiling “full-quiver” Baptists, married couples who opt not to use artificial contraception because they believe the Bible teaches that children are a blessing from God.
“Baptists need to stick with the Bible, not some far-fetched sociological church growth strategy,” said Parham.
Moore also isn’t the first to connect denominational health with fertility. An Oct. 4, 2005, Christian Century article challenged three decades of conventional wisdom that the reason liberal denominations are declining while conservative denominations grow is because mainline people are turned off by liberal theology and attracted by traditional teaching in conservative churches.
Indiana University sociologist Melissa Wilde explained the trend by demographics and not theology.
She said higher fertility among conservatives and better retention of members, and not excessive liberalism, best account for the trend. Part of the lower fertility among mainline churches, she said, has to do with aging demographics and a higher percentage of members beyond normal child-bearing years.
She said earlier decline in mainline churches could be indirectly connected to the “culture wars,” because conservative women were slower than liberals to embrace family planning.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.