The first in a new series ‘Letters to Young Christians’.
Just your favourite Gen-X uncle here asking for help again! Do a lot of people in your generation not want to have children? How widespread is this amongst your Christian peers?
For context: I was recently speaking at a Christian conference. On the Saturday night there was a Q&A session for young adults. Many of the questions were familiar: God and suffering, baptism, decision making and the will of God—the usual suspects. But there were other questions I don’t think I’d encountered before. The one that really stuck with me was:
“In a world like this, how could anyone possibly justify having children?”
Before I answered I asked the room,
“For how many of you is this a question?”
I would say a good half of the room nodded. A woman who worked with young adults later said to me that it comes up all the time.
Is this a thing? I’m not here thinking about people who want children, for whatever reason, have not been able to have them. That wasn’t the issue. These were young, unmarried people hesitant to ever have children as a matter of principle. I do realise it’s a thing in the culture at large. Birth-rates do decrease in advanced economies. That’s a thing. But our society is increasingly becoming “anti-natalist”—that is, against having children at all.
I’ve know the environmental arguments for having fewer children (lower carbon footprint), the life-style arguments (more freedom), and the financial arguments (more money). But I was at a conservative evangelical Christian convention! And the concern in the room seemed to be about having children as such. That this world, for whatever reasons (climate change, access to pornography, AI, etc) is no place for children.
To me, this is an extraordinary move for a Christian to make. It sounds like despair. Like nihilism. I found it troubling.
Do you feel this way? Is it common amongst Christians of your age?
Your generation has grown up in the shadow of a climate crisis and the language of “crisis” implies a particular posture to the world. “Crisis” invites a set of actions and attitudes which are not Business as Usual. (Interestingly, the only place I can think of in the Bible where deliberately not having children is even on the table appears to be crisis-related. See 1 Corinthians 7:26.) The way we consume media must compound this sense of crisis. Every “war and rumour of war” from around the world pings our smartphones, making everything feel apocalyptic. Back in the day I imagine you could go months, probably years, without hearing of a significant catastrophe. Today, it’s part of our daily diet.
Our living standards (income, nutrition, health-care etc) are high by historical standards. Is there some dynamic whereby the better things get, the worse the bad things feel? Louis C. K. has that line: “Everything is amazing and nobody’s happy.” If a time-traveller visited us from the past to discover a world of modern dentistry, penicillin, long life spans, anaesthetics, salted caramel donuts, and iPads, and then discovered we were all miserable and wondering if we should really be welcoming children into all this, they’d surely be perplexed.
I do think the recession of Christianity in the West is relevant. Having children is an exercise in hope. It’s a vote for life. A vote for the future. A vote for this world. Having children says, “On average, all things considered, life is worth living.” Religious communities have higher birth rates that non-religious communities (that seems to be the pattern, anyway. I can send you a link if you’re interested). Why? Religion tends to make you part of something bigger, something that will outlast you, something transcendent. We ditched Christianity, and the birth-rate plummets. There’s lots going on here, of course: economic, technological and other factors. But the religious connection is part of the picture. Christian faith brings online a transcendent horizon, a purpose beyond a single life-span.
Can you forgive a representational portrait? Picture a couple in Brooklyn with a dog, a brownstone apartment, a collective income of more than $800,000 a year and absolutely no intention to have any children. They look happy. For all I know they probably are. They’re certainly privileged, flexible, and free. Why don’t they want to be part of creating another generation? Does their worldview not include the idea that this is worth preserving, worth passing on, worth bequeathing to our children? There’s something sad in there somewhere, I think.
Those are my rambling thoughts. Can I try out my responses on you for your Gen-Z feedback? What would I say to someone in your generation, who was a Christian, but was hesitant to have children?
Thankfulness and Goodness
The expectation of children is baked into the original goodness of creation. Humanity was called to be fruitful and multiply. In the normal course of events, those who marry, if they can, welcome children. Today we think about children as a kind of lifestyle choice, an add-on to marriage. I don’t think that’s right. (Now, I hasten to add, not every sexual encounter in marriage needs to be oriented to fertility, nor is the marriage of couples who are, in the course of events, unable to have children diminished). But an openness to welcoming children is, I think, an entailment of marriage itself.
The world is good, and children are good, and we Christians need to rediscover and preach the essential goodness of the world and of life in it, despite its fallenness. I hope you don’t mind a longish quote from one of my favourite novels (Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead)?
