Passion, participation and preferential attachment: why the childless church mostly loses

In Western and developed nations, both the marriage rate and the childbirth rates are falling. This trend, if it continues, represents an important opportunity for church growth within specific regions.



In older times and in agricultural societies, the average family had many children. As they grew up, they would help work on the family’s farm or in the family business, and when they grew older they would help support the parents in their old age, and so were a form of social insurance.

When the average number of children per family was high in a society, the occasional loss of a child (or a childless family), while a tragedy in the specific, did not impact the society as a whole. The large average family size meant the population was not just maintaining its current level but growing. More young workers within the society (those aged 15 to 59) meant the economy would also grow (because these young workers would both produce and consume, and there would be more of them each generation). The “dependency ratio” (the ratio of young workers to elderly non-workers) would remain low, both because of the large pool of workers and the fact that many elderly continued to work. (You can still see this today outside the West: grandfather and grandmothers who are, for example, cooking meals in food courts.)

Today, the average number of children per family in developed nations is falling. There are many reasons for this. In some places it is because the infant mortality is low enough that families do not need to have multiple children to insure against the loss of individual children. In some places, as an economy develops and moves away from agriculture, fewer children are needed to manage the business (e.g. the farm). In those societies that today have a high cost of living, families tend to have fewer children because of the expense of raising them.

In many places, families are opting to have only two to four children at most. This puts the society right at the “replacement value” line necessary to maintain the current population size. If a man and woman have two children, the children will simply replace them when they die, and the total population size will remain the same. In such a situation, if a large minority of the population decide to have only one child (or none at all), they can “tip” the population from “replacement” or “maintenance” level into decline. The society will begin to shrink in size. This is precisely what is happening in Eastern and Southern Europe as well as in Northern Africa.

This trend toward childlessness is being “sped up” by a related trend in some parts of the West (notably America) toward singlehood. Studies by Pew Research show the percentage of people who are married in America fell from 72% in 1960 to 52% in 2008. The median age of first marriage has never been higher: 26.5 for women and 28.7 for men. If this trend continues, the percentage of adults who are married will drop below half in a few years. And while there are some unmarried singles who do have children (either through adoption or other arrangements), the vast majority do not. Similar trends can be seen in China, where the governmentally-enforced one-child policy has led to a disproportionate lack of girls who are choosy about their male prospects or who are opting out of marriage entirely, preferring careers.


The decline in the number of children being born has numerous long-term ramifications for the society and for the church.

In society, fewer children means a long-term “aging”: the average age of the population will increase. Along with this trend will come a shifts in the role of the elderly, especially as medical advances bring about extensions in lifespan. People will continue to work longer, bosses will stay in their jobs longer (with less room for what young people there are to move up), more young people will be forced into entrepreneurial roles to start new businesses, and social norms regarding the elderly will change.

Because there are fewer young workers moving into the labor force, the “dependency ratio” will shift. More non-working elderly will be dependent on fewer workers. There will be less money (from tax revenues) in government coffers, and there will have to be tradeoffs between caring for the elderly and caring for the young. This can lead to generational conflict and will put increasing pressure on the elderly to continue working.

The impact of this shift on the church will be seen in different ways within different denominations. To discuss these, let’s consider the different ways that churches grow.

Demographic growth (babies born to Christian homes) are by far the largest source of new church members. The church worldwide adds about 45 million new people every year, on average. Any declines in marriage and childbearing can significantly impact this  growth pattern.

Second, immigration and emigration can play a significant role in the growth of the church. People move into regions, and move out of them. Thus right now the church in North Africa is suffering from a loss of Christians who are moving out of the region, while Europe is being “refreshed” in some ways by Christian immigrants (for example, Nigerians) who are moving in and bring a fresh zealous practice of their faith.

Third, transfers between churches can impact individual congregations. People shift between different churches for a host of reasons: differences in belief, relationship changes, or different programs offered by different churches. For example, two young people might meet in one small congregation (in which their parents served), fall in love and get married–but then, when they have children, they may opt to move into a larger congregation with what they perceive to be better Sunday School programs.

Finally, conversion and defection both play a role in churches and denominations. But this is not nearly so great as might be anticipated, especially in the West: on average, worldwide, Christianity adds 15 million converts but loses 12 million in defections, thus netting out only 3 million per year in converts. In Western nations where the birth rate is low, defections to agnosticism are unfortunately quite high.


Thus, a decline in the rate of marriage and childbearing almost immediately impacts the greatest source of “fresh new” members for any individual denomination or church. However, this is where individual congregations and denominations can ‘win’ over the populations around them. Churches that succeed in fostering marriage and childbirth will see their numbers increase markedly; those that do not have atmospheres which encourage families will see demographic stagnation while others grow past them.

A demographically stagnant church will likely also lose two other battles: immigration and transfers. Rodney Stark has well documented the process of conversion and commitment to a church, which largely follows participation and social relationships. People participate before they come to believe (“The churching of America”). Participation arises through social networks and preferences.

Older people may prefer the church that they grew up in all their life, or at least have been committed to for a very long time. (Older people moving in to an area will probably choose a church based on social relationships, or long-standing doctrinal commitments.) Younger singles will prefer a church which has relational connections that will likely benefit them in the long term: potential work or social connections (e.g. money and mates). Couples who are married or married-with-children will want an atmosphere that supports a family or a potential family. Churches that do not support younger people and families will lose out on both new births and the social connections that young people have outside of church.

