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Promoting family values: Which ones?

“How’s the family?”

That is often the first question when people meet at church gatherings. Caring for our families and family well-being in general are without doubt high values in our church culture. A question from a non-Christian advocate for children prompted this second thought about how we promote family values. He asked me, “Why is your church so focused on ‘pelvic’ issues?” In his view, issues related to sexuality and gender, which dominate what he sees of the church’s witness, are not the major issues affecting the well-being of children and families. While we protest the over-sexualization of popular culture, he argued, we add to it by over-emphasizing the sex-related dimensions of family well-being and ignoring other significant factors.

Testing his thesis, I found that current research on family well-being highlights trends that receive too little attention in church discussions. Let’s consider just two of them.

Isolation and belonging
More Canadians now live alone than with others. The 2011 census reported more one-person households than couples with children for the first time in Canada’s history, and the 2016 census reported more one-person households than any other category. There is also growth in other non-traditional forms, while the percentage of single parent households remains about the same. Regional variations are also greater. Census data suggests that we need to think beyond the traditional family form.

More important are the related issues of isolation and belonging. As a widow now, I am more aware of how church language can isolate “singles.” I also recall a different kind of isolation as a young mother in a typical suburban single-family home. At the same time, health research identifies the issue of belonging as a growing concern for well-being. Rather than labelling “singles” as a problem minority in a family-first culture, maybe we can develop language, liturgy and practices that foster acceptance and inter-dependence apart from traditional family connections. The language of inter-dependence seems more consistent with the trajectory of Scriptural teaching about healthy church life than the language of strong “nuclear” families of the 1950’s model that shaped much of our society and current family values.

In the 1990s there was a move to make recognition and support for “interdependence” the basis for social policy rather than sexual relationships such as marriage. Unfortunately emotional polarization on definitions of marriage dominated public discussion. I can’t help wondering what difference it would make if sexual identity and relationships were less high-profile and other aspects of interdependence received more attention.

Opportunity for all
Sociologist Robert Putnam, in Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis (Simon and Schuster, 2015), provides evidence to show reduced opportunity for some children and families as a result of socio-economic trends since 1970. This is a common theme in current family research. While some children have more support than ever, many other children, through no fault of their own, are less able to develop their God-given talents. Children of affluent families tend to marry other affluent children, live in areas that exclude poor children and attend better schools. Putnam argues that class segregation, neighborhood segregation and educational segregation are major threats for the future well-being of our society. One practical example is the shift to “pay for play” spaces instead of public recreation facilities. While children in well-resourced families have more opportunities than ever before, many others play in unhealthy places.

Historically churches played a role in bridging economic and social divides. Now they tend to reflect those divides. The Bible uses strong language against social structures that exclude those with less social power. Israel’s laws ensured that all families, rich or poor, had opportunities to develop and use their gifts in God’s work, and so did the early church. This is as much a moral issue as sexual relationships. If our calling is to seek the welfare of the places where we live, more intentional strategies are needed to address the real-life factors that affect family well-being in our communities and across Canadian society.  

  • Kathy Vandergrift, a public policy analyst, brings experience in government, social justice work and a Master’s Degree in Public Ethics to her reflections.

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