The sun had come up brilliantly after a heavy rain, and the trees were glistening and very wet. On some impulse, plain exuberance, I suppose, the fellow jumped up and caught hold of a branch, and a storm of luminous water came pouring down on the two of them, and they laughed and took off running, the girl sweeping water off her hair and her dress as if she were a little bit disgusted, but she wasn’t. It was a beautiful thing to see, like something from a myth. I don’t know why I thought of that now, except perhaps because it is easy to believe in such moments that water was made primarily for blessing, and only secondarily for growing vegetables or doing the wash. I wish I had paid more attention to it …This is an interesting planet. It deserves all the attention you can give it.
The world deserves our attention. It deserves our love and wonder. Texan theologian Stanley Hauerwas says that having children is an act of hospitality. I love that! When we have children, we welcome little strangers into the world. What a world to welcome them into! A world of banjo music and waves that crash on rocks and wooden staircases and Jarrah trees and a thing as miraculous as water. (If you’d never seen water, and someone tried to explain it to you, you wouldn’t believe them.) Let’s recover the wonder of it all. Let’s say to children: “This is a good world, made by a good God. You’re going to love it here!”
Christianity is optimistic about the future. Ours is a religion of hope. It is full of light.
I didn’t always believe this. Growing up Christian, I harboured the suspicion that the Christian worldview was somehow darker than its rivals. We believe, after all, in judgement and hell, evil and the satanic. God would “win”, in a manner, one day. But “winning” constituted saving a relatively small number of people from hell and that was about it.
But the longer I am Christian, the more I see that Christianity is hard on the outside but soft in the centre, and full of joy. Compared to secular thought it looks positively effervescent. Indeed, secular thought is the opposite shape: softer on the surface (no judgement, heaven, or hell) but unremittingly dark at the centre.
Does the fate of the unsaved temper all of this? For sure. It is a huge grief to know that many will face the judgement of God not having trusted in Christ. That’s not something you’re ever supposed to feel okay about. But even here, every human being will face the judgement of a God who made them and loved them. They will each receive the final dignity of their day before the judge of all the earth, who will always do what is right. He will do the right thing by every human being, including our children.
Having children is an act of trust. When we have them, we are entrusting them to God. Things do change between the Old Testament and the New. There is a greater emphasis on “filling the earth” and of advancing the kingdom through offspring. In the New Testament the kingdom grows (also) through instruction and baptism (Matthew 28:19–20). Singleness is foregrounded as an honoured estate (1 Corinthians 7). Jesus was single. But these are added to the appreciation of God’s gifts of family life and children, they don’t usurp them. God is still building his kingdom intergenerationally. Indeed, part of the new covenant involves healing and extending God’s work across generations (Malachi 4:5–6; Acts 2:38–39). The new covenant extends but does not extinguish our calling to care about the next biological generation of the family of God.
A certain approach to parenting in the English-speaking world has us hovering over children, clearing all obstacles before them, agonising over the opportunities we’ve not given them, fretful of their future. The Bible seems altogether less anxious: “Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it” (Proverbs 22:6).
We read that verse and immediately think of the exceptions. Some kids don’t keep following the Lord. And sometimes this is despite the best efforts of the parents. You really do need to just trust God with them at that point. The responsibility of parents is to do the bit God assigns to us: raising them from infancy to independence. Managing a kid’s relationship with God into adulthood is beyond your pay-grade. Focus on the role God gives you, and trust him with the rest.
There is such a thing as a bad father or mother. You can screw your kids up. But it’s harder to do than you think, and genuinely terrible parents are rarer than you think. The solution to bad parenting is adequate parenting. If the Lord gives you children one day, raising them is challenging, both physically and emotionally. But it’s not (as Kath and Kim put it) rocket surgery. Feed them. Love them. Tell them you love them. Practice consistent mild discipline. Get them to church every Sunday, even in those years when getting there is hard for everyone. Read the Bible and pray with them regularly. And by “regularly” I reckon shoot for four or five nights of the week. We’ve found the goal of seven out of seven too hard, and guilt-inducing. We’re shooting for a Pass, not an A+. And don’t feel like you need to do a Bible study every time you open the Bible with them. Just reading and praying is fine. Teach them to say sorry, especially by being willing to say sorry yourself. Make sure they have other Christians in their lives, especially during the teenage years. Laugh with them. Laugh at yourself. Spend prodigal amounts of time with them. And then trust the Lord.
Thanks for reading, Penelope, and giving me an opportunity to gather my thoughts.
Your affectionate uncle,