LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–If your church nursery was unnervingly quiet this past Sunday, you are probably a member of a liberal Protestant church. So says a new study about population decline and mainline Protestantism by sociologists from the University of California at Berkley, the University of Arizona and Indiana University. Mainliners are hailing this survey because it places the blame for Protestant denominational decline not on theological liberalism, but on the churches’ acceptance of delayed childbirth, small families and an extreme contraception culture.
“For most of the 20th century conservative women had more children than mainline women did,” the sociologists wrote in Christian Century.
Oh, so it is not that old-line Protestantism has adopted the sterile ideologies of modernism. It’s just that they have adopted the idea that children should be delayed, and procreation downplayed. So, in other words, they’ve adopted the sterile ideologies of modernism.
Is the connection here not obvious? For years, conservative Protestants have attributed their growth, and the liberals’ decline, to the fact that liberal churches are, first of all, not evangelistic and, second of all, not distinct from the surrounding culture. The mainline Protestant view of children is interwoven into the fabric of both of these problems.
First of all, churches that don’t celebrate and exult in children aren’t going to celebrate and exult in evangelism. After all, the “fruitful and multiply” clause in Genesis is echoed back in the Great Commission of Christ, a commission that also seeks to fill the entire earth. Jesus links procreation to new creation by speaking of new converts as newborn babies, and through His apostles of the community of faith as the household of God. Moreover, He announces to His Father that He stands before Him with the redeemed of all the ages, “the children you have given me” (Heb 2:13). Churches that mimic (even if by default with silence) the culture’s view that life is about possessions or sentimental romance or self-advancement are not going to produce men and women committed to giving up these things for the cause of evangelism and global missions.
Also, if conservative churches are growing because their theological convictions are counter-cultural and thus distinct from the blob spirituality of contemporary Western civilization, then what is more counter-cultural than the embrace of children as gifts from the Lord? In an era when a mom with five children receives snide comments from her neighbors (“Don’t you know what’s causing that?”), a congregation that celebrates from the pulpit and within the fellowship new life is a congregation that causes onlookers to ask why.
Old-line Protestantism may take comfort that their downfall is declining birthrates, not liberal theology. But, don’t be fooled, the two go together. And evangelical Protestants and traditional Catholics should take note, because we are only a few steps behind. As a free-church evangelical Christian, I don’t believe in inherited regeneration or in some covenantal status for the children of believers. But I have a biblical mandate, with all Christians, to share the Gospel with all persons, and to equip the saints to do the same. I also have the responsibility to recognize that evangelism often includes raising up children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. If we miss that point, our churches will absorb the message of the culture, a message that presents the self as central and children as a nuisance.
So the growth of Christianity means calling sinners to repentance and showcasing the Gospel: in the revival tent, and in the church nursery.
Russell D. Moore is dean of the School of Theology and senior vice president for academic administration at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.