The birth dearth

Family | A problem in South Korea deeper than the coronavirus
by Darrow Miller
Posted 3/28/20, 04:33 pm

While Italy, Spain, Iran, and other countries have been overwhelmed, South Korea seems to have flattened out the spread of the coronavirus. South Korea, though, has a deeper trouble: Its culture no longer supports the formation of families and the virtue of having children. The country currently has the lowest fertility rate of any in the world. Its rate of .88 is less than half of the 2.1 needed to maintain a stable population. In other words, while South Korea is busy slowing the spread of COVID-19, she is on the path to national suicide.

Overstatement? Not according to The National Interest, which ran this screaming headline: “Korea’s Future Is Dying (Thanks to Demographics).” South Korea’s rapidly aging populace, plus her alarming suicide rate and paltry fertility rate, will trigger a rapid population decline in 2020.

South Korea is among the most endangered, but it is not alone among nations threatened by a population dearth. Post-family culture is growing globally, especially in industrialized, materialistic societies, where consumerism is attacking family formation. China, for example, has nearly 200 million unmarried adults.

“Nearly 70 percent of China’s adults aged between 18 and 36 are on their own,” wrote Joel Kotkin, a presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University, in Quillette. His article, “The Politics of Procreation,” uses striking language to sound a warning:

“Throughout the world, the urban centers that dominate contemporary economy and culture—Beijing, Tokyo, New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Sydney, and San Francisco—are becoming ‘demographic graveyards.’ In Beijing and Shanghai, the fertility rate is barely one-third of that needed to replace the current population. Inner London, notes the Office for National Statistics (ONS), has a fertility rate fully one-third lower than the surrounding suburbs. In severely overcrowded Hong Kong, according to one recent survey, two-thirds of women said they did not want an additional or even a first child. The fertility rate in the Chinese territory is now less than half that of 1980. …

“Today, a majority of people live in countries with fertility well below replacement rates. The UN projects this number will grow to 75 percent by 2050. If projections are accurate, rapid aging and a declining workforce will become increasingly common around the world.”

The tragic irony: Many people believe the planet is overpopulated. Often, by the time a nation acknowledges the truth, it’s too late to change the anti-maternal culture.

NATIONAL FERTILITY MEASURES DIVIDE into three levels. A rate of 2.1 children per woman represents a stable or growing population. Approximately 100 countries are at or above this level. About 50 nations have begun to fall in population and are between 2.1 and 1.8, slightly below the replacement level. These countries can reverse their decline with a concerted national effort.

A rate of 1.8 or below is “sub-replacement fertility.” Sixty-six countries are in this “death spiral,” a grave danger increasingly difficult to reverse. A nation in this range is in the process of national suicide. The tragic irony: Many people believe the planet is overpopulated. Often, by the time a nation acknowledges the truth, it’s too late to change the anti-maternal culture.

Wikimedia Commons Wikimedia Commons 2018 fertility rate by country

No country has ever reversed a birthrate of 1.3 or below, known as the “lowest-low fertility.” Ten countries—including Singapore, Taiwan, and South Korea—have passed this point of no return. An average of one child per woman cuts a nation’s population in half in 30 years.

The map to the right shows the global pattern of fertility in 2018. Growth has dropped in virtually every nation, including sub-Saharan Africa, where the average rate in 2018 was 4.78.

In the United States, the same downward trends are at work. In January 2010, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention published “Expected Number of Births over a Woman’s Lifetime—National Vital Statistics System, United States, 1940–2018”:

“During 1940–2018, the expected number of births a woman would have over her lifetime, the TFR [total fertility rate], was highest for women during the post–World War II baby boom (births during 1946–1964). In 1957, the TFR reached a peak of 3.77 births per woman. The TFR generally declined for the birth cohort referred to as Generation X from 2.91 in 1965 to 1.84 in 1980. For the birth cohorts referred to as Millennials (Generation Y) and Generation Z, the TFR first increased to 2.08 in 1990 and then remained generally stable until it began to decline in 2007. By 2018, the expected number of births per woman fell to 1.73, a record low for the nation. Except for 2006 and 2007, the TFR has been below the level needed for a generation to replace itself (2.10 births per woman) since 1971.”

