The American household doesn't look like it used to. How are churches reshaping to fit today's fast, furious and fragmented families.
For the last year it's been the mantra of almost every facet of American life, from politics to the economy. Yet of all the changes affecting churches over the last decade, possibly none has been greater than that of the basic shape of the American family. As the structure and values of the family shift, so do churches' worship styles, giving, volunteer involvement and approach to age-specific ministries—most notably, children's ministry.
This isn't an overnight change, of course. Sociologists and culture watchers say changes in the family have been taking place over the last 30 to 40 years. Specifically the move of women from the home to the workplace for both full-time and part-time employment has most altered the family landscape. A 2004 study by Herbert Klein titled "The Changing American Family" found that only 36 percent of mothers with children under age 6 were not working outside the home. Meanwhile, multiple studies and surveys show that couples are marrying later in life and having children at an older age. The result? The average family now has fewer children than in generations past.
Another change impacting local churches is the wide societal acceptance of cohabitation and divorce. As unmarried people live together in continually increasing numbers, more children are born out of wedlock. In 2006, the latest year for which data has been compiled nationally, 38.5 percent of children born were to unmarried parents. This fact and the high divorce rate have created an unprecedented number of single-parent families, most often headed by the mother. An overwhelming 70 percent of African-American babies are born into single-parent families; among the Hispanic population, it's around 50 percent._
Yet these statistics don't jibe with what the majority of Americans say are their "family values." According to a national poll conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, 71 percent of Americans believe "God's plan for marriage is one man and one woman, for life." Though similar, albeit smaller, polls indicate a lower percentage, even the lowest among them can't explain the moral chasm between our ideals about family and the reality.
What, then, does reality look like for the average American family? Fast, furious and fragmented. The faster pace of living among 21st-century families has impacted churches enormously. Churches' schedules, financial decisions and entire ministries are now shaped according to on-the-go families.
Behind their frantic pace is an ever-changing technology weaved into the daily family routine. Studies show that media use—cell phones, Internet, digital games, television, e-mail—soaks up more than nine-and-a-half hours of the average family member's day. (That doesn't include time spent multitasking with such media.) The multiplicity of activities in which parents involve their children, from music lessons to sports to community projects, eats into more of a family's time. And finally is the consumerism mentality, which is itself consuming Americans. If we aren't shopping for new goods, we're online researching them or finding someone to repair our broken ones.
These elements of contemporary family life are yielding unfavorable results. Despite the numerous activities, families are actually spending less time together—and what time families do spend together is largely dedicated to children's activities. Many social scientists agree that today children aren't just an important part of the family—the family agenda revolves around the children. Consequently, children are growing up internalizing values their families exhibit only through their daily habits.
Add all these elements together and you have a set of values that David Popenoe, professor of sociology and co-director of the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University, identified as "secular individualism" in a 2008 report on the family: "This value set, which already predominates in the northern European nations, consists of the gradual abandonment of religious attendance and beliefs, a strong leaning toward 'expressive' values that are preoccupied with personal autonomy and self-fulfillment ... and a tolerance of diverse lifestyles."
The Time Factor
The average family's activities, values, focus, time and pace have all changed drastically. Is it any wonder, then, that churches are struggling to keep up with the Joneses?
One issue most pastors agree is the biggest factor in trying to minister to families is how busy people are. Chris Thatcher, pastor of connection and small groups at Cedar Mill Bible Church in Portland, Ore., says this has brought about fragmentation.
"This family fragmentation has been manifested in sports programs and different activities that run seven days a week," he says. "There used to be a break on weekends, but not anymore."
Thatcher believes this plays out in the church as relationships suffer. "People find less time for meaningful relationships centered around things of Christ and the church. Relationship tends to be crowded out."
As parents and children are caught up into more activities, families have started to consider weekends as hallowed times. "It's all a family can do to get to a church service; any involvement is a stretch," Thatcher says.
