Be fruitful and teach your children well



Episcopalians do not do evangelization by reproduction. We also don’t do a terribly good job at retaining the offspring we do produce.

Katharine Jefferts Schori, Hays Daily News, June 18, 2007

By John B. Chilton

The mainline denominations – Methodist, Episcopal, Lutheran, Presbyterian – didn’t pay much attention to competition for members from conservative denominations until the early 1970s when the number of conservatives passed the mainline denominations in total membership. Since then conservatives have continued to grow relative to the mainline churches. In the 1950s mainline denominations constituted 60% of Protestants; by the 1990s it was the conservative denominations that held 60%. Is this because the mainline denominations are soft and the upstart evangelicals do a better a job of evangelism? Many have supposed this to be the case, and I echoed those views in my essay in the Daily Episcopalian last month.

A friendly commenter suggested that the reasons had to do more with lower rates of fertility in mainline denominations. Indeed, several times our Presiding Bishop has made much the same point – that the fertility rate of Episcopalian women is lower than the rate for women in the United States as a whole. Whenever she has made that point conservative bloggers (or their followers) have been quick to headline her words and brand them as excuses. But numbers on family size are facts. I conjecture that mainline couples have fewer children for standard economic reasons; mainline families do tend to have higher incomes and those higher incomes are due to higher wages, for both spouses. Children take time to rear so children are more expensive for families with higher wages. Higher price of children, fewer children demanded.

The relative decline of mainline denominations could of course be due both to differences in fertility and in evangelism. My commenter pointed me to what he admitted was a somewhat dated paper here. From that tip I was able to find a more recent paper, “The Demographic Imperative in Religious Change in the United States” by Michael Hout, Andrew Greeley and Melissa J. Wilde, The American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 107, No. 2. (Sep., 2001), pp. 468-500 [JSTOR, subscription only].

Hout et al. have individual records on religious affiliation at birth, change in affiliation and fertility rates of women through 1998 via the General Social Survey. The data is recent enough to include the rise of the Religious Right in public awareness, but not to capture developments after 2003, the year that Gene Robinson was confirmed as the Bishop of New Hampshire. This is just as well because they do not report on denominations separately. The 139 Protestant denominations are classified and grouped as either mainline or conservative.

Grow your own

Besides, Hout and his co-authors report, conservatives have succeeded in evangelism because they have conformed to the edict, “be fruitful and multiply.” From the GSS records they were able to tease out fertility rates for women in the cohorts born between 1903 and 1973. Using only the fertility data they then project the implied growth in membership from 1903 to 1998 – in the following categories: mainline, conservative, other religion, and no religion. Their result:

Evidence from the General Social Survey indicates that higher fertility and earlier childbearing among women from conservative denominations explains 76% of the observed trend for cohorts born between 1903 and 1973: conservative denominations have grown their own.

Again: “conservative denominations have grown their own.” Hence the “demographic imperative” – a smaller group will eventually become the larger group if its growth rate is larger. For much of the 20th century the mainline fertility by age cohort was just over two, barely enough for zero growth. In contrast, conservative fertility in the early part of the century was almost one more child per woman; more recently it remains above but is nearly equal to mainline fertility.

Teach your children well: don’t grow up to be mainline

Why has conservative fertility declined? Socioeconomically the conservatives have become more like the mainline denominations. They have climbed the economic ladder, but unlike in the past, they are less likely to switch to a mainline denomination.

Herein lies the other substantial part of the reason the conservatives have had more success in evangelism. They not only grow more of their own, they “teach their children well” so that they do not convert to a mainline denomination in their adulthood. This is not to say that conservatives have improved on “backdoor evangelism,” i.e. the rate at which members leave. Rather, most of those who leave don’t join mainline denominations; they grow up to be unaffiliated with any faith. It’s a great irony that after differential birthrates, the second most important fact in explaining the rise of conservative membership relative to the mainline is that a portion of conservative youth that in the past would have converted to mainline in their adulthood now drop out of Christianity altogether.

Two final findings: (1) “a recent rise in apostasy added a few percentage points to mainline decline” and (2) “conversions from mainline to conservative denominations have not changed, so they played no role in the restructuring.” The bad news for the mainline denominations is that they are losing more of their young people. (But this is only a small part of the explanation of the decline, and it could have to do with recent trends in delay of marriage, and delay in childbearing.) The surprising thing about conservative denominations is that their growth is not due to work in the mission field. It has to do with reproduction and rearing. Reports of their success in evangelism are greatly overstated.


The economist Steve Levitt argues that the drop in crime can be traced back to the legalization of abortion several decades earlier; that the drop had little or nothing to do with changes in police tactics or spending. Perhaps the fortunes of the mainline denominations can be traced not to a rejection of liberal theology, but to differential changes in family planning practices dating back a century.

Dr. John B. Chilton is an economist at the American University of Sharjah (United Arab Emirates.) In the summers he resides near Shrine Mont Episcopal Conference Center of the Diocese of Virginia. He maintains two personal blogs, The Emirates Economist and New Virginia Church Man.

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