the shape of leadership

The American Family

Social trends and ministry opportunities

Ted Cunningham on March 13, 2019

Pastor, do you have time to meet?”

Pastors often hear that question when someone wants to confront us on a leadership decision or something we said in the pulpit. I, for one, can weather those meetings and not lose a lot of sleep.

However, when a couple asks to meet because they are contemplating a divorce, it grieves me deeply. I pray for the Lord to give me discernment and wise counsel. I know what’s at stake — not just for that marriage and family, but for the generations that follow.

The state of today’s families weighs heavily on me. In 2017, there were 6.9 marriages and 3.2 divorces for every 1,000 U.S. inhabitants, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. And while the divorce rate has declined over the past two decades, so has the marriage rate. In other words, even as couples continue to head to divorce court, many others are choosing to forgo marriage altogether. The family is under attack on both fronts.

Between 2007 and 2016, the share of cohabitating adults in the U.S. grew by 29 percent, according to Pew Research Center. Pew reports that about one-third of children aged 17 and younger now live with an unmarried parent. And 4 in 10 babies born today have unwed mothers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Experts acknowledge that this is troubling news for the American family. W. Bradford Wilcox, a sociologist at the Institute for Family Studies, says the “success sequence” — earning a high school degree (or beyond), working full-time, and marrying before having children, in that order — remains a key predictor of social achievement and well-being.

A report from the American Enterprise Institute and the Institute for Family Studies sums it up this way: “While 55 percent of 28- to 34-year-old millennial parents had their first child before marriage, the vast majority of millennials who married before having any children are now steering clear of poverty and appear to be headed toward realizing the American dream. Additionally, 95 percent of millennials who married first are not poor, compared to 72 percent who had children first.”

In her book, How The West Really Lost God, Mary Eberstadt says, “Family is the most viable alternative to the failed welfare state.”

God established marriage, then children, and that is our best plan to combat poverty.

The issues facing the American family are complex, and the challenges can seem overwhelming. The good news is that churches can make a practical difference in the lives of families.

It begins with marriage. The union between a husband and wife is the biblical pattern for forming a family: “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24).

For most 20- and 30-somethings today, there’s a growing gap between leaving and cleaving. They leave home, finish school, get a job, move into their own place, save some money, and establish life as a single adult. After they feel settled in life, they may consider marriage. In the meantime, many see cohabitation as a harmless alternative.

In the shifting landscape of American families, our message must remain strong and steady: Marriage, then sex and children. Pastors have the privilege of sharing God’s beautiful design for the family. We lay the foundation, based on God’s Word and empowered by His Spirit.

Of course, the modern realities don’t always reflect the divine blueprint. The communities and congregations in which we minister include increasingly diverse family structures. If we hope to reach today’s families with God’s truth, we will need wisdom, insight and grace.

“God’s design for the home is perfect,” says author and family therapist Ron Deal. “The homes of God’s people, however, have never been — nor do I suspect ever will be — perfect.”

Social Trends Affecting the Family

A number of factors are contributing to the state of the American family. Understanding where we are as a nation, and how we got here, informs what we can do to influence the generations to come for Christ. Below are some trends to be aware of as we minister to today’s families.

Adolescence has become prolonged. The child-centered home surfaced in the early 1980s as a knee-jerk reaction to the previous generation’s notion that “kids should be seen and not heard.” The boomer generation heard from their parents, “We didn’t have it, so you don’t need it.” In turn, boomer parents said to their children, “We didn’t get it, so we will make sure you do.” They gave their children cars, college and plenty of attention. Moms and dads centered the home around the children’s academics and athletics. Children grew up overindulged, overprotected and the center of their parents’ world.

Not only did this hurt marriages, it did the children no favors in preparing them for life. Kids left home to find that college and the workplace did not revolve around them. The child-centered home gave children massive amounts of privilege and little responsibility. This led us to prolonged adolescence.

