What Does the Rapidly Declining Birthrate Mean for Churches?

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).

Posted on May 17, 2021

With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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  • Couple the declining birth rate with the hundreds of thousands of reported abortions performed annually in this country, and you can clearly see that the Church will continue to age rapidly.

  • Tony Auxier says on

    A related issue is that the number of children a couple choose to have is greater for people of faith (whatever their faith). The declining birth rate is in reality a reflection of the declining faith of American adults.

  • Is there a regional breakdown of the birthrates

  • Bob Myers says on

    Another perceived trend in population growth (somewhat as a corollary to the first comment) is that immigrant families are still having babies. I do not have a source or stats for that, but I believe it is true. It is certainly true in our congregation where our Congolese family has five children. I have observed the same phenomenon in Burmese refugees. My own denomination, the American Baptists saw less of a decline in membership than all of the other mainline denominations because of the growth of our immigrant churches – Burmese and Hispanic.

    The possible implication for growth in white American churches could be found in a pivot to ethnically diverse congregations. Such a pivot, however, is quite difficult in navigating the many differences in culture. But what a beautiful potential!

  • There are also too many churches who only want married couples with children. I know of large churches who pray specifically that they be sent and are able to reach only this demographic. It is as though no one else matters. Why the dislike of all others? Many churches still struggle with understanding and relating to their own young people who became highly educated. If young professionals are religious, they might continue with it regardless of martial and/or parental status. Not answering people’s questions caused a whole host of problems.

  • Robin G Jordan says on

    Thom, you missed one development that has the attention of observers of the state of the church in the United Kingdom, the European Union, and non-EU European countries which are highly secularized and where birthrates are dropping. One population, however, is not experiencing a decline in birthrate—the Muslim population. One concern is that Islam will outpace Christianity in growth in these countries through births alone. Muslim culture encourages having children while Christian culture has been influenced by secular attitudes to children and childbearing—having children later in life and then having a smaller family than in the past. The fertility rate is also higher among Muslims. UK and the European countries have been experiencing not only a declining birth rate but also a declining fertility rate. China is also seeing a decline in birth rate and fertility rate. Japan is becoming a country of old people because few Japanese are marrying and having children. There are cultural and economic factors contributing to this decline.

    Another trend that deserves watching and which may create an opportunity for churches is that the younger generations are not only marrying later in life and having less children, but they are also intentional becoming single parents while at the same time not being involved in stable long-term partnership. However, raising a child or children on one’s own requires an adequate support system for the single parent. When I was involved in child welfare work, I worked with many single parents, fathers as well as mothers. They often did not have grandparents or other relatives to whom they could turn. One church plant in which I was involved offered an afterschool and recreational programs for the children of working parents. A number of the children did not live in a two-parent household. Volunteers helped the children with their homework. The church also provided the children with water, juice, a snack, and school supplies if they needed them.