I was recently standing on the 50th floor of a downtown hotel in Bangkok, contemplating with astonishment the mass of buildings below. I had visited Bangkok for the first time in the 90s and, while it was not a small city by any means, I remember Bangkok as being distinctly less dense, with far fewer high-rises and highways crisscrossing it in every direction. This I can say for most cities I visit.
KPI 2.6Each division, with the assistance of the Office of Adventist Mission, identifies and acknowledges all major unreached or under-reached majority populations in evangelized countries in their territories, and reports annually to the Global Mission Issues Committee on efforts to reach them.
The fact is that explosive population growth is the defining reality of our generation. It has impacted the growth of travel, entertainment, businesses, pollution, technologies, wealth, and poverty all around the world. According to a United Nations projection, this growth will continue for a few more decades to eventually peak at 11.2 billion toward the end of the century.
For the disciples of Christ, reaching out to these growing masses presents an ongoing challenge as we seek to fulfill the gospel commission. For even as we say that the ratio of Seventh-day Adventist members to the general population keeps declining from year to year, the reality is that every year, many more millions are born and die without getting the chance to hear about their Savior.
An empty planet
Given this paradigm of uninterrupted growth, great was my surprise when I came across the book “Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline.”1 Authors Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson argue that far from having another 80 years or so of uninterrupted growth ahead of us, we are quickly entering into a stage where populations are set to level off and diminish, and in some regions of the world, implode. If so, it will have massive implications not just for the world in which we live but also for the church and its mission. But how could that be?
The laws of demographics are now well understood; population statistics can be projected well into the future with a high degree of probability. After all, we know how many of us are around now; what life expectancy can be expected in every country; and increasingly, we understand what makes people decide to have babies or not.
We also know that every country follows a similar pattern that can be defined in five stages, which are like waves that wash over the world in what is called the demographic transition. All societies go from “high birth rates and high death rates” to “low birth rates and low death rates” over time. Some have done so over two hundred years, and others are doing it in a few short decades. The population boom we have witnessed in the last hundred years was due to advances in sanitation and health that lowered the death rate faster than it did the birth rate.
This was noticeable in terms of an increase in the life span and a decrease in infant mortality. More children survived, who, in turn, produced more children who survived as they grew up, and so on. But eventually, with an increase in the standard of living and a few other factors that came into play, this dynamic is being reversed in more and more countries to the point where we now have aging populations producing fewer children, who, in turn, produce fewer children, until the population declines as a whole. This dynamic is already at work in much of Europe, while more and more countries of Asia are also caught in that downward spiral. For a society to sustain itself, it needs a fertility rate of 2.1 (called replacement rate), meaning that, on average, every woman needs to give birth to 2.1 children, taking into consideration that some die prematurely while others cannot have children. But in several countries, that replacement rate has plummeted in the last decade.
A graying Europe
Demographers and social planners are sounding a warning about the future of Europe. The United Kingdom has a fertility rate of 1.8, and many countries are below that average, such as Greece (1.3), Italy (1.4), Romania (1.3), and Slovakia (1.4). Germany is expected to lose 19 percent of its population by 2050,2 while Russia’s population is expected to drop from 143 million to 107 million. Bulgaria has already shed 2 million of its people since 1989 (-23 percent).
As church leaders, we can already picture the impact it has on the church. It is much harder to grow the church in a declining society. Older people are more set in their ways, more conservative, and more difficult to win to Jesus. Our aging churches also have fewer children and are therefore less attractive, less dynamic, and less likely to be successful in winning people for Christ.
But there are two illuminating stories from the research conducted by Bricker and Ibbitson that make for interesting reading.
A faltering Asia
The first story concerns population decline in Asia. Japan’s population has already started to decline and is currently the oldest on earth. More than a quarter of all Japanese alive today are seniors. This is unfortunately already playing out in the church to the point where the local leadership, in partnership with the General Conference (GC) Secretariat, has embarked on a careful and ambitious church-planting program called Mission Unusual Tokyo. Its goal is to start 300 small groups and plant 30 house churches and 2 centers of influence in the central part of Tokyo with the help of GC-placed mission teams working in cooperation with the local leadership in a disciple-making format.
This is not a short-term evangelistic effort but a long-term undertaking stretching over a decade. Then, in 10 years’ time, Korea is predicted to take over Japan as the world’s oldest society. This too will have a high impact on our seven hundred churches there and their ability to reach out and grow. But where things will be interesting to watch is in China.
Until 2013, China enforced a one-child policy to curb its billion-plus population. But realizing its negative impact on the future, the government rescinded the law in 2015 in the hope of seeing an uptick in the number of births. Instead, the number kept plunging. Why? The reasons are multiple, but three of them play an important role in China as well as around the world, and they make a reversal almost impossible.
