Religion and families have always gone hand in hand. In the 1950s, the growth of the post-War suburbs and the increasing numbers of male-breadwinner families coincided with a period of rapid expansion in religious organizations of all kinds. The number of local congregations multiplied rapidly as church attendance peaked at century-high levels. But since the 1950s, there have been rapid and fundamental changes in the structure of family life in the United States, and in the way family members divide up home-making and breadwinning activities. The dual-earner family has replaced the male-breadwinner family as the single most common family type. There are increasing numbers of long-term singles, childless couples, and single-parent families. Gay and lesbian unions further challenge older assumptions about what constitutes a "family." Each of these factors are changing our ideal image of what a family might – or should – be like.
Through the Religion and Family Project, funded by the Eli Lilly Endowment, our project team collected data on 125 congregations in four communities in upstate New York. In addition, we surveyed over 1000 individuals who live in these communities. We used in-depth interviews, participant-observation and historical research in selected congregations to explore their views of and ministry with families. This project sought to find out if and how congregations have changed the way they think and talk about family life and their family ministry practices in the face of shifts in work and family. A second issue we addressed was how an individual’s work and family context influence his or her involvement in a local congregation.
We found that congregations in the study still largely deploy a "standard package" of family ministry. By that we mean programs for women and children with social activities for the whole family on weekends. Any changes to this traditional package mostly involve re-arranging the timing of events and providing services like babysitting. In addition, congregations might offer (mostly informal) counseling for a variety of family needs – substance abuse, domestic violence, and work-related stress. These changes came about in response to increasing numbers of female church members having fulltime paid employment or living with alternate-weekend child custody arrangements that make traditional children’s programming unworkable.
Our study, however, did find several significant shifts taking place in family life and family ministry.
We identified a sizable minority of congregations who were seriously rethinking their family ministry programs. A fifth of the studied congregations are either questioning the centrality of the family as the unit around which to organize ministry or are engaged in an active re-thinking of what constitutes a "family."
Nearly half the pastors we surveyed think their people don’t have enough time in their schedules to actively participate. Our interviews with members show this to be true. Time at work is directly related to reduced religious involvement. But it is not time at work alone that strains participation but also how it is scheduled and the competition from other community activities during the traditionally sacred Sunday morning "holy hours." Time squeeze pressures are particularly acute for those in low-paying service sector or blue-collar jobs, who do not have the resources to buy services (child care, house cleaning, meals out) that can help alleviate time pressure. [follow
this link for more information about this finding]
There are significant differences in how men and women relate to and participate in organized religion. Our research suggests that for contemporary men and women involvement in a local congregation is related to commitment to a family and community centered life rather than one oriented to a job or career. This is equally true for all family types -- those in male-breadwinner as well as dual-earner and single-parent families. Not surprisingly this commitment pattern is more true for women than for men. Across the board, the factors leading to active congregational involvement are different for men and women. This finding is true for all forms of involvement whether one’s own church attendance, taking the kids to a children’s activity, or participating in an adult ministry or program. [follow this link for more information about this finding]
All of this suggests that congregations remain, for many, a vital resource for helping to manage work and family, for teaching children about faith and morality, and for strengthening family relationships despite a great deal of social change. We found that successful family ministries are those which are authentic to their congregation’s religious tradition and beliefs. At the same time they must operate out of accurate understanding of how rapidly changing work and family contexts affect individuals’ commitment to the congregation.
Shorter Research Summaries from this project:
It's a Matter of Time
Gender Differences in Religious Participation
Read Dr. Edgell’s full reports about this project:
Congregations Adapting to Changes in Work and Family
Work, Family, and Religious Involvement for Men and
Women: "Family Values" or the Modern Family?
References for further information about religion and the family.
Ammerman, Nancy Tatom and Wade Clark Roof, eds. 1995. Work, Family, and Religion in Contemporary Society. New York: Routledge.
Furstenberg, Frank. 1999. "Family Change and Family Diversity." Pp. 147-166 in Diversity and its Discontents: Cultural Conflict and Common Ground in Contemporary American Society, eds. Smelser and Alexander. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Treas, Judith. 1999. "Diversity in American Families." Pp. 245-59 in A Nation Divided: Diversity, Inequality, and Community in American Society. Eds. Moen, Dempster-McClain, and Walker. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Skolnick, Arlene. 1991. Embattled Paradise: The American Family in an Age of Uncertainty. New York: Basic Books
Contact Penny Edgell (Becker), director, Religion and Family Project, University of Minnesota at
For other web based information on this subject, visit our Religion and the Family page on this site.