Church for the 21st Century: Family Structures

I’m working through the 5 questions for the Church for the 21c Committee. I’m chairing the committee, but these thoughts are my own. They don’t reflect the whole committee’s opinions, nor are they indicative of what the final paper will say. While answering “What is your vision for the church in the 21st century?” I’m focusing on a few of the cultural changes that have occurred in the last fifty years. We’ve talked about Work and Finances, now I’d like to look at Family Structures. Please join the conversation, and I will happily link your blog!

The magic formula for our congregations has been to reach out to young families, and our churches spend a great deal of effort hoping and praying that the next generation of young families will walk into our doors.

It has typically worked that way. When young adults found a career, got married, had kids, and “settled down,” then they found a church. And all of that used to take about six months after a man graduated from college or high school. (Okay, so I’m exaggerating here. But only slightly….) Now, our patterns have changed. Because of finances, employment, and choices, our family structures look different.

First, we have an ideal in our society that a person is (or ought to be) a financially independent adult at the age of 18. Even our sociological definition of adulthood is based on when a person gains financial independence. But, of course, the world has not worked that way for a long time. It is difficult to find gainful employment without a college education, and many men and women have to go into debt in order to earn that degree.

Second (and related), there are employment considerations. When a person graduates, there aren’t many jobs—particularly jobs that can pay off those student loans—so men and women entering adulthood often go into internships, temp work, or some other underemployment situation. They are the first to get laid-off, and often young workers don’t have any health insurance apart from their parents. The cost of housing is often based on two incomes. Many young men and women live with their parents well into their 20s.

What does this have to do with our family structures? Well, in our society, a person is expected that he or she will become financially secure before getting married, but it’s difficult to get married when it takes a great deal of financial instability (educational debt and internships) in order to establish a stable career and a place to live. Often people glorify this situation or place the blame on the emerging adult—they say that young adults are in their odyssey years or an extended adolescence. I think we’ve created a society where we don’t take care of our young workers.

Anyways… young men and women are caught in a trap. They can’t get married until they have financial security. And they often can’t attain financial security until they get married. As a result men and women are often scheming their next employment move, figuring out more schooling, going for their next internship, and this situation makes it difficult to make a commitment to a spouse or loved one. People are getting married later now, if they are getting married at all.

Finally, when it comes to family structure, there is more choice in a new generation. Though the societal expectation that men and women will get married and have children is strong, there is also a bit more freedom. Although it is difficult, a woman can have a career and financial stability without getting married. She doesn’t need to move from her father’s home to her husband’s home. There is room—small pockets in our country—where LGBTQ people can happily be with, live with, or marry their same-sex partner.

What does all of this have to do with our churches? Congregations are often set up to cater to the young family. Although this model is good, we will need to broaden our focus in order to reach out to younger people.

Are we welcoming to young singles? If a young couple is living together (this is often a financial necessity), do our churches welcome them? Is our church open to same-gender relationships? In what ways (verbally or nonberbally) do we communicate that our congregation is only for nuclear families?

What happens when a person walks into our sanctuary alone? Is church an isolating experience for them? Will they most likely sit alone and stare at the back of another person’s head? What does our seating look like? Does it invite a community feel?

Is there a social network for people who don’t have a spouse or children? Does the church think about where people will go for Thanksgiving or Easter dinners? Do we think about how a person might be celebrating Holy Days in their homes?

How much time and energy does church leadership put into attracting those who are single or students? How much time do we put into ministering to and with singles and students? How does the time that we put into ministering to and with younger adults compare with the time we minister to and with older adults?


7 thoughts on “Church for the 21st Century: Family Structures

  1. All of the above comments and questions are vital. But one deeper question remains. I serve in a conservative region of the Bible Belt and hospitality is quite good…as long as you “believe as I do.” To many of the thirty somethings understanding of the Bible is quite different than that of the Baby Boomer generation. Are our congregations open to discussing new understandings and newer theologies in humble dialogue? Do we truly welcome dialogue or do we insist without listening that the Bible is inerrant and what we believe is the truth?