Across town, Glen Woods, children's pastor at Portland Open Bible Church, concurs. "I've noticed this gradual change as more and more families have less margin. The more children they have, the less margin the family has because of the different activities the kids are in. At home, families have less time together." Woods says he's seen some parents react with a backlash: "They've intuitively recognized the problem and decided to pull back from activities ... including activities at church."
Lance Cummins, worship pastor at NewSpring Church in Wichita, Kan., says his church is in the process of coming to terms with this dynamic. "We believe that families can afford to give [the church] only an hour, maybe two, a week." As a result, NewSpring has pared down its ministry, focusing solely on the weekend. "We've dropped all our other programs and focus just on the weekend, where we've gone to a 'worship one, serve one' model."
NewSprings' emphasis is now on asking parents to worship at one weekend service and then volunteer in another one. The church began offering a Saturday night worship service, identical to its Sunday services, to give congregants one more option as they try to fit church into their crammed schedules.
Streamlining processes and simplifying the schedule is also a method adopted at Cedar Mill, where Thatcher says the pastoral staff is still working out how to minister to the new family model. Part of the change process has been the realization that their former ministry style was actually accommodating family fragmentation, not addressing it. "We decided we need unity and simplicity," Thatcher says. "We don't want to complicate people's lives."
Simplicity is a theme surfacing among countless churches nationwide that are trying to adapt to family needs. Cedar Mill is "trying to do more with less," Thatcher explains. "Everything we do programmatically affects the whole family. We're very cognizant of how much we're asking people to do."
In his role as small groups pastor, Thatcher aims to make involvement as easy as possible. This has translated into providing training for ministry volunteers that's both reproducible and accessible in different venues to accommodate people's varied schedules. A "group life center" in the church lobby, for example, offers information on the latest options, and follow-up is essential. "For those new to the church who wish to join a ministry team, they go through one person who assesses their readiness and walks them through options instead of making [potential volunteers] fish for contacts themselves."
Time—or the lack of it—has certainly changed how churches minister to families. Yet just as dramatic a shift is the way churches must communicate to the average family that's constantly on the go. The children's pastor at Cedar Mill, for example, used to be able to put out a flier about an event a month in advance, and people would participate.
"Now communication three to six months out is crucial," Thatcher says. "If you have more than one or two kids in school, the long lead time is essential because school activities are a competing factor."
At Portland Open Bible Church, lightening the schedule has meant cutting back on committee meetings that Woods says contribute to families' lack of margin. "Instead, we want to live life, to experience actual community."
Thinking through the reality of how families live and worship has pushed the church to acknowledge some hard realities, while also taking innovative steps to deal with these.
"One-third of our families are single-parent homes," Woods cites as an example. "We've had to focus a lot on mentoring parents, especially single parents. The bottom line is that the practical impact we can have on these children with just an hour or two a week is minimal. Let's face it; the odds are against making a lasting impact. The people best postured to do it are the parents."
As a result, Woods strives to build communication channels with parents, seeking open discussion with moms and dads. "When various parents take the opportunity to speak openly to me, I work at not getting defensive. It's opened up a great avenue for ministry."
Woods has also learned to interpret complaints as expressions of need. In fact, one recent complaint resulted in a new class for toddlers through 2-year-olds, which answered a felt need of many parents.
Woods and his volunteer workers are also passionate about assisting children with special medical, emotional and social needs—and not just at church. They dialogue with parents during the week, discussing what each child is doing at school and at home.
"These parents need to see that the church is working for their child, that ministering to the child is a two-way street," Woods says.
New Family Blends and Backgrounds
Increasing numbers of blended families present their own set of needs and concerns for churches, all of which affect church life. Because most children in these situations alternate periods between custodial parents, children's ministries often struggle to find classroom curriculum that can be grasped piecemeal, regardless of how often children are able to attend.
