18 April 2007

The Family Pew.

The Episcopal Church is waging a war against the traditional family structure - or at least the normativity thereof, which amounts to the same thing. And the Episcopal Church is in steep decline. In the current First Things, University of Virginia sociologist Bradford Wilcox examines this correlation in the Protestant mainline:

The growing secularization of American life—marked by drops in religious attendance, affiliation, and authority in the nation at large over the past forty years—is certainly due, in part, to changes in the larger culture. It owes something, as well, to the theological and moral lassitude of many churches in the face of those changes. But a large portion derives from the declining strength and integrity of the family. The recent history of American religion illuminates what amounts to a sociological law: The fortunes of American religion rise and fall with the fortunes of the intact, married family.

Not all religious traditions are equally affected by this law. A corollary might be that more-churchly religious traditions (such as the Episcopal Church) depend even more on a vibrant family culture than do more-sectarian religious traditions (such as the Assemblies of God) because so many of the churchly adherents make a habit of churchgoing only when they are married with children. This largely explains why the mainline Protestant churches have seen their fortunes fall since the 1950s, the most recent heyday of the American family, even while the more sectarian evangelical Protestant churches have seen their fortunes rise over the same period.

After almost half a century of decline, however, those in the churchly mainline—particularly those on the left, politically and theologically—still cannot see their dependence on strong families. Blinded by their desire to be both “with it” and welcoming, they continue to lend vocal support to the family revolution that is draining their congregations.

. . .

The question, of course, is why churchgoing is so tightly bound to being married with children. One reason is that marriage is one of the few rites of passage guiding the transition into adulthood. Another reason married men and women are more active religiously is that churches and synagogues give symbolic and practical support to family life. In such rites as a baptism and a bris, congregations erect a sacred canopy of meaning over the great chapters of family life: birth, childrearing, and marriage. Rabbis, pastors, and priests—particularly orthodox ones—offer concrete advice about marriage and parenthood. Congregations also have disproportionately high numbers of families who put family-centered living high on their list of priorities. These families offer moral and practical support to adults adjusting to the joys and challenges of married life and starting families. Not surprisingly, men and women who are married with children are more likely to gravitate toward church than are their single peers.

Children also drive parents to church. The arrival of a child can awaken untapped reserves of love, recognition of the transcendent, and concern for the good life in men and women—all of which make churchgoing more attractive. Parents looking to give their children a moral and spiritual compass seek out congregations, Sunday schools, and vacation Bible schools. All the data show that religious attendance peaks in the population among adults with school-age children.

Finally, marriage is more likely to drive men into church than women. Because women are more religious than men, on average, and because they usually take primary responsibility for the nurture of children regardless of their marital status, women’s religious attendance depends less on marriage than does men’s. Indeed, women with and without families are more likely to be regular churchgoers than similarly situated men.

For men, marriage, fatherhood, and churchgoing are a package deal. Men’s comparatively fragile faith often depends on wifely encouragement to flower. More important, fatherhood often awakens in men a sense of paternal responsibility that extends to their children’s religious and moral welfare. Men are much less likely to identify with and be able to fulfill the responsibilities of fatherhood—including the religious ones—if they are not married to the mother of their children. This is why divorce is much more likely to drive men away from church than it is women.

The dramatic demographic changes of the past forty years, coupled with the failure of most churches to capture the attention of adults who aren’t married with children, has led many mainline Protestant leaders to heighten their calls for aggressive outreach efforts to singles and adults in nontraditional families—together with the theological innovations required to match these efforts. Sociologist Penny Long Marler makes the case for this accommodationist strategy this way: “Clearly, while bowing to the critical contributions of traditional families, past and present, congregations must cast their nets farther and more conscientiously. Otherwise, contemporary white Protestantism may be forever ‘lost in the 1950s.’ Given the realities of an aging population and a shrinking traditional family base, it is clear that a future mired in the past is really no future at all.”

Here's the whole thing, currently available only to print subscribers (so why not subscribe?).


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