The Rev. Carol Howard Merritt: Church for the 21st Century: Family Structures

I'm working through the 5 questions for the Church for the 21c Committee. I'm chairing the committee, but these thoughts are my own. They don't reflect the whole committee's opinions, nor are they indicative of what the final paper will say. While answering  "What is your vision for the church in the 21st century?"  I'm focusing on a few of the cultural changes that have occurred in the last fifty years. We've talked about Work and Finances, now I'd like to look at Family Structures. Please join the conversation, and I will happily link your blog!

The magic formula for our congregations has been to reach out to young families, and our churches spend a great deal of effort hoping and praying that the next generation of young families will walk into our doors.

It has typically worked that way. When young adults found a career, got married, had kids, and "settled down," then they found a church. And all of that used to take about six months after a man graduated from college or high school. (Okay, so I'm exaggerating here. But only slightly....) Now, our patterns have changed. Because of  finances, employment , and  choices , our family structures look different.

First, we have an ideal in our society that a person is (or ought to be) a financially independent adult at the age of 18. Even our sociological definition of adulthood is based on when a person gains financial independence. But, of course, the world has not worked that way for a long time. It is difficult to find gainful employment without a college education, and many men and women have to go into debt in order to earn that degree.

Second (and related), there are employment considerations. When a person graduates, there aren't many jobs-particularly jobs that can pay off those student loans-so men and women entering adulthood often go into internships, temp work, or some other underemployment situation. They are the first to get laid-off, and often young workers don't have any health insurance apart from their parents. The cost of housing is often based on two incomes. Many young men and women live with their parents well into their 20s.

What does this have to do with our family structures? Well, in our society, a person is expected that he or she will become financially secure before getting married, but it's difficult to get married when it takes a great deal of financial instability (educational debt and internships) in order to establish a stable career and a place to live. Often people glorify this situation or place the blame on the emerging adult-they say that young adults are in their odyssey years or an extended adolescence. I think we've created a society where we don't take care of our young workers.

Anyways... young men and women are caught in a trap. They can't get married until they have financial security. And they often can't attain financial security until they get married. As a result men and women are often scheming their next employment move, figuring out more schooling, going for their next internship, and this situation makes it difficult to make a commitment to a spouse or loved one. People are getting married later now, if they are getting married at all.

Finally, when it comes to family structure, there is more choice in a new generation. Though the societal expectation that men and women will get married and have children is strong, there is also a bit more freedom. Although it is difficult, a woman can have a career and financial stability without getting married. She doesn't need to move from her father's home to her husband's home. There is room-small pockets in our country-where LGBTQ people can happily be with, live with, or marry their same-sex partner.

What does all of this have to do with our churches? Congregations are often set up to cater to the young family. Although this model is good, we will need to broaden our focus in order to reach out to younger people.

Are we welcoming to young singles? If a young couple is living together (this is often a financial necessity), do our churches welcome them? Is our church open to same-gender relationships? In what ways (verbally or nonberbally) do we communicate that our congregation is only for nuclear families?

**What happens when a person walks into our sanctuary alone? Is church an isolating experience for them? Will they most likely sit alone and stare at the back of another person's head? What does our seating look like? Does it invite a community feel?

Is there a social network for people who don't have a spouse or children? Does the church think about where people will go for Thanksgiving or Easter dinners? Do we think about how a person might be celebrating Holy Days in their homes?**

How much time and energy does church leadership put into attracting those who are single or students? How much time do we put into ministering to and with singles and students? How does the time that we put into ministering to and with younger adults compare with the time we minister to and with older adults?

[Taken with permission from the Rev. Carol Howard Merritt's blog, Originally posted 7/18/11.]