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What does the rapidly declining birthrate mean for churches?

Babies wearing pink and blue blankets identifying their gender wait in the hospital. | Reuters/Simon Thong

The data did not seem to get a lot of attention, but it sure caught my eye.

New provisional data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed the U.S. birthrate dropping for a sixth consecutive year. But look at these additional eye-opening facts: 

  • The year 2020 saw the sharpest decline in births since 1965, the year the baby boom ended.
  • The birthrate is now 1.73 births per woman, compared to 3.77 births per woman at the peak year in 1957.
  • The number of births in 2020 was 3.6 million babies, the lowest number of births since 1979.
  • The birthrate decline worsened during COVID, but the trend was already in place. The pandemic accelerated it and exasperated it.

What are some of the implications for churches in the United States? Here are five: 

1. Growth will be more difficult. Churches can grow through conversion growth, transfer growth (often including the declining number of cultural Christians), and biological growth. There are dramatically fewer cultural Christians today, and there are fewer babies being born. The pool for church growth has diminished significantly.

2. There will be fewer children in our churches. If you think the members in your church are older than the average was a few years ago, here is clearly one reason why. There are fewer children demographically to bring the average age down. The implications for children’s ministry are great as well.

3. Churches with daycares and schools could be hit hard. Again, this reality is one of demographics. It will affect all schools, and church schools will not be exempt.

4. Young adults could be less motivated to connect with a church. One of the primary reasons young adults joined churches was to find a spiritual home for their new kids. Now many young adults are opting to wait until a later age to have children. Some are deciding to be childless altogether.

5. Evangelism should always be a priority for churches; this demographic shift adds to that urgency. Though it should not be so, in the past many church leaders and members were not motivated to reach lost people because their churches were stable or growing. But as our data indicates, that growth was not coming from the evangelistic field of lost persons. We were growing by higher birth rates and by cultural Christians transferring to our churches. Both of those sources of growth have declined dramatically.

Such is the silver lining in what may appear to be a dark cloud. Evangelism may be our only significant source of church growth in the days ahead. While we would hope that numerical growth would not be the lone motivation or even a primary motivation, we can be grateful for churches reaching people with the gospel.

If you as a leader or member of a church wonder where your church’s priorities should be, evangelism should be near the top. And though the demographic declines may be an impetus for this shift in priorities, I pray we will soon be so burdened by the lostness of humanity that “we cannot stop telling about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20, NLT).

Originally published at Church Answers 

Thom S. Rainer is the founder and CEO of Church Answers, an online community and resource for church leaders. Prior to founding Church Answers, Rainer served as president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources.

Rainer has written over 30 books, including three that reached number one bestseller: I Am a Church Member, Autopsy of a Deceased Church, and Simple Church. His new book, The Post-Quarantine Church: Six Urgent Challenges and Opportunities That Will Determine the Future of Your Congregation, is available now.

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