The Church and the Dissolving American Family

new Pew report has confirmed what we’ve known was coming for the American family: a majority of American children now live in homes without married parents in their first marriage. The reasons behind this “new normal” of the broken American family are complex but are certainly related to factors including the “sexual revolution” that began in the 1960s, the advent of no-fault divorce, and generational patterns of people having children out of wedlock.

As The Washington Post and virtually all observers note, single parenting (a burden carried mostly by women) is a major feature of this massive change in American family structure. Children of single parents generally face “more poverty, more instability, and more problems at school, among other things,” the Post notes. Government initiatives seem unlikely to help, although one hopes that policies could at least stop discouraging the establishment of stable marriages with children. W. Bradford Wilcox and others have proposed some common-sense measures on this front that are likely to win bipartisan support. [Follow the blog of the Institute for Family Studies for some of the best thinking on political and cultural family reform.]

Richard Arthur Norton (1958- ) archive, Wikimedia Commons

The new normal for children and broken families creates serious problems and substantial opportunities for the church in America. Church leaders will need to strike a delicate balance: caring for adults and children affected by divorce and single parenthood, while fostering an alternative culture where two-parent families and sex only in the context of marriage are the norms. This is not an easy balance to achieve. On one extreme, the church could send a “Modern Family”-type message: any and all family arrangements are as good as another, as long as you have love. At the other extreme, the church can subtly (or overtly) send the message that only those from intact families will be fully welcomed by the church, or (worse) be welcomed by God.

The church’s stance on these matters can come out in the simplest ways, such as the terms in which pastors talk about their congregations. Does the pastor ever acknowledge and validate the presence of single moms in sermons or in invitations to prayer? The new normal must also be addressed structurally, in the venues the church offers single and/or divorced parents for fellowship. Are never-married singles with no children directed toward the same fellowship groups with singles who have children? Do you try to pair single parents with married parents? Are divorced adults in the same category as singles? These questions will not always have clear answers, but pastors will have to give serious thought to how they will best minister to those God brings into their community.

Christians have to face facts: broken families are no longer anomalous in America. More than ever, new people coming to your church will be keenly aware of their need for restored community and family support. More than ever, the church will serve functions reminiscent of what two-parent and extended families have historically served. In coming decades, churches will need to become alternative, redeemed communities of gospel proclamation, loving assistance, and healing for those hurt by the dissolution of America’s families.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Pattern before progress. While I agree with your propositions regarding ministry, at the same time the church must acknowledge the part it has played in the demise of marriage and family. Oftentimes the church does not present a clear and distinct Scriptural pattern to be discipled after when it comes to marriage and family, but instead simply encourages sanctified conformity to the economy. We must instead encourage and pattern marriages and families of faith.

  • SFRussell1963

    “Broken Families”. There in lies the crux of the problem. They are not broken. They are merely different. As long as Preachers stand in pulpits telling those from families different from the strict norm they preach are “broken”, they will continue to alienate and injure them both spiritually and psychologically quite unnecessarily. In order for Christianity to remain relevant it must get off it’s ideological high-horse and start accepting that it cannot dictate everything and condemn/damn those who don’t measure up. Why is it Evangelical preachers seem to derive joy from telling people they are wrong rather than building them up with a positive message?

  • 92JazzQueen .

    As a child of divorce sometimes the ugly truth about the situation is always present in front you. Yes, you must encourage them but for many its been anything but joyful.

  • TheATLMAC

    They aren’t merely different, they are broken families. While modern media and cultural elites might want to posit that single parent families are simply different, that’s not correct. Families have been the centerpiece of human society for tens of thousands of years. Families are the bedrock that’s allowed mankind to grow and prosper. Families have provided the protection, security and knowledge that allowed children to grow into better adults. Never in the history of civilization has a generation of young men turned their backs on their own children and the women who bore them. Never has a society allowed such irresponsible behavior to become so readily accepted. The problem is with society, not the church. It’s also the canary in the coal mine. If we don’t figure out how to right this capsized ship, we are all in for big trouble in the near future. Please review Sen. Moynihan’s thoughts on the dissolution of the family. His predictions were scary and eerily prophetic.

  • SFRussell1963

    That is a very disparaging and dismissive viewpoint. It presumes that decent people cannot result from a upbringing different than the norm as dictated by the church which is patently untrue. There are as many successes and train-wrecks from traditional families as their are from different family structures. Jeffrey Dahmer was the product of a two parent “traditional” family. That attitude is exactly why the church is waning in influence. People are tired of hearing how they are “broken”. The church and other pontificators do great damage to children (and adults for that matter) by declaring that their family is broken rather than loving them as they are. The church I grew up in was fond of this and several kids I knew were constantly demeaned and greatly harmed by the notion they weren’t good enough because their parents split. This attitude also doesn’t begin to address the damage and abuses perpetrated by parents who stay in relationships when they shouldn’t. The children are most often the ones harmed by parents who cannot get along and should not be together. My own parents stayed married and they shouldn’t have. They were ill-suited, frequently angry and for the most part that anger was taken out on my brother and me. I wished for decades they would divorce simply so the abuse would stop. Yet the traditional family mongers pay situations like that no mind believing marriage (at least sanctimonious one-track marriage), should be regarded above all else including the mental and physical health of the family as a whole. It’s a narrow and illogical construct that is doomed to fail.

  • TheATLMAC

    It is possible for children of broken marriages to grow into successful, happy, well balanced adults but the odds are slanted decidedly against them. Yes, the church should be welcoming to all. However, pretending single parent families are just as good for children as families headed by both a mother and a father is a lie. Ignoring the dissolution of the family will not make the problem go away. It will only make it worse. Likewise, this isn’t a problem of resources. Throwing more money at the problem won’t make it any better. The only was to fix the problem is to confront it head on.
    The church isn’t the villain here. The culprits are the irresponsible men who fail to take care of their children, the weak women who do not hold those men accountable, the corrupt culture that promotes this epidemic as somehow virtuous and the government that provides perverse incentives that support rather than inhibit the growth of single parent families.

  • SFRussell1963

    The church is the villain here. It is the body advocating that a marriage be retained regardless of the damage it does to the parties therein. As are you. A position which is selfish, wrong and promotes abuse solely for the purpose of hanging onto some arcane attitude. I find that despicable.

  • TheATLMAC

    Marriage doesn’t cause damage. Selfish conduct by those in the marriage causes damage. Selfish people not taking responsibility for their children or their loved ones causes even more damage. As for the church, it favors loving, honoring and cherishing your spouse and children throughout your lifetime. Keeping such a vow is helpful to all involved, not harmful.