Small cities, towns, and suburbs generally support family formation and children. Larger cities have smaller families. In 2015, 25 percent of U.S. households were single-person. These realities develop political implications. Two-thirds of single women support the Democratic Party, at least in part because its platform supports abortion. A “simple” procedure allows women to be like men: to have sex and not be pregnant. On the other hand, married women with children tend to be Republicans.

Two cultural mindsets divide the United States. One side values singleness, minimal responsibilities, freedom to consume. The other treasures community, families, “being” more than “having.”

In his article, Kotkin engages the deeper philosophical, theological questions as well. What does it mean to be human? Do we have no more value than a cockroach? Are we the cancers of the earth or the stewards of creation? Consumers or creators? Can we have a hopeful future based on the existence of a beneficent Creator, or do we live in a silent universe without purpose? The answers will shape our future.

South Korea’s anti-maternal, anti-familial, and pro-death culture grew during a great evangelistic and church-planting movement.

SOUTH KOREA’S POPULATION SLIDE is even more tragic than immediately apparent. This disturbing trajectory developed during a massive push to evangelize and spread the gospel. South Korea’s anti-maternal, anti-familial, and pro-death culture grew during a great evangelistic and church-planting movement.

Chart by Donna Anastasi Chart by Donna Anastasi

As every “world Christian” knows, South Korea has been a model of church growth and missionary fervor. This started about 1945, when the Japanese surrendered, ending their occupation of the Korean Peninsula. Approximately 2 percent of Koreans were Christians. Christian missionaries arrived, evangelism and church planting began, and the result was a dynamic Christian church.

By 2010, at least 30 percent of South Korea’s 50 million people professed Christ. “Official government statistics put the number of Protestant churches at 77,000 as of 2012, more than three times the number of convenience stores in the country,” reported The Korea Herald in 2014. “This translates to a 1-to-660 ratio of churches to Koreans.”

Seoul at night has a skyline of red neon crosses.

During this time of astronomical church growth, South Korea moved from an impoverished, starving rural nation to the fourth-largest economy in Asia and the 12th in the world.

South Korea deserves salutes for her church growth and economic advance. But while all this was happening, the culture was slowly shifting to a post-maternal, post-familial, pro-death society. The country’s birthrates plunged and her suicide rate soared. The South Korean government is offering cash stipends and family tax breaks to women who have babies. It offered maternity leave and paid day care. These economic solutions have largely failed. Why? Because money isn’t the solution.

It’s not as if the church lacked capacity or opportunity. In addition to its remarkable growth, the South Korean church has enjoyed the freedom to shape herself and build programs to meet the needs of her members and the larger Korean community. As noted by a 2012 Pew Research article, “[R]eligious restrictions in South Korea are lower than in the U.S., and significantly lower than the median level of religious restrictions in the Asia-Pacific region.”

South Korea is dying because of the sacred-secular divide, which emerges from an anemic Greek worldview rather than a robust Biblical understanding.

The Korean church has had the ability, influence, and wealth to shape a nation with the culture of the kingdom of God: truth, beauty, and goodness. Alas, this has not transpired. In fact, during these decades, church growth and population growth have been in reverse proportion. South Korea is dying because of the sacred-secular divide, which emerges from an anemic Greek worldview rather than a robust Biblical understanding.

Chart by Donna Anastasi Chart by Donna Anastasi

Many evangelicals regard as sacred, and therefore of ultimate importance, a relatively small slice of life: evangelism, church planting, Bible distribution, worship services, missionary work, etc. They relegate everything else—education, government, citizenship, family formation, vocation, the arts (obviously the list goes on and on)—to second place. Somebody needs to care for such matters, and it would be good if Christians were involved, but these concerns don’t rise to the level of first importance.

