By Eddie Pipkin

Last week I wrote about reconceiving men’s ministry, based on societal shifts in the concept of “manhood” and what it means to be a man/husband/father.  On the heels of that rumination, a friend sent me a link to a provocative article published in this month’s issue of The Atlantic by noted author, David Brooks, called “The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake.”  Brooks’ premise is not that our classic American concept of the two-parent, two-kid family as the apotheosis of healthy household structure was morally tainted in some way.  He makes the case that it was a statistical anomaly, historically speaking.  From the standpoint of church leadership, if he’s right – and he has plenty of data to argue that he is – we have a responsibility to thoughtfully assess the ways our ministries are bound to the nuclear family ideal and blind to the opportunities to minister to all the family structures that are “other.”

First of all, here’s the link to Brooks’ long and in-depth article, the full title with accompanying subtitle reading, “The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake: The family structure we’ve held up as a cultural ideal for the past half century has been a catastrophe for many.  It’s time to figure out better ways to live together.”  It claims that in the long arc of human history, people lived together in extended communities in which they shared resources, supported one another in difficult times, cooperated in child raising responsibilities, and generally worked together to make the best of life.  Multi-generational households were the norm for centuries, and tightknit, intertwined clans (by birth or by chosen association) were more common.  The shift to a condensed family of one married couple and their kids was the product of a special set of post-WWII economic circumstances, and those special circumstances have collapsed in recent decades.  Simultaneously, rapid social change has placed pressure on the classic nuclear family model.

To be clear, this blog is not anti-family.  In fact, one of the takeaways is the powerful role the church can play in bolstering marriages and families.  It is critical that we give husbands, wives, and parents all of the resources (spiritual and practical) that we can provide to help them succeed, even as the world gives them an avalanche of excuses not to.  David Brooks writes nostalgically of multi-generational family gatherings that connected cousins with cousins and how that Norman Rockwell scene has faded:

This is the story of our times—the story of the family, once a dense cluster of many siblings and extended kin, fragmenting into ever smaller and more fragile forms. The initial result of that fragmentation, the nuclear family, didn’t seem so bad. But then, because the nuclear family is so brittle, the fragmentation continued. In many sectors of society, nuclear families fragmented into single-parent families, single-parent families into chaotic families or no families.

If you want to summarize the changes in family structure over the past century, the truest thing to say is this: We’ve made life freer for individuals and more unstable for families. We’ve made life better for adults but worse for children. We’ve moved from big, interconnected, and extended families, which helped protect the most vulnerable people in society from the shocks of life, to smaller, detached nuclear families (a married couple and their children), which give the most privileged people in society room to maximize their talents and expand their options. The shift from bigger and interconnected extended families to smaller and detached nuclear families ultimately led to a familial system that liberates the rich and ravages the working-class and the poor.

The church has always been an advocate for deeper connection.  The church has always been an advocate for the poor and most vulnerable.  When we are at our best, we bring together the “detached” and disconnected and unite them in a family of faith that overcomes the plagues of isolation, loneliness, anxiety, and lack of meaning.  The Old Testament is filled with stories of interconnected communities working together to pursue Godly goals and build a better life for oppressed people.  The Gospel is filled with stories of Jesus’ compassion for the poor, the vulnerable, and the unloved.  The Acts 2 church is a model of community coming together to share resources and responsibilities so that all might have their needs met (physically, socially, and spiritually) – it’s a beautiful vision.

Brooks is a person of faith who writes about what our vision will be as a civil society, and in his article and recent books he has proposed changes in civil society that would promote policies that would embrace his take on Gospel goals.  But we, as local church leaders, have the ability to respond in real time to these shifts.  We can ask ourselves two questions:

  1. How can we strengthen families (the traditional core of local churches and local communities)?
  2. How can we be relevant and real for fragmented families and new permutations of family life?

In the first case, we should be focused on strengthening marriages and healthy family life.

  • Do we routinely offer classes, seminars, workshops, support groups, and independent resources on building and maintaining healthy marriages?
  • Do we routinely offer classes, seminars, workshops, support groups, and independent resources on parenting?
  • Do we actively promote accountability groups and/or social groups in which people can share their experiences in marriage and parenting and learn and grow together in a safe space?
  • Do we have a clear and regularly publicized pathway in place for getting help if we are struggling in our marriage or our parenting?
  • Do we subtly stigmatize struggling marriages or struggling parents, or do we identify these struggles as a normal part of life that, rather than being the subject of shame, are something people can be honest about and rely on their faith community to help them work through?
  • Do we shun people when struggle becomes failure? Or do we encircle them even more tightly in love and support?

In the second case, we should recognize the reality of the ways the definition of “family” is changing, and we should respond to equip the people who find themselves inhabiting these new templates to be healthy, happy, and spiritually centered.

  • Do we subtly – or even overtly – communicate that the “nuclear family” ideal is viewed as superior or more valuable or more Godly in our ministries? (Full stop.  This is tricky territory.  What is the balance between promoting healthy, two-parent families and not ostracizing people who, for whatever reason, are not living this “ideal”?)
  • Do we communicate about ministries in ways that make non-traditional families or parents seem less than welcome? (Do we use language that presumes traditional nuclear family structures, for instance?)
  • Do we actively support single parent families? (Do we give them the same kinds of training and educational opportunities that equip them for success within the framework of their reality?)
  • Do we provide specific resources for single parent families? (They have a very specific set of needs that a more interconnected “family” could help with – childcare immediately comes to mind.  This is a huge potential ministry area for local churches.)
  • Are we scheduling activities and events in ways that honor different kinds of families? (This is a question that invites discussion, for instance, on the idea of morning-only VBS.)
  • Do we promote our welcome of nontraditional families to the greater community? (When they think of us, do they know we’re a safe harbor and encouraging clan?)
  • Do we have core values driving our children and youth ministries that mean we lovingly welcome and care for ALL children and youth, regardless of their family background or parental support or engagement?
  • Do we recognize that the ways that single parents can serve may be different than the way married couples can serve? (Married couples often have more flexibility of time than single parents do.  Do we allow this reality to influence committee assignments, etc.?  Do we find ways to make it easier for single parents to serve?)
  • Do we celebrate and equip blended families? (Recombined families, second marriages, etc. have their own unique set of challenges.)
  • Does our youth group deal forthrightly with the varieties of family experience? (Do we encourage young people to feel normal and valued despite their family structure, and do we equip them to be strong communicators and loving contributors to their families?)
  • Are we actively promoting multi-generational connections? (Much good can come of getting empty nesters, retirees, young families, single parents, and young adults together to form bonds, not just in ministry applications, but beyond the walls of the church.  They can support one another in amazing ways.)

How is your local congregation addressing changes in family structure?  Are you equipping people for marriage and family success?  Are you welcoming those who are part of nontraditional family structures and integrating them into the life of the church?  Share your own triumphs, insights, challenges, and changes.  We’d like to hear from you!