Baptist Born? Baptist Bred?

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I was Baptist born. I was Baptist bred. And when I die, I’ll be Baptist dead. So goes the old pulpit cliche about Baptist identity. A recent study, however, shows that there’s not a lot of Baptist breeding and birthing going on these days.

The September 2006 issue of Religion Watch (not available online) looks at a current Princeton University’s scholar’s study unveiled at the Association of the Sociology of Religion meeting on the link between denominational affiliation and birthrate. The study, conducted by Conrad Hackett, is unique, Religion Watch says, “since it isolates the various denominational affiliations.”

Hackett discovered that Mormon familes have the highest fertility rate (2.69 children born to women 20-44) followed by Mennonites (2.45). Liberal denominations such as the Episcopal Church (1.84) and the Unitarians (1.78) trailed. Conservative denominations such as the Church of God (Anderson, Ind.), the Church of the Nazarene, and Pentecostal groups had high birth rates. The Southern Baptist Convention is an exception. The SBC had a pitifully low birthrate of 1.96, just barely above the Episcopalians and well below the notoriously liberal United Church of Christ.

Hackett’s study is hardly the final word. More research needs to be done. I wouldn’t be surprised if his data is skewed. But the question must be asked, why would our birthrates be so low?

Hackett argues, according to Religion Watch, that is has less to do with theology as with whether or not a congregation encourages a “natalist culture.” He ties it specifically with the percentage of women with a bachelor’s degree (only 11 percent in the Church of the Nazarene; 30 percent among Southern Baptists).

I think Hackett is right about the “natalist culture.” I think he’s wrong that this is unrelated to theology.

What are the common threads here? Granted, some, such as the Latter-day Saints, have a dangerous theology that unbiblically ties personal salvation to the family structure. Others, such as the Mennonites, are largely counter-cultural, outside the mainstream of American consumer culture. Still others, the Pentecostals and the Nazarenes, are outside the economic mainstream, with members who are more typically rural or working class.

I am not arguing that it is a bad trend that 30 percent of Southern Baptist women have a bachelor’s degree or above. It should concern us, however, that many of our churches seem to value upward mobility more than family. There was a time when Southern Baptists were the pulpwood haulers and the bankers and lawyers were Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and Methodists. Now we’re the white-collar establishment, at least in certain parts of the country. The pulpwood haulers and bricklayers are, more and more it seems, Pentecostals and Nazarenes. 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. 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? Is it indicative of how far we’ve fallen for the American dream that it would be controversial in some conservative Southern Baptist churches even to say this?

It is time for us, as Southern Baptists, to recognize that our success can kill us. As a denomination that once was derided as “redneck” and backward, we’re now invited to the Rotary Club meetings. We’re being elected to Congress. We’re not in the trailer parks anymore. Our young men are successful, suburban, and careerist, and our young women are too. And we think that’s a sign of health. Meanwhile our baptisms go down, and our birthrates do too. It turns out keeping up with the Episcopalians can have a downside.

This doesn’t mean that we should equate fertility with spirituality. God is going to call some believers not to marry so that, like the Apostle Paul or Lottie Moon, they can devote themselves totally to Great Commission service. Others will not be blessed with large families, or with children at all. But, at the same time, can’t we insist that our view of children be dictated by the Book of Proverbs rather than Madison Avenue or Wall Street?

Let’s pray for churches that welcome children, embrace families, and seek to evangelize and disciple our little ones, and the little ones in our neighborhoods whose parents will never join them in the pew. Let’s pray for churches that won’t idolize the Dual Income, No Kids picture of success mirrored on our television screens. Let’s teach our boys to want to be husbands and fathers, our girls to want to be wives and mothers, our familes to be evangelists. Let’s outbreed the Mormons and out-preach the Pentecostals. Let’s press the gospel upon a new generation, win them to Christ, baptize them, teach them, and see the Lord call them to the pastorate, to missions, to lay leadership.

Let’s 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. Without a next generation, we’ll just be Baptist dead.

Only when we see how lost we are, we can find our way again. Only when we bury what’s dead can we experience life again. Only when we lose our religion can we be amazed by grace again.


About Russell Moore

Russell Moore is Editor in Chief of Christianity Today and is the author of the forthcoming book Losing Our Religion: An Altar Call for Evangelical America (Penguin Random House).