“Hatch, match and dispatch” was the simple formula for church success in its growth years following World War II. The church could connect with its membership through rites and sacraments around life transitions like baptism (leading to Sunday school), marriage and funerals. Well, today I’m doing fewer and fewer weddings and funerals than a decade ago, although I’m serving a church four times larger than my previous congregation. There are unique cultural and economic factors influencing these trends in Acton, but it appears to be part of a national phenomenon. Family life and traditions are changing! Here are a few eye popping statistics from the Pew Research Center and the U.S. Census Bureau:
- Decline in marriage. The percentage of married adults dropped from 72% in 1960 to just over 50% today.
- Delaying marriage. The median age of first marriage has increased to just over 28 for men and just over 26 for women. In 1960, 68% of all twenty-somethings were married; in 2008, just 26% were.
- Decline of married couples with children. The percentage of households headed by a married couple with children under 18 living with them declined to 21% in 2010, down from around 50% in the 1950s.
- Rise of single parenting. The percentage of children reared by a single parent is up to 25% in 2008 compared to 9% in 1960.
- Rise in children living with grandparents. The percentage of children under 18 living in a household that includes a grandparent grew to 10% in 2010. Of the 7.5 million children who lived with a grandparent in 2010, 22% did not have a parent present in the household.
- Rise in one-person households. One-person households grew to 27% in 2010 from 13% in 1960.
These statistics suggest that the church’s family values message of the last few decades had limited impact, but people still share a strong commitment to family as a value. According to the Pew report, the vast majority of adults (76%) consider their own family to be the most important and most satisfying element of their lives. More than 80% say the family they live in now is as close as, or closer than, the family in which they grew up.
So what must the church do now? Lovett Weems Jr., who is the Executive Director of the Lewis Center for Church leadership makes these helpful suggestions for church leaders:
- Continue to talk about family, but be careful not to imply you have in mind only one model, lest you exclude many church members.
- Engage young singles in leadership just as you may already do with marrieds of the same age.
- Keep in mind the vast number of persons in your congregation live alone by choice and still feel very connected to family.
- Recognize how much help parents (in one or two parent homes) need today, and find ways to be partners with them in the nurture of their children.
- Do an analysis of the types of households in your church and compare with community data. Are you reaching all the types of households in your community?
- Given strong commitments of parishioners to family, understand that church sometimes can become a competitor for the use of time needed for family.
I’ve always been suspicious of the “hatch, match, and dispatch” model. Too often, it made the family into an idol worshipped by the church. These new realities may encourage us to live into the larger model of family Jesus made possible when he asked, “who is my mother, and who are my brothers (?)…whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother, sister and mother.” (Matthew 12:48-50)