The child-centered home accelerated childhood milestones and delayed adulthood milestones. From birth to around 10 years of age, we tell our kids, “Go, go, go!” For the first 10 years, we push them to excel in sports and classes. Then when they become tweens, two engines God placed in them kick in: individualization and separation. They start to become little adults. When parents see this, they begin delaying adulthood milestones. They move from, “Go, go, go!” to, “Whoa, whoa, whoa!”

My daughter was 9 years old when she learned to ride a horse. The trail guide told her to pull back on the reigns and say, “Whoa,” when she wanted the horse to slow down. He also told her to spur on the horse with a gentle prodding from her heels while saying, “Go.” My daughter followed these instructions but failed to give one command at a time. For two straight hours, she kicked that horse and said, “Go,” while pulling back on the reigns. The horse was confused and exhausted by the end of our trail ride. We are doing the same thing to young people today. We are saying, “Go!” while pulling back on their reigns.

The problem with that is our children have 10 years of training in accelerating milestones. At a time when our children should be transitioning from childhood to adulthood, from privilege to responsibility, we tell them to slow down rather than encouraging them to keep going and embrace adulthood. Many newly formed families struggle for years because young moms and dads nearing their 30s are still functioning as adolescents.

The traditional milestones of adulthood include, but are not limited to, leaving home; finishing education or vocational training; finding a job; getting married; and starting a family. Up until the 1980s, people completed these milestones in a short period of time.

Over the years, these milestones have drifted further apart and can now take 10 to 20 years to complete. I meet with many couples struggling in marriage and blaming it on money, careers, sex and in-laws. Yet, I am convinced that one of the leading causes of divorce in our country is prolonged adolescence. Pastors must encourage the young moms, dads, husbands and wives in the congregation to embrace the responsibility required to succeed at home and work.

Couples are waiting longer to marry. Delaying marriage gives young people more time to complete the other milestones. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median age for first marriages in the U.S. is 28 for women and 30 for men. This is up from 21 for women and 23 for men in 1950. In generations past, couples married and grew up together. Not so much anymore. Not only should we be celebrating marriage with weddings, but it’s time we start promoting it as well.

I’ve heard many pastors and parents encourage delayed marriage. Some say, “You need to gain your independence first. Learn how to be independent, and enjoy all the things you want to do, before taking on the responsibility of marriage and family.”

There is wisdom in waiting until the right season, but I believe “independence” is often a socially acceptable term for selfishness. Rather than encouraging young people to pursue their passions, we should encourage them to passionately pursue God — seeking His will for every area of their lives and honoring Him in all things, whether they marry or remain single.

Intergenerational family dynamics are changing. As more Americans seek postgraduate education, many are also waiting until later in life to have children. In 2014, about half of women earning a bachelor’s degree became mothers by age 29, compared to 38 percent of those with a master’s degree and 29 percent of those with a Ph.D. or professional degree, according to Pew Research Center. As the needle continues to move toward older parenthood, it may be difficult for aging grandparents to maintain an active role in the lives of their grandchildren.

At the other end of the spectrum, a record 64 million Americans resided in multigenerational family households in 2016 — representing 20 percent of the population (compared to 12 percent in 1980), Pew reports. Multiple generations increasingly live under one roof, as more people care for elderly parents and live with adult children (aged 25 and older). Pew notes that growing racial and ethnic diversity also helps explain the trend, as multigenerational living arrangements are more common among Asian and Hispanic populations.

More people are remaining single. Pew Research Center reports that about half of U.S. adults today are unmarried, compared to 28 percent in 1960. About one-third of Americans aged 15 and older have never married, up from 23 percent in 1950, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Not all unmarried adults are living alone, however. In fact, 16 percent of young adults aged 25 to 34 resided in the parental home in 2018, U.S. Census Bureau figures reveal. And 8.5 million heterosexual couples were cohabitating. There are more U.S. adults aged 25 and under cohabitating than married.

While 58 percent of never-married adults say they would like to marry someday, 14 percent say they have no desire to do so, according to Pew Research Center. Among those who want to marry, the top reasons they cite for their unmarried status include not yet finding the right person (72 percent); financial instability (68 percent); and a sense of unreadiness to settle down (54 percent). (Respondents could give more than one answer.)

