The Nations and Natalism

Our Christian obligation toward the nations demands we take note of growing global anti-natalism and its troubling fruit.

There’s a long-running joke in evangelical circles that Baptists do all their church growth through missions and evangelism, while Presbyterians do all theirs through having children.

Like most good humor, this joke relies on sweeping generalization. But it also strikes a chord because it plays upon a familiar theme many have observed. All too often in the church world, it seems as though one will either develop a church culture emphasizing marriage, family, and childrearing or one that emphasizes evangelism, missions, and church planting. (Or neither—but rarely both.)

The clearest example of this I can recall is a sermon preached by Francis Chan about 10 years ago called Don’t Focus on the Family—irreverently playing upon the name of the well-known parachurch ministry. This one sermon title captures the essence of a movement of young, restless, missional teaching that dominated a certain corner of evangelicalism from the mid-2000s to 2016 or so, when other more hotly contested political issues started to dominate the conversation.

Having come of age at a time when young, Bible-believing Christian men and women were being called to “radical” living—avoiding at all costs the temptations to idolize family, career, and finance—I’m sympathetic to the growing number of evangelicals now rejecting this simplistic narrative. To breeze past the Bible’s glut of content devoted to marriage, family, and household would be to do violence to the voice of Scripture. The family matters immensely to God, and he has more to say about it than simply “but don’t turn it into an idol.” And unless the vast majority of believers from all of church history who, subsequent to their conversion, have been in gross disobedience to the Great Commission by remaining rooted in their own communities and cultures, we are left to conclude that it is ordinarily God’s will for the typical Christian to bloom where he is planted.

I’m also cognizant that there are two sides from which one can fall off the proverbial horse. It’s true that marriage and family can be pursued at the cost of kingdom aims—consider the words of Jesus concerning the cost of discipleship (Luke 14:26). Our devotion to the Lord and his cause should cause our love for even our kin to look like hate by comparison, in a certain sense. Or, to put it another way: married men, like Adam, are given their wives as helpmates; thus, when the man and woman together devote themselves to the man’s mission, their relationship remains balanced, but when the romance becomes the mission itself—that is, when a man’s sense of purpose in the world terminates at his own doorstep—then the fullness of God’s purposes for his people is not realized.

Yet, all of this said, I fear that the strict separation we’ve drawn between marriage and family pursuits and mission has blinded us to the play being run on us at a global scale by the forces of darkness.

Consider the following alarming trends:

  • Among the OECD’s (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) 38 member countries, all Western nations, marriage rates decreased by an estimated maximum of 50 percent from 1970 to 1995, with further declines observed since then.
  • In South Korea, like other developed nations, the fertility rate has plummeted to 0.79 children per woman, one of the lowest in the world, posing severe long-term demographic challenges​—well below the replacement level of 2.1 children per woman needed to maintain a stable population.
  • Across Europe and North America, more than 13% of women in their late 40s are divorced or separated—one of many sobering statistic reflecting delayed marriage and childrearing across populations.

What is happening? We could point to a variety of interrelated factors; continued fallout from the Industrial Revolution, the advent of the pill, and secularism itself are all to blame in various ways. But we would be naive if we failed to observe a more sinister root beneath all these trends. The serpent of old, the enemy both of God and of his people, is also the enemy of the human race. He wages proxy war against the God of heaven by seeking to defile and destroy his image-bearers on earth. The sacred fire given to the race of mankind—the mysterious way in which we are bound as flesh and spirit, reproducing after our kind—is hell’s object of scorn to be perverted by all available, diabolical means.

In short: I would posit that the evil one knows God’s plan is drawing the nations to himself, and he intends to thwart that purpose by inciting the nations to depopulate themselves out of existence.

Disciple-making begins at the dinner table.

Thus, as missions-minded Christians, if we are to love the nations well, we must also care about natalism. Those two terms bear more than a superficial similarity; the Latin nat– prefix (meaning “born”) should provide a clue. Redemptive history follows the course set by God’s zeal for his glory among all the nations, and these nations are consistently described not as mere political abstractions but as families (Genesis 12:3, 1 Chronicles 16:28, Psalm 22:27). God does not just want a variety of individuals to be saved but draws households, clans, tribes, and people groups to himself. Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight; Jesus loves the little children of the world.

Hence, throughout the New Testament, whenever gospel doctrine is expounded, the realm of application first addressed is the household economy. When we send missionaries to the end of the earth, we’re sending them not only to labor for the conversion of individuals but for the transformation of whole families into the likeness of Christ. The lost who come to the saving knowledge of Christ will then be enrolled in the lifelong school of discipleship, and their basic curricula will involve such things as loving and cherishing their spouses, rearing their children in the fear and admonition of the Lord, and humbly serving the needs of one’s dependents. And in this grand tapestry, singles are not excluded but are to be woven in the organic life of the church and her mission, not treated simply as expendable free agents. God intends to renew the earth, and he does so not only through isolated individuals floating through the world like atoms but also through molecular structures which form the social fabric necessary to any nation.

Should we “focus on the family” or the nations? Yes.

Should we “focus on the family” or the nations? Yes. Nations, after all, consist of families. Disciple-making begins at the dinner table. The little disciples at our tables become the arrows we thrust out into the world, piercing into the darkness with the gospel (Psalm 127:4-5). And when they do go out into the world, teaching others to obey all that Christ commanded us (Matthew 28:20), their labors will necessarily translate to more disciples engaged in glorious good works not only of evangelism but also of life’s ordinary duties in the home and workplace.

The mission of Christ will not be accomplished by amorphous nonprofit organizations, nor merely by rag-tag, rugged individuals seeking to lone-gun the world to Jesus. Rather, this will be accomplished through the church of Jesus Christ, which is the family of God the Father, from whom every parentage on earth is named (Ephesians 3:14). Baptists should not let Presbyterians have all the fun, nor vice versa; let’s love the nations by loving the little platoons in our homes and love the families of the earth by taking the gospel to the world.