Church and the single life

One of my favorite Godbeat pros is Peter Smith of the Louisville Courier-Journal in Kentucky.

Besides his outstanding work for the dead-tree edition, Smith produces the exceptional Faith & Works blog, focused on the diverse religious scene in Kentucky and Indiana.

Nonetheless, Smith’s stories (like those of a few other religion writers) often frustrate me, namely because they leave so little to critique. In most cases, after reading one of his reports, there’s not much to say except: Great job! Again! Keep it up! (That’s not exactly a recipe for clicks and comments — the manna of the blogging world.)

So I come to you this evening to pull a nice trend piece by Smith out of my guilt file.

This story, published a week ago (an eternity by GetReligion standards), examines the changing demographic makeup of houses of worship in post-Cleaver America:

When Steven Schafer looks out over his small congregation on Sunday mornings, he sees a picture of modern American family life.

About half of the congregants come from what was once typical — families headed by married couples.

The rest include “a lot of single parents, a lot of divorced parents, a lot of grandparents raising their kids,” said Schafer, pastor of Ridgewood Baptist Church in Pleasure Ridge Park. “The traditional family is not the norm.” That presents a major challenge to churches, which are struggling to respond to the revolution in how Americans structure their families, households and romances.

Nearly half of American adults today aren’t married — whether never-married, currently divorced, separated or widowed, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Married couples account for just under half of all American households — down from 71 percent in 1970, according to the U.S. Census.

In some ways, this is one of those stories that makes readers go, “Duh!” That’s because we all know the days of Ward and June Cleaver are history, if they ever really existed. But putting into words — and into context — our changing times provides a valuable service for readers. It helps us better understand ourselves, and isn’t that a key function of quality journalism?

There’s a ton of information in this story, including this helpful context:

Many modern families involve situations that churches have traditionally held as morally suspect at best — such as divorce, unwed parenthood and living together outside of marriage.

In that sense, gays and lesbians — whose role has been fiercely debated in churches — have only borne the brunt of the far broader wrangling over how to respond to revolutions in sexual and family life.

What I like about this story: Its in-depth treatment of an important but little-covered subject. Its conversational tone. Its mix of experts and “real people” quoted. Its use of lots of specific examples.

After finishing the piece, my only question was whether the 1,500-word story covered too much ground. The report tackles young people waiting longer to marry, divorced people struggling to fit in, young evangelicals having sex before marriage, etc., etc., etc. Part of me wished the Courier-Journal had done a five-part series focusing on various specific aspects of a large, complicated picture — instead of squeezing everything into a single story.

Then again, I know news holes are tight, and I appreciate the effort put into this wide-ranging report.

My overall critique is concise: Great job! Again! Keep it up!

Image via Shutterstock

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Mollie

    Thanks for highlighting this piece. I really enjoyed reading it. The piece covers a huge and undercovered story about religious life in America.

  • Bobby Ross Jr.

    Thanks, Mollie. And thanks for commenting on a positive post. :-)

  • Jerry

    Not only is that a great story but it makes an important point:

    At another church, she said, she spent three years struggling to break into its social circles.

    “If I made a really big effort, people would talk to me,” she said, but “nobody would invite me anywhere.” Then her sister and brother-in-law visited — and were immediately surrounded by greetings and dinner invitations. “That was the last time I ever went there,” she said.

  • Chris

    Excellent article !

  • Bill

    Great article. Bobby, I’m not a fan of mile-wide-inch-deep stories, but I don’t think this covered too much ground. It showed the breadth of the single population and the challenge for churches to serve them. And it did so gracefully within a tight narrative. Well done.

    I think the growth of the Cowboy Church here in the American West is related. There’s a big emphasis on fellowship and a lot of wounded souls who need it.

    That marriage rates fell from 71% to 50% in so short a time is staggering. I’m old enough to remember Leave It To Beaver in prime time. (It was my mother’s favorite show, although she would have claimed it was number two behind Bishop Sheen.) Of course, it was stylized, sanitized and idealized. It’s a TV show. But despite being a snark magnet, it is still in reruns and a lot of people still find it heartwarming. Ward and June Cleaver were not exactly bad examples of parenting.

  • Bobby Ross Jr.

    Jerry, Chris, Bill,

    Thanks for your feedback!

  • Julie Anne Fidler

    I wish pastors would pay more attention to helping childless women find a home in the church, too.