Home is where the heart is — the heart of society, the heart of our churches, and the heart of God.

Scott Stanley, a psychology professor at the University of Denver, coined the term “sliding versus deciding” to describe changing attitudes toward marriage. He says all relationships form in one of two ways: People decide their way into them, or slide their way into them.

Increasingly, couples are sliding into marriage through premarital cohabitation, making the relationship more of a habit than a decision. Stanley says couples who live together before marriage are more likely to remain in unhealthy relationships — and they are more likely to experience marital problems after the nuptials.

Decisions are powerful, and a relationship has the best shot at success when you decide your way into it. Sliding avoids decisions with a laissez-faire attitude of, “Let’s just see where things go.”

Many avoid traditional relationship formation in an attempt to protect their hearts and relationships. It’s the belief that says, “If we don’t define the relationship, it won’t hurt as much when we break up.”

Not true. Sliding leads to hook-ups and cohabitation.

This is all part of a broader ideological shift that started in the 1960s with the sexual revolution. Technological and cultural changes, including contraception and legalized abortion, made it easier for people to express their sexuality through relationships with multiple partners, seemingly without consequences. The social acceptance of commitment-free sex degraded marriage, even within faith communities. The longer Christians (and others) wait to get married, the harder it becomes to resist nonmarital sex.

Divorce continues to threaten family stability. Many people who wed enter the union thinking it may not last long and divorce is always an option.

I have a family member who confided in me, “I have just one question to consider before I walk down the aisle: Am I willing to spend the next six to eight years of my life with this woman?”

That is the “starter marriage” mindset. The “D” word is on the table from the beginning, and people view it as a viable escape plan if the romance loses its appeal.

It’s not uncommon today for married people to call it quits and move on to the next relationship before the divorce is even finalized. You see it on social media. Someone posts a picture with a new boyfriend or girlfriend, and everyone knows that person is still married. It’s a tough blow to the children, family and friends. It’s excruciating to see people hitting the “like” button and leaving comments such as, “You two look great together,” or, “It’s so good to see you finally happy. You deserve it.”

Dating while divorcing was not part of my curriculum in seminary. I never saw this coming when I started in pastoral ministry more than 23 years ago. One of the first questions I now ask in marriage counseling is, “Are either of you seeing someone else, or do you have someone in mind you plan on being with if this marriage ends?”

The answer to that question is important so I know what external forces I’m competing with while helping a couple reconcile.

It’s worth noting that young people aren’t the only ones struggling in their relationships. Pew Research Center reports that the divorce rate for U.S. adults aged 50 and older more than doubled between 1990 and 2015. Should it come as a surprise that millennials are hesitant to marry when they see their parents and grandparents walking away from their commitments?

Marriage is being redefined. When gay marriage became legal nationwide in 2015, it represented a cultural sea change. More than 1 in 10 LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) adults in the U.S. are now married to a same-sex spouse, according to Gallup. And 67 percent of Americans support same-sex marriage, up from 27 percent who supported it in 1996, when Gallup began polling on the question.

Our culture wants to redefine marriage, family and sexuality, but we honor God by honoring marriage and celebrating the created differences between male and female. Wanting my son to embrace his biological sex and marry the opposite sex is love, not hate.

What Can Church Leaders Do?

How can you strengthen the families you have an opportunity to influence? Here are six suggestions:

First, teach your entire congregation to honor biblical marriage. God’s plan for marriage is a union between a man and a woman for a lifetime. Hebrews 13:4 says, “Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure.”

Whether young or old, single or married, every follower of Christ should esteem marriage as highly valuable.

Matt Engel is a research fellow at the Leadership Network, a Christian leadership organization in Dallas. He has worked with hundreds of churches over the past six years and has found congregations who continually affirm and invest in biblical marriage are thriving in their communities.

