Ruth Moon Mari on Why the Church Needs Single Parents, and Single Parents Need the Church

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Single-parent families of all kinds are becoming increasingly common in the US. From 1880 to 1970, around 85 percent of children in the US lived with two parents, according to the Pew Research Center, but over the past 50 years, this traditional family arrangement has changed radically. In 2015, less than one-half of children in the US lived with two parents in their first marriage. In 2018, there were more than 16 million single parents in the US, and nearly half (40%) of births in the US were to unmarried women.

These growing numbers pose a challenge to the American church: How do we minister to the unique and complex needs of single-parent families?

Since single parents are most frequently divorced, it’s not surprising that theologians often define the typical single-parent family as a covenant failure that gives evidence of the Fall. But these families also give Christians a chance to reimagine the family in light of the New Testament, says Timothy Paul Jones, a professor of family ministry at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

“In the New Testament, the people of God are formed into a new, covenant family, adopted from every tribe and language and people group,” he said. “This doesn’t do away with the family formed in the covenant between a man and woman, but it resituates it in the context of a greater family, where we’re called to become a family for one another. We fill in the gaps. We become family for one another as the people of God.”

However, practicing these principles can be difficult. Single parents often have less education and smaller incomes than the average American, and church attendance is declining fastest among Americans without college degrees, said Bradford Wilcox, a sociologist and director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia.

“Marriage is a major social justice issue,” he said. “The breakdown of marriage is falling along class lines and only deepening the disadvantages that poor Americans and their kids face in our country today. One thing churches need to do among congregations and parachurch ministries is be much more intentional about reaching working-class people.”

According to a survey conducted for Life of a Single Mom Ministries, more than two-thirds of single mothers don’t attend church. One problem is that churches aren’t typically going where lower-income people without college degrees are likely to be, Wilcox said, since college ministries have few corollaries in the workplace-training or community college worlds. And when people do find the church, they need messages that meet them where they are.

“The church has to walk a tightrope in terms of today’s family situation,” he said. “We should show solace and solidarity for kids and families who have been touched by divorce, to convey a sense of mercy and hope. At the same time, the church also needs to articulate all the reasons why it’s best for adults and for kids to strive for the ideal of an intact married family.”

With this complicated picture in mind, a handful of ministries around the country are attempting to reconnect single-parent families with the physical and spiritual support of the church. One of these programs, Single Parent Missions, was started by Dawn VanderWerf, who started the ministry in 2012 as a single mother (she has since remarried).

“God clearly called me to step out of the sales position I had and take on this ministry,” said VanderWerf, whose organization now reaches single parents as far away as Africa and Ukraine. “Single moms and fatherless kids are like the ‘widows and orphans’ of this generation.”

VanderWerf became a single mother when her husband of 15 years went to jail after a shootout at their home and left her to raise their then six-year-old son, Ethan. When she first sat down with Ethan to talk about the situation, his only question was, “Who’s going to take my dad’s place?” She looked to the church to fill the absent father’s role but found that churches had little vision or training to help single-parent families.

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Source: Christianity Today

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