The first one is urbanization. While children are an asset in the countryside (more hands to help with the chores), they become a liability when the parents move to the city, where the children need to be educated at great cost. The world is urbanizing rapidly, and this is not likely to change. The second reason is that women are getting better educated, and the more educated women are, the more control they have over their lives, bodies, and reproductive choices. Again, this is not going to change. The third reason is the waning influence of family and religion. Both have been powerful factors to encourage large families. But with secularization and greater economic mobility and independence, the influence of both has diminished and, therefore, also the urge to have large families.
So, while the government can try to implement policies that help families, these do not produce lasting change in the overall trend and will not produce drastic improvements in the fertility rate. Cities such as Shanghai and Beijing have a fertility rate of 1.0 or less, and this is now baked into society and its structures: small apartments, high cost of living, two-earner families, and the love of personal indulgences make it almost impossible for the Chinese to reverse this trend. As a result, “the Middle Kingdom will have a population of just 560 million by the end of the century,” according to Bricker and Ibbitson.3
China has had a tremendous impact on the world through its astounding growth, leading some to say that “the number of Christians in Communist China is growing so steadily that by 2030 it could have more churchgoers than America.”4 Fenggang Yang, professor of sociology at Purdue University and author of Religion in China: Survival and Revival Under Communist Rule, says, “By my calculations China is destined to become the largest Christian country in the world very soon.”5 How China and the world will be impacted when China’s population declines may be too early to tell, but if these calculations hold in spite of the loss of population, it may mean that in a few decades, China could be mostly Christian—an astounding triumph for the gospel!
A surging Africa
The second story is that Africa’s population will continue to grow until the end of the century. Its population could go from 1.3 billion today to 2.5 billion in 2050 and 4.3 billion by the end of the century! It means that Christianity will be black, and the Seventh-day Adventist Church will largely be African, not unsurprising when we consider that already in 2015, greater than one out of two Seventh-day Adventist baptisms worldwide took place in Africa. Based on current trend lines, one out of two Seventh-day Adventist members will live in Africa as early as 2033.6 The implications are that African membership will assume greater responsibilities in the world church, both in financial support and in the provision of well-trained, world-class leadership. Because there is a high correlation between population growth and church growth, we can expect church growth in Africa to continue well into the future, while other parts of the world will be retrenching—including North America.
A diversifying North America
At 1.9, the reproductive rate in the U.S. is short of the replacement rate, but the country makes up for it through immigration. Immigration has always been an engine for growth in the past, contributing to both economic and church growth. Were it not for that factor, membership would have already leveled off a couple decades ago. The question is, how long is immigration going to remain a factor for growth in general, and for U.S. church growth in particular? Starting with the economic crisis of 2008, “more people have gone back to Mexico and Latin America than have come north to the U.S. Researchers studying the phenomenon cite a weakening American economy, greater availability of jobs in Mexico, and the declining Latino fertility rate.”7 Policies coming out of the U.S. administration further cloud the prospect for immigration into the U.S., legal or illegal. This is presumably a short-term issue, for the strength of America relies in large part on the strength of its population. Bricker and Ibbitson write, “Even at current levels, it is expected to grow from 345 million today to 389 million by 2050 and 450 million in 2100, a solid 100 million more than today, and closing in on a much-diminished China. Whatever else might be added to the geopolitical calculations, demographically the American advantage is decisive.”8
While the U.S. church still has opportunities to reach all those who are first-generation immigrants, from the Christian perspective it remains to be seen how much of America will still claim denominational affiliation. But assuming that immigration to the U.S. (and Canada) can continue unimpeded in the future, the church in North America will continue to grow, reflecting the diversity of its population and honing its approach to cross-cultural issues.
The church adopting as its motto “I Will Go” may mean fewer overseas missionary assignments and more willingness to reach across cultural divides—across the neighborhood—or even across the street.
- Darrell Jay Bricker and John Ibbitson, Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline (New York, NY: Crown Publishers, 2019).
- “Europe Population 2020,” World Population Review, accessed August 3, 2020, worldpopulationreview.com/continents/europe-population/.
- Bricker and Ibbitson, Empty Planet, 163.
- Tom Phillips, “China on Course to Become ‘World’s Most Christian Nation’ Within 15 Years,” The Telegraph, April 19, 2014, telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/china/10776023/China-on-course-to-become-worlds-most-Christian-nation-within-15-years.html.
- See ASTR: Office of Archives, Statistics, and Research, adventistarchives.org/.
- Bricker and Ibbitson, Empty Planet, 149.
- Bricker and Ibbitson, Empty Planet, 189.