"We know we're going to have certain kids here only every other weekend," Cummins mentions as a practical example NewSpring has faced. "[So] we've learned not to ask the question, 'Where were you last week?'"
Other churches are dealing with cohesion issues beyond blended families. At Rosewood Christian Reformed Church in Bellflower, Calif., the formerly Dutch-American congregation has morphed into an ethnically diverse population where many parents bring their children to a midweek kids program and may attend a weeknight Bible study, but they often don't come on Sundays. As a result, family ministries pastor Bonny Mulder-Behnia says the church has moved intentionally toward community outreach.
"We have to teach and nurture the children with the knowledge that this [midweek program] may be the only hour during the week when they receive any biblical teaching or Christian values," she says.
Since many families don't come to Sunday services, Rosewood reaches out to them through a series of events, such as Kids' Carnival Day at Easter, community pancake breakfasts and Summer Family Nights, where a free meal, VBS-type programming for children and classes for parents are offered.
"While we never assume that parents will have time or desire to nurture the faith of their children at home, we are always trying to find ways to help build families and get them involved in some capacity," Mulder-Behnia says. Her church addresses the busyness issue by holding short-term and one-time events such as church education for adults in five- or six-week sessions in lieu of longer programs.
As Cummins points out, parents desire to be spiritual teachers for their kids but often don't know how. "Families have been impacted by the 'expert culture,'" he explains. "They think only experts can do things well, not parents. They don't feel qualified to teach their children spiritual truth."
In response, teaching pastors affirm parents' roles as spiritual mentors, and the church offers simple guides—including a DVD—for parents to use with their kids to walk through together what the kids learned in the children's ministry that weekend.
Innovation for Unity's Sake
Though distributing a church-created DVD is routine at many churches now, it's an indication of how far churches have come in using technology to minister effectively. The children's ministry at Portland Open Bible Church, for example, has incorporated communication via blogs, cell phones and iPods to connect more with families whose children attend its programs. According to Woods, these tech tools offer parents encouragement as spiritual nurturers and put information for spiritual training into their hands. Such media also help make resources available so parents can make the choice to utilize what their children are learning at church. Woods found that launching a children's ministry blog, with regular postings of photos of the kids at church has started a buzz. "Everyone loves to see photos of their kids, and the blog is another point of connection that gives us the opportunity to initiate a faith conversation."
Whether it's through blogs or simple phone calls, the key for most churches is using new ways to connect people within the congregation. For years, churches have catered their services to different worship styles, age groups and individual preferences. Yet lately many churches are discovering that intergenerational worship can be a connective point that reduces fragmentation and draws families back into relationships with one another.
Cedar Mill Bible Church started an intergenerational service where all the members worship together. Thatcher said his own spiritual experience was strengthened when, instead of his young son being in the children's program elsewhere on the campus, they celebrated communion together for the first time. "I was thrilled, and it was a tangible example of supporting intergenerational unity," he said. "We're going to keep doing that—anything and everything we can to support unity as it relates to families."
The key, as every minister discovers at some point along the journey, is to stay true to the vision God has given a church—especially through the reconfigurations. Rosewood recently experienced this, as its community-focused vision enveloping the diversity of cultures around them resulted in some middle-class Anglo families opting out. Mulder-Behnia says while this has hurt the church financially, they've chosen to celebrate the ministry that God has given them and the fruit they are reaping.
"It's extremely hard to stay focused, and really easy to justify adding new things," adds Cummins. "There are so many good programs out there. The key for us is to stay laser-focused on the few things we do well, and do them well."
It's that focus that will allow churches to stem the tide against family fragmentation and instead unify those in their communities. Because although the family unit may not look the same as it did a generation ago, it remains the core element of our society—and, as such, the most fertile ground for church ministry.
Homeschool mom and freelance writer KAREN SCHMIDT has worked with kids since she was an Awana leader in high school. She feels totally blessed to be part of a remarkable, small Baptist church in northwestern Washington.
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