“Addressing marriage is more than just using it as an illustration on Sunday to prove a point,” Engel says. “Doing a marriage series during back to school to make yourself look relevant but not offering ways to continue to develop that muscle for the people of your church as far as marriage advancement is not productive, nor authentic.”

Second, recognize blended and single-parent families often. Regularly acknowledge that they are in the room, and welcome them into your community. Blended and single-parent households are families. They have stories. Their stories have the potential of painting a beautiful picture of God’s redemptive work. Share their stories with the congregation.

Teach blended families to prioritize marriage in the home, unite as parents, let the biological parent be the “heavy” in discipline, and expect bumps and delays along the way.

Emotionally and relationally speaking, caution single parents to avoid lowering themselves to the level of a sibling or expecting the child to rise to the level of a spouse.

Remarried people and single parents sometimes feel forgotten or judged in the church. May this never be true of your church or mine. Extend grace to those who are divorced and remarried.

“Ministry to the divorced and/or remarried walks the delicate line of truth and grace and is often theologically challenging and pastorally messy,” Deal says.

Nevertheless, he says churches have an opportunity to “offer cups of redemptive waters,” just as Jesus did with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:13-14).

May we speak with truth and grace and embrace the messy.

Third, recognize that parents should be the primary voice to the children in your congregation. When the church family partners with parents, the child wins. When you combine the influence of the home with the influence of the church, it will reinforce the message in the heart of the child.

In homes where the child receives no teaching or instruction in the Lord, the church is the primary voice. In that case, you can still send the child home with resources for the parents to reinforce during the week. This leads the parent to become the primary voice. That is the ultimate goal.

Fourth, prioritize your own marriage and family. My wife, Amy, and I often remind our congregation, “We can’t allow a crisis in your marriage and family to create one in ours.”

That means we can’t be available 24/7 to every person in our church. Does every person in our church need ministry? Absolutely! That’s a given. However, we do not need to be the ones doing all the ministry.

Never feel guilty about your date night or family vacation. Ask someone else to preach the funeral or officiate the wedding. Your longevity in ministry and the health of your family is at stake. Enjoy your marriage, and let your congregation know it.

Ecclesiastes 9:9 says, “Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun — all your meaningless days. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labor under the sun.”

Life and ministry can be difficult, challenging and, at times, painful, but you have a spouse to journey with you through it all. God did not give you your spouse to be a source of frustration; He gave you your spouse to be your companion through the frustrations.

Fifth, provide premarital classes and marital counseling referrals. I’d even encourage you to prioritize this in the church budget. Marriage intensive programs can be extremely successful at not only keeping couples together but helping them experience high levels of marital satisfaction.

Finally, invite everyone to be part of a much bigger family — God’s family. The apostle Paul declares in Ephesians 2:18-19, “For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit. Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household.”

As we minister to traditional, single-parent and blended families, may we never forget we are all part of the family of God. We are brothers and sisters in Christ. No matter what our homes were like growing up, what our families have gone through, or what our households look like now, God wants us to be a part of His family.

There are many factors that go into building a successful marriage and healthy home, but as spiritual leaders, we know we can’t ignore the importance of biblical preaching and discipleship. Even social scientists agree that while financial well-being and education increase the odds of married couples staying together, so do faith and church involvement.

“Religious attendance is about as important as college in predicting marital stability,” W. Bradford Wilcox says.

You don’t need a college degree to have a thriving family, but being connected to your church and regularly attending prepares your children for a thriving faith and family of their own. Encourage every family in your congregation to participate regularly in corporate worship and small groups with other believers. This is vital for a family’s stability.

We can’t afford to overlook the importance of the family in shaping the future. Home is where the heart is — the heart of society, the heart of our churches, and the heart of God.

Family structures are changing, but our message must not. Love every person and family who walks through your church doors, but don’t allow them to redefine marriage and family for your church. Preach truth boldly. Love and extend grace generously. Encourage and meet the physical needs of hurting families. And may the Lord shine upon you as you champion the families of your congregation and community.

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2019 edition of Influence magazine.

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