The birth dearth is a wakeup call to the church. It is not enough to do evangelism and church planting. These must be accompanied by discipleship in what is called the spiritual disciplines: prayer, studying the Bible, fellowship/corporate worship, and sharing one’s faith. Such growth is fundamental to the Christian life. But, as with evangelism and church growth, individual disciple-making is insufficient to fulfilling the Great Commission. Jesus sent us to disciple the nations.

The church in South Korea, as is the case elsewhere, has not discipled the nation at the level of culture. The Korean church has been secularized. The church should have discipled the nation with a life-affirming, family-forming, hopeful future. Instead, the nation was discipling the church with its secularistic, narcissistic, consumer-oriented, disaffiliated, child-free culture, one without hope for a personal or national future.

Researchers Sam Hyun Yoo and Victor Agadjanian, in their paper “Did Christian Women Lead Fertility Decline in South Korea?” (download a PDF of the report) demonstrate the correlation between religion and fertility. They point out that global Christianity has often been associated with higher levels of fertility because the church has often resisted artificial birth control. This tradition existed in the church in South Korea for a while. But higher fertility rates in South Korea and neighboring China, coupled with the fear of “overpopulation,” led Korean and Chinese governments to focus on the “ideal” family, one or two children.

I’ve derived the following chart from Yoo and Agadjanian’s article showing the difference in South Korea’s fertility rates 20 years apart according to religious affiliation:


Despite the immense importance Christianity places on family formation, on the celebration of children and the maternal nature of women, Christians dropped below the replacement fertility rate before other groups and appear to be leading the race to the bottom.

We have celebrated the Korean legacy of evangelism, church growth, and the sending of missionaries. Yet, in the long run, what’s to celebrate if the church has forgotten the most basic task of discipling the nation to fulfill the cultural mandate?

In the long run, what’s to celebrate if the church has forgotten the most basic task of discipling the nation to fulfill the cultural mandate?

A POST-CHRISTIAN CLIMATE is leading us to a post-human world. This includes, with the rise of evolutionary ideology, a post-moral world. The rise of radical feminism has led to a post-maternal world. As modernism begins its slow demise, postmodernism has given rise to a post-truth culture and the gender-identity movement.

The post-maternal culture will have a profound effect at the micro level of individual women and a profound effect at the macro level of national and cultural survival. The 1960’s “Population Bomb” myth is giving way among social scientists to a Demographic Winter and The Empty Planet.

We need a narrative that supports the formation of families, the dignity of the maternal and of all human life, and the hope of a future. We get that from the Scriptures, beginning in Genesis 1.

The suicide of South Korea should be a kick in our pants to redouble the effort to expose the cause of this national madness and with a loud voice promote the Biblical mandate to form families and have children. That’s the only means of stopping this self-imposed downward spiral.

Darrow Miller

Darrow is co-founder of the Disciple Nations Alliance and the author of numerous books, including LifeWork: A Biblical Theology for What You Do Every Day.

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  • RC
    Posted: Mon, 03/30/2020 09:38 am

    I have read about the slowing of population growth but did not realize it had gotten this bad so soon.

    To think in the 1960’s and 1970’s we were worried about a nuclear holocaust, resulting in a nuclear winter.  Now mankind will go out of existences because to few are willing to pay the social, economic and emotional price to raise a family. 

    Posted: Mon, 03/30/2020 09:42 am

    Excellent article! Years ago National Geographic had an issue devoted to world population growth that indicated similar facts about declining populations and their trajectories. It is quite remarkable how people still cling to the false science of over-population. I appreciate how Mr. Miller has pointed to the underlying spiritual and worldview causes that are driving these trends. I serve as a missionary in Poland; a country that is trying to maintain its 38 milllion residents. They have institued pro-family benefits from the government and other private enterprises have added to the effort. Even in a Catholic country, most Poles believe they can only afford 1 or 2 children. We should all be practice deep discipleship and be exemplary ourselves in valuing the family and children.