Evangelicals and the Global Population Crisis

Why a sterile modern world doesn't need tired tropes about "family idolatry."

One of the more recyclable ideas within evangelical discourse is that, particularly among right-of-center Christians, the nuclear family is a perpetual idol that causes marginalization of singles, childless couples, and basically anyone who doesn’t fit a particular mold. One progressive Christian put it like this:

Jesus didn’t die on a God-forsaken cross to preserve your horn-rimmed vision of 1950s Americana. He did not go through hell and back to secure the keys to an exclusive gated community. And he didn’t suffer lacerations so that your nuclear family could be photographed beside the tulips in matching shiny egg-white shoes.

Here’s a similar sentiment: “One pervasive and oh-so-familiar idol in Christian subculture is the nuclear family. In case you doubt this, ask a Christian single to talk with you about their experience in the church. Most have some pretty sad tales to tell.”

Last summer, Kevin DeYoung argued at TGC for a “new culture war strategy: have more children and disciple them like crazy.” DeYoung pointed out that while politics have consequences, when it comes to the church people matter far more, so the more logical (and biblical) method for cultural renewal is making more disciples. “The future,” DeYoung concluded, “belongs to the fecund.”

The article triggered a strong backlash. Perhaps the most representative response was from Holly Stallcup at RNS, who was grieved that DeYoung would connect procreation so closely to the mission of the church. “With his focus on the family theology,” wrote Stallcup, “DeYoung pushes to the margins those whose lives don’t include bearing and rearing children. He echoes what so many Christians, conservative and otherwise, believe, if only subconsciously: Until you have a nuclear family, you have little place in the church.”

In many ways, these kinds of exchanges are less interesting than they appear. Beneath the surface of loaded language there are often proxy wars over issues of gender and sex that conservative and progressive evangelicals will litigate in perpetuity. But DeYoung’s article and its attendant controversy point toward something more elusive and unaddressed within evangelical culture: the church’s role in addressing what appears to be an eminent crisis of global depopulation.

Last month, the economist Tyler Cowen summarized some striking data: “Some East Asian countries have fertility rates near or even below 1.0, while much of the core population of Europe is shrinking.” Things are not looking much better in the US, where overall fertility, though still significantly higher than some other parts of the world, is trending downward and setting new record lows seemingly every year. Fears about overpopulation are not only misplaced, they are hopelessly inaccurate, and even very climate-conscience folks are beginning to admit that the most likely problem facing developed countries is not scarcity of resource, but a depleted workforce.

This is more than an interesting data point for sociologists or economists. The global population decline is being fueled overwhelmingly by the spiraling birth rates in highly modern, highly liberal societies, where people generally have the most reason for optimism and the most opportunities to mobilize and find partners. As Ross Douthat notes in his book The Decadent Society, the decline in marriage and babies is not the emergence of a victorious feminism from the shackles of patriarchy, for the simple reason that modern women in these modern countries still report strong desire to find mates and start families. It’s not that we’ve arrived at some kind of post-marriage, post-child future. It’s that we’ve arrived at a future where even the people who strongly desire those things find it harder than ever to find them. Something has failed.

What does this have to do with evangelical skirmishes over “family idolatry”?

One thing that stands out about the typical level of rhetoric between left-of-center and right-of-center evangelicals is how rarely it rises above the most tired culture war talking points. This often seems to reflect a total unwillingness to engage the role of theology or the church’s teaching in the broader context of answering society’s challenges. In her response to DeYoung, Stallcup writes this:

Raising children is just one of an infinite number of ways we bring light into the darkness. Parenting is not the ultimate fruitfulness. Indeed, a hyperfocused approach to parenting, like DeYoung’s, can cause parents, and especially women, to miss the spirit’s call to fruitfulness outside of child rearing.

“Parenting is not the ultimate fruitfulness,” in this context, merely means that parenting is not the best thing someone can do, so non-parents need not feel bad or anxious about missing out. But this completely misses DeYoung’s point. DeYoung did not say that parenting puts people closer to God or that singles or the childless are less worthy of love and respect. His point rather was that creating children and investing in them really does change the world in a material way. The most intense happiness and realization of dreams may not belong to the fecund, but the future quite literally does.

As global depopulation continues, Christians will have to decide whether their beliefs enable them to speak intelligently and hopefully to a genuine crisis. Believers in countries like Japan, for example, are already forced to speak theologically to the spectacle of young men in their 30s and even 40s who prefer video games and anime to dating. A similar situation may be coming to a boil closer to home, as American researchers wonder what an unprecedented “sex recession” means as technology, addiction, and safetyism push marriage to the margins. It’s not a cheap theological gotcha to imagine that secular society might be more responsive to a vision of family and human ordering that looks less like a single 30something in the big city, and more like a complementarian home.

Herein lies an opportunity for Christians to truly engage culture from ahead rather than behind. Rather than bemoan the idolatry of the family, church cultures could prioritizing the building of homes and the reaching of the lonely as part of their communal mission. I wonder if church leaders are sometimes intimidated by pop culture and journalism’s glitzy descriptions of prolonged singleness. Statistically, the majority of single women in their late 20s and 30s desire marriage and family. What some of these women need are probably small groups and friends bold enough to bear the burden with them and make introductions. On the other hand, single men in the church are often deeply disconnected from other men, lacking meaningful friendship and suffering all kinds of emotional and spiritual roadblocks because of it. A strong culture of friendship in a church can become an instrument for making homes, and this doesn’t need to be by accident. The desire is there, no matter how trained some might be to ignore it.

It’s certain that some conservative evangelicals have prioritized the nuclear family at the expense of their spiritual brothers and sisters within the church. It’s also certain that an unwelcoming or disinterested attitude toward singles or childless couples is not what the New Testament has in mind when it commands us to love one another in all our diversity of gifts and “stations.” But repenting of these destructive attitudes does not require adopting a compensatory one, in which there is no spiritual or social significance to building homes that raise up little futures. We don’t have to close one eye to reality in order to see each other with the other eye.