imagesGrowing population and poverty are inextricably linked together in the modern world. Very few Christians in America recognize this problem for what it is nor do they seriously discuss solutions and responses. It seems to me that a simple, basic expression of the love of God requires that we not only have this dialogue but that we prepare our churches and missions to respond to this moment of modern crisis. Can we do less?

In the poorest countries people generally have children at the highest rate, believing that their future is in their children. (It is hard for Westerner people to grasp this since our birth rate is declining rapidly and we are not even replacing our own population unless you include immigrants and undocumented workers who have larger families.) Very little of the financial aid that is given to less developed countries addresses the root problems or leads to sustainable, replicable changes.

In 1950 the industrialized nations were the most populous. But in the second half of the century birth rates plunged while those in the least developed world rose to a peak in the 1990s. In 2000 the most populous countries were India and China, now almost equal in population given China’s “one child” policy. Only five developed countries remained on this list in 2000. Generally speaking the fastest live birth rates are among Muslims.

One of the big, thorny, difficult problems we now face is this: “How should governmental, NGO and Christian aid be administered to achieve the best outcomes possible?” Put another way, to those of us who are Christians, “How would Jesus have us respond to the suffering multitudes upon whom he had deep compassion in his own mission?”

The answers offered to these questions vary but the burning issues remain clear. Global stability, even politically, may well depend on how we in the West help the poorer nations to secure a hopeful, workable future. Failure could lead to an ecological disaster (and I am not speaking of the controversial parts of ecology, just the obvious facts on the ground). Failure could also lead to social collapse and the vast migrations of people as we’ve seen in sub-Sahara Africa over recent decades. It is also striking that the “hot spots” for Christians are likely to be in Africa since the church is growing rapidly there and Islam is also growing rapidly right alongside of their Muslim neighbors. Peacemaking is an acquired skill and Africa is short on leaders who seek peace between Christians and Muslims.

Those who deeply study these demographic issues suggest that by 2050 growth will be the highest among Muslims, particularly in Africa. Of the original developed countries only two will remain on the list for live birth rate growth–Mexico and Brazil. It is suggested that by 2050 even these two nations will become more like the rest of the West and their birth rates will likely decline.

Where will we be in 2100? Growth rates are most likely to be highest in Muslim countries in Africa and Asia. It is also likely that severe shortages of food, water and resources will deeply challenge these places in the world where birth rates grow. Will many migrate to Europe? If so what will Europe look like demographically in 2100 given that it is already very different now than it was in 1950?

Rome 2011 079This much we can be fairly certain about. Over the next sixty-plus years, less than my lifetime already lived, there will be chasmic disparities between those places where birth rates are in decline and those where it is still rising rapidly. Some suggest that by 2100 the birth rate might actually plateau globally. These huge disparities are likely to increase turmoil inside of countries and between countries over the next sixty-plus years. Inadequate education and vast displays of inequality, which people will know about and thus understand better than ever, are likely to become great challenges to infrastructure and peace. One student of this trend concludes, “The deprived poor will either fight to take their share or migrate to earn it.”

Having studied what Jesus says about the poor and marginalized in Luke’s Gospel over the past two weeks I am deeply struck by just how little attention we Christians in the West pay to what our Lord taught about these types of problems. These problems are faced every day by the poorest and weakest people on our planet. I submit that out “older” European ways of reading the Bible and solving such problems will not likely work in many of these new global contexts. If mission is to be truly effective then we need some serious reflection on these distressing issues and how we intend to deal with them. My hope is that millennial leaders, who generally see the world very differently, will be the “great” generation in their sacrificial response to the great need that the world will soon face. This generation tends to “get involved.” If they get involved what will happen? Let us pray for holy wisdom and great courage.

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  1. arshield May 22, 2013 at 8:01 am - Reply

    I just finished Mountain Beyond Mountains about the doctor Paul Farmer. He has done very interesting work in public health (and starting clinics in rural Haiti). His research indicates that poverty and sickness are compounding problems. That people with same basic exposure, the poor will get sick faster, stay sick longer and get treatment later (if at all). That sickness compounds their poverty because sick people can’t work and support their families which then also leads to more sickness. His work has lead to an increasingly common work among poor where as part of medical treatment, the poor also get basic food rations as part of their medical response.

    There is a good quote in the book that I will mess up, but basically says, if you want to prevent people from getting sick the best way is to get women education and jobs. I think that is probably also the best way to slow population growth. If you get women education and jobs then they don’t have to rely on their children to care for them as they age.

    It does not take long for culture to adapt to fewer children when children no longer commonly die in childhood.

  2. mwkruse May 22, 2013 at 12:58 pm - Reply

    John, your third paragraph is quite accurate. One of my degrees is in demography and a key topic with demography is the demographic transition theory.
    Prior to the 1700s the world has been characterized by both high fertility rates and high mortality rates. The fertility rates were slightly higher than death rates, leading to very modest growth in the world population. But mid-1700s a transition began in Europe. Sweden was one of the lead countries. Through the implementation of technology and various health and welfare policies, mortality rates began to decline (particularly infant mortality) while fertility rates stayed the same. More people were living to adulthood. Therefore, more people were having children. Population began to grow more rapidly.
    About a generation later, fertility rates also went into decline, at about the same rate as mortality rates, but because the decline started later it was always lagging. The result was a continuous population growth in Sweden. This parallel decline continued until the mid-1900s.
    After about 1950 the mortality more or less stabilized but the fertility rate actually declined to a rate below the replacement rate. This is now leading to population decline. Demographic transition theorists have speculated that the two rates would ultimately balance but that has yet to happen. All advanced societies have been following the same pattern, though starting a little later and making the transition in a little less time.
    What happened in many emerging nations was that, after World War II, advanced nations began to give aid a medical technology. Mortality rates dropped off the table in the period of a decade or two while fertility rates stayed the same. Where a mother once had eight children and four lived to adulthood, now she was having eight and seven were living to adulthood. Thus, the population explosion. It is much easier to affect mortality rates than fertility rates because issues surrounding birth and family are so much more deeply ingrained. It takes a few generations for values to shift.
    The rate of world population growth has been slowing for years. Most demographers believe the population will peak about mid-century at 9.5-10.0 billion and then begin to decline.
    Also, in 1900, India had 150% as many people as all of Europe combined. China was upwards of double. Well before 1950, these nations were larger than the advanced nations.

    • mwkruse May 22, 2013 at 2:13 pm - Reply

      That opening sentence should say “isn’t quite accurate” oye!

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