This is part one of a two part essay on the changing face of family in American culture and the implications those changes have for ministry within the Church. (NOTE: This is an updated version of this post which ran yesterday with a correction in the stats below. Thanks to those who spotted the typo.)
“Leave it to Beaver.” Mention the title of that classic TV show of the 50’s and 60’s and for many of us it immediately conjures up images of the quintessential American family: the father who is gone all day to to work, the mom who stays home to care for the house and cook, and the (almost) 2.5 children. In many respects, this was the family model in which I was raised, though with my eight siblings we were much more like the “Waltons” than the Cleavers.
But by the 1970’s this picturesque view of the family had been replaced by the “Brady Bunch” and their blended family and “Good Times” with it’s portrayal of a poor, father-less, African American family living in the inner city. By the 1980’s and 90’s, TV finally began to reflect the increasing number of so-called broken families with programs such as “Kate and Allie,” depicting two divorced moms raising their kids together in the same home.
Today, families in the United States are so diverse that the “Leave It To Beaver” model is actually the minority. Up to 1/3 of all homes in the U.S. are now headed by a single parent and 80% of those families are headed by mothers. Current TV programs such as “Modern Family” and “Parenthood” represent the wide gambit of the cultural diversity when it comes to parents and children, depicting everything from the single mom raising two kids to a couple caring for their special needs son to a same-gendered couple raising an adopted daughter. Which begs an interesting question for the Church: How are we to understand “family” now that we are leaving Wally, Ward, June, and Beaver Cleaver behind as our culture makes some significant shifts in social structures?
The Christian community is often referred to as a “family“ and, to be sure, the modern Church is very much concerned with the family. We don’t have to search long to find a host of congregations whose programmatic schedules are consumed with family-centered activities and events: Mother's day, Father's day, parent-child banquets, Grandparent's day, parenting classes, observance of the children's Sabbath, families hosting the lighting of the Advent candles, baby dedications, baptisms, and confirmation classes. A quick review of church websites reveals a host of congregations who either refer to themselves as family-friendly or family-centered or even include the word “family” in their name. Church websites highlight family-based activities and are careful to innumerate how many years each staff member has been married and how many children they each have. In these instances, it is just assumed that “family” refers to the archetypal “nuclear” family: a mother and father who are married and their children.
Groups such as Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council have helped to usher in a new era in which recovering this “perfect” nuclear family has become an idol of the Church, often ignoring other family structures and understandings of Christian community. By lifting up this idol, some in the Church have conveyed a message, intentionally or not, that all other notions of “family” are inferior or possibly illegitimate. The victims of this attitude are many and varied: blended families, divorced families, single parent families, interracial, and adoptive families as well as families led by gay parents, unemployed parents, grandparents, and non-Christian parents. A focus on the ideal nuclear family alone fails to recognize those who are single, GLBT persons who do not have access to legal marriage, battered women, abused children, widowers, and couples who either choose or are unable to have children.
In contrast, Christian history and scripture offers us a far more expansive and creative understanding of family.
Part 2: A