Thus, churches that are locked into a cycle of aging and who are not supportive of younger people will enter into a downward spiral. The higher the average age, the less likely it is that younger people will enter the church to begin with, and the more likely that younger people who are in the church will move away from it, toward churches shared by their social connections. Finally, the church will likely in the long term be losing the conversion battle as well. Most of the older people in the church will have “relational saturation”: they have their friends and intimate connections, and will have little social time for new people who might be converts. Moreover, converts made will likely be in the social connections and will be of roughly the same age. If a younger convert is made, it is probable that they will eventually migrate into a more younger-friendly atmosphere.

These are the forces at play behind “preferential attachment” (discussed by Barabasi in Linked) which lead to a “rich-get-richer” challenge for churches within a given region. These cycles can also lead, unfortunately, to rivalries, jealousies, bitterness, and competition between churches. Older churches that see themselves as failing can also see themselves as “doctrinally pure,” losing out to other churches that are more successful in offering “McChurch” to the masses.


In the West, in the midst of falling marriage rates and childbirth rates, churches have a significant opportunity to increase their share of the population and their influence. Ralph Winter wrote of ‘sodalities’ and ‘modalities.’ A sodality is the typical parachurch organization which tends to be more apostolic and is usually focused on conversion growth. The ‘modality’ on the other hand is the local church.

To grow, a modality needs to do what it does best, which is: (1) support demographic growth that leads to increasing social connections (thus facilitating growth through the other streams as well) and (2) ensure that obedience-based discipleship is permeating the new membership streams (especially the young) to maintain passion and commitment and close the ‘defection’ door.

To do that, here are three steps:

Offer doctrine unapologetically and passionately. Rodney Stark has pointed out that there is a ‘lifecycle’ in most churches: they begin very conservative, and their zeal attracts new converts. As they grow in size, they begin to moderate (both to appeal to larger numbers, and as a result of the larger numbers within their ranks who hold a variety of views). Finally, they become so large and moderate there is very little difference between them and other populations around them, and so they are ranked mostly on the services they offer–at which point they begin losing members who transfer to smaller, more zealous congregations. The sweet spot is in between extreme zeal and extreme moderation, where a church understands the doctrines it holds which differentiate it from those surrounding.

Offer a pro-youth, pro-family environment. In order to grow demographically, a congregation need in the developed world need typically only have an an average per-woman fertility rate of 2 (with some greater than this and few less). A pro-young environment will also attract young singles who are socially connected to existing members and who find passionate values and community influence appealing.

Encourage everyone (especially singles) in disciple-making. This will lead to new converts, and a conversion rate of at least ~1 per 100 per year would be enough, combined with the fertility rate, to tip the congregation into high growth relative to the declining populations around them. (Here we are looking specifically for converts from the non-Christian world, but it is inevitable that there will be some transfer and immigration growth as well). Disciple-making is the primary way to “close the back door” to defections. (Remember we said earlier that on average worldwide the conversion rate of 15 million is nearly balanced out by a defection rate of 12 million. Churches that prevent this defection rate will see significant growth relative to other churches and religions.) Disciple-making is also a way to help singles from feeling second-rate in a pro-family environment: emphasize spiritual parenthood.

These three steps do not require any kind of significantly large families (e.g. families of 6+ children, statistical outliers). The reason is simple: when a population falls below replacement level, any subgroup that is at replacement level or slightly above will be growing fast relative to the declining population as a whole. In this situation, they will not only be increasing in size but also increasing as a percentage of the population–and eventually will be larger than any other group (because the rest are losing rather than gaining members).

These principles do not just apply in the West. Declining population rates and increasing immigration rates in regions like Eastern and Southern Europe, North Africa, and East Asia mean that these principles will broadly work in those regions as well. This is one reason why church planting movements can become so broadly impactful: they couple a short period of rapid conversion growth with a transition into long-term demographic growth which few other religions can match. It is also one reason why governmental restrictions on the evangelization and discipling of children are so challenging to the church–because they restrict these growth avenues–and why discipleship in the home in these situations is so critical.


Additional Readings


“Childless by choice,”, Trend in America of choosing childlessness especially in the context of smaller families.

“New government data finds sharp decline in teen births,”,

“When it comes to marriage, many more say ‘I don’t,’” NPR, Cites Pew Research studies.

“No babies,” New York Times, Population decline in Europe.


Denominational Analyses

“Pockets of youthfulness in an aging denomination,” Lewis Center for Church Leadership, Focused on United Methodists.

“United Methodist members dying faster than Americans,” Christian Post,

“A denomination in decline,”, Focused on PCUSA.

“Churches aim to move from maintenance to mission,” Mennonite Weekly Review, Focuses on Mennonite churches: “denomination aging… leaking roughly 2% of its membership annually… ‘if you depend on biology for attendance, this trajectory is a death sentence.’”

“United Methodist clergy age trends still say ‘gray,’”, “Elders between ages 55 and 72 have reached a record high of 52% of all active elders.”

“New SBC Data,”, “Southern Baptist membership will fall nearly 50% by 2050 unless the aging and predominantly white denomination reverses a 50-year trend and does more to strengthen evangelism, reach immigrants, and develop a broader ethnic base.”

“Losing Lutheran,”, “…connotations of stuffiness, aging and fast fading connections to Northern European ancestry…”

“What, me retire? Poor economy, pension issues challenge clergy, denominations,”,

Justin LongPassion, participation and preferential attachment: why the childless church mostly loses