“What we really need is more young families with children.” How many times have we heard those familiar words spoken in churches? The image of many young families with children brings memories of a time many churches associate with their heyday decades ago. But there are changed realities to consider if churches want to move forward into the future instead of looking back.
Churches that think of outreach only in terms of young families with children are excluding a large pool of potential new participants.
- Reality One. Most churches, including mainline churches, are doing as well today in reaching married couples with children living at home as they ever have. Churches have done a remarkable job in consistently and effectively reaching this group.
- Reality Two. Married couples with children living at home represent a dramatically smaller percentage of the population today than in the past. So churches are doing an equally good job of reaching this constituency – but they are reaching a declining constituency.
Eighty percent of the U.S. population today does not fit the profile of married couples with children at home. Sociologist Penny Long Marler points out that the 1950s “were a statistical anomaly providing the largest proportional pool of married couples with children in American history.” Since this period coincided with a time of great church growth, it developed a set of patterns for today’s expectations of what is needed for churches to prosper. (Marler, 25)
Consider these changed circumstances.
- In the 1950s, almost 50 percent of households were comprised of married couples with children. By 1990, that percentage had dropped to a little over 25 percent. (Marler, 28)
- In 2005, married couples became a minority of households for the first time. (Sam Roberts, New York Times, October 15, 2006)
- Also in 2005, 51 percent of women said they were living without a spouse, up from 35 percent in 1950. (Sam Roberts, New York Times, January 16, 2007)
Churches that think of outreach only in terms of young families with children are excluding a large pool of potential new participants. A church targeting married couples with children could potentially reach 20 percent of households. Targeting married couples could potentially reach almost 50 percent of households.
“Existent Family Residue”
But what about all the other people who are underrepresented in most congregations? What about the people who are absent because the focus of most churches has been on the groups named above, without comparable attention to the other half of U.S. households?
Marler maintains that the church since the 1950s has been operating off of an “existent family residue” (Marler, 45). That is, most still carry the image of the family of the 1950s as the norm for those the church is seeking. This is because people in the church today are disproportionately people who are in traditional families and those that used to be. (Marler, 50) This “ex-family cohort” maintains considerable institutional loyalty and influence. If they permit their nostalgia to get in the way of changes that would reach newer generations, this group can prevent the church from moving forward. But they can help when their passion for reaching and teaching new generations outweighs their nostalgia.
Marler also points out that, while the newer traditional families in congregations share with the “ex-family cohort” a commitment to the traditional family, the newer families are less likely to view the church itself as an extended traditional family. (Marler, 50)
Who is Being Overlooked?
If we are reaching families with children, then whom are we missing? Who is underrepresented? There are a host of household arrangements today more represented in the population than in churches. A good exercise for churches would be to compare the breakdown of church participants with the makeup of the local population in terms of marital, family, and household arrangement status.
A Leadership survey of clergy asked them how well the church does in reaching various constituencies. The respondents said the church does best at reaching married couples with children. They said retirees, older married couples with no children, empty nesters, and widows are reached “very well.” The survey identified the groups that the church reaches “moderately well” as single parents, divorced, young married couples with no children, and blended families. But there were others, including groups whose numbers are growing significantly, that the church reaches “not well at all.” They included young singles, singles, special needs families, and multi-ethnic families. [Leadership, Fall 2006, 38]
Reaching new people is enough of a challenge for most churches. They do not need the extra burden of waiting for people to return to church who do not exist. In the days ahead, churches are most likely to be fruitful in reaching others if they understand who the people around them are and develop ministries and plans to reach those constituencies, especially those represented in their communities but not in their churches.
Reference: Penny Long Marler, “Lost in the Fifties: The Changing Family and the Nostalgic Church,” in Work, Family, and Religion in Contemporary Society, eds. Nancy Tatom Ammerman and Wade Clark Roof (New York: Routledge, 1995).