  2. Carol,

    Thanks for raising this particular cluster of issues. One question I have been mulling for some time is whether the Church has a theology of family which is different from and, in some ways, opposed to the reigning forms of family in American culture. Our society’s emphasis on coupling and marriage can create much storm and stress. By contrast, there is the legacy of Christian models of family that offer in important ways more freedom and inner peace, not less. Here I’m thinking of Jesus’ relationship to family, and that of his earliest disciples, or the companionship offered to Paul as a bachelor, and even the monastic communities of men and women that were to come.

    If we can better uncover the Church’s theology of family the issue then becomes in what ways are Presbyterian communities/congregations pursuing a distinctively Christian understanding of family with the friends and strangers in their midst?


  3. I absolutely concur that the expectations of our culture drive adults away from marriage and relationship, Carol. The question, though, is whether that is a reality to which the church should acquiesce, or if it is something to which the church should teach resistance.

    My sense of it is more the latter. The endless-diaspora demands of capitalist workforce transience and the self-expectations of consumer culture are significant sources of pressure on covenant relationships, be they heterosexual or same-gender. The longest lasting and most stable same-gender partners I know have resisted those pressures, making decisions about career that reflected the interests of their partner and their children.

    It’s true that our society fails young workers. But it fails them first and foremost by instilling in them an ethos that subtly sabotages deep and meaningful relationships. I think we can find ways to non-judgmentally welcome singles, and still speak truth to the power that subverts their commitments.

  4. Great points and discussion.

    Of course, when I think of the theology of family, I often bristle. I suppose that it’s because I have a knee-jerk reaction that’s tied up in the “family values” movement in which I was raised.

    The family values movement looked down on women working because it would destroy the moral fabric of the family. It encouraged women to stay in abusive relationships to maintain the family structure. And, if a woman could not or chose not to have children, she was seen as less-than-womanly. And, of course, we know how much damage that it has done to gays and lesbians…

    But have we fallen silent on the issue because we don’t like what’s being said currently? I agree, family is important. Loving commitments are important.

    Then my thoughts swing the other way. What about Jesus? As JMorrow reminds us, Jesus was single. It seems that Mary and Martha were single. Jesus commands us to deny our families… so it doesn’t seem like a cut and dry sort of deal scripturally.

    I guess I have worked with enough abused women that I appreciate the fact that women are able to leave a marriage and support themselves, if they need to. I shudder at the thought of putting family on such a pedestal that it might overlook abuse.

    What are the things that you feel are important for churches to resist in our culture?

  5. Thanks for the post, Carol. I just hosted a Theology Pub last night. 15 young adults gathered. Many reflected just the trends you note above.

    One thing I’ve also noted in my conversations with young adults. In our area, at least, so much of social life revolves around extended family. So when new singles or even couples move to town and they don’t have relatives here, they feel cut off socially. For many people it’s odd to socialize much beyond family gatherings.

    So I think making places for folks to gather in plainly social ways would be helpful. And, in fact, even better if the setting is not in a church’s building. That gets into another can of worms, but is reflected in almost every conversation I have with 20-30 somethings.

  6. Good points, all, Carol. Rather than a theology that fetishizes the 1950s nuclear family (or 1850s, or 50s CE, for that matter) , I think it’s important to lead with theologies that radically affirm the need for deep and covenantal relationships. Those relationships can’t just be with folks who share our genetics….but they also must not be with PLUs.

    Meaning, of course, that we have to fight the cultural pressure to just be denizens of our particular market demographic. The church needs to fight the fragmentation of culture into racial/gendered/socio-economic/generational ghettoes, and to incarnate an ethic that reaches across those boundaries to establish Kingdom relationships. I want to be able to talk meaning and hope and Jesus with a GenZ Asian American, and sit and pray quietly with folks who could be my mom, because it is in those relationships with the other and the different that we experience the most transformation.

    That’s just one thing to resist, of course. But it’s a big one.

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