Door wide open for churches to minister as non-traditional families increase
By Lonnie Wilkey
Editor, Baptist and Reflector
BRENTWOOD — Wally and Theodore “Beaver” Cleaver were blessed six decades ago and they didn’t even know it. Of course, the Cleavers were a fictional television family (“Leave It To Beaver”) first popular in the late 1950s and early 1960s but for a long time they have been a “poster family” for the traditional family unit — a mother and father in their first marriage with children. The dad worked outside the home and the mother stayed home, taking care of the house and children.
Most people assume the make-up of the Cleaver family was typical of the families of their era, but recent research published by the Pew Research Center disputes those assumptions.
The Pew Research Center is a Washington, D.C.-based, nonpartisan fact tank that informs the public about the issues, attitudes, and trends shaping America and the world. It conducts public opinion polling, demographic research, media content analysis, and other empirical social science research.
According to an article released by Pew Research Center in late December, just one-half of the families in the Cleaver era actually had the working dad and stay-at-home mom in their first marriage.
By 1980 that number had declined to 26 percent and in 2014, research showed that only 14 percent of children under the age of 18 lived at home with a stay-at-home mother and a working father in their first marriage.
The primary reason for the decline of the traditional family unit is the “dramatic rise in kids living with a single parent,” according to the article written by Gretchen Livingston, a senior researcher for the Pew Research Center.
Children living with a single parent have increased from 9 percent in 1960 to 26 percent today, according to the research.
Other factors for the decline, as cited in the Pew Research Center article, include:
• A higher number of births outside of marriage. In 1960, 5 percent of births occurred to unmarried women, compared to 40 percent today.
• The number of stay-at-home moms has decreased from about 50 percent in the late 1960s to 30 percent today.
The research also considered race and ethnicity in its report.
Asian children are most likely to be living with a stay-at-home mom and working dad in their first marriage – 24 percent, compared to 18 percent for Hispanic children, 15 percent for white children, and 4 percent for black children, according to the research report.
With statistics such as those, opportunities for churches to minister to families of all types abound, says Vicki Hulsey, childhood specialist for the Tennessee Baptist Convention.
“I often remind church leaders that not all families look alike. In your church, you probably have single-parent families, blended families, extended families, families with adopted children and foster children, and families with no children at all.
“Churches can help children by being sensitive when giving instructions for games, family devotions, etc. Making statements like, ‘Line up with your mom and dad’ can leave some children feeling uncomfortable if they live with grandparents or a single parent,” Hulsey observed.
Church leaders face a challenge in helping families connect to each other, she continued.
Hulsey noted that the majority of single parents work full-time jobs. In most two-parent families, both parents work full-time. “Parents maintain hectic schedules and juggle numerous extracurricular activities leaving little time for family,” she said.
“Church leaders have the challenge of discovering ways to reconnect families — helping them to grow closer together and closer to God.”
Economics need to be considered when planning family events, Hulsey said. “As church leaders plan activities, it’s important to keep in mind the varying financial situations among church families. Money is often tight for single-parent families,” she observed. Hulsey noted that churches that provide camp scholarships for children and youth have become a common occurrence.
Churches also may have to change some of their traditional programming times to meet the needs of working parents. Some are not able to get home from work in time to bring children to evening activities, Hulsey said.
With the rise of non-traditional families, churches report seeing inconsistent attendance patterns, she continued.
“Children of divorced homes often have sporadic church attendance as a result of weekends spent with one parent who is not a regular church attender. Church leaders can help by providing alternative ways for the children to learn even when they are away,” she suggested.
Hulsey also suggested that churches become proactive in “placing a priority on helping couples have a healthy marriage.”
Hulsey observed that some churches offer classes focused on building strong marriages while other churches have brought a counselor onto their ministry staff. Still other churches may have a counselor on retainer to refer families to, she added.
And when divorce does occur, some churches often provide divorce care groups for adults, she said. Just remember, it’s important to offer class options for children of divorce as well,” she said.
“With an awareness that the majority of divorced and widowed parents remarry, churches must also look at ways to assist parents and children in learning to form healthy relationships. A new blended family will most likely need help in navigating the challenges that come with remarriage, especially when children are involved,” she said.
While the challenges faced by non-traditional families are often very different from a traditional family, the role of the church has not changed, she stressed.
“Time after time, Jesus was our example as He met people where they were and helped them to get to where they needed to be. As the church encounters non-traditional families, it is important to minister to each family at whatever stage we find them, helping them to heal and strengthen family relationships and partnering with parents in the faith formation of their children.
“At the heart of it all, the church must be about building relationships … relationships bet-
ween husbands and wives, relationships between parents and children, but most importantly the church must be about helping parents and children to have a relationship with Jesus Christ that is transforming,” she said.