It's not remarkable to say our culture is confused when it comes to family. But the results of the recent Pew Research Center study on marriage and children are remarkable nonetheless.

The survey confirms that Christian notions about marriage and family are still an American ideal. The growth in births to unwed mothers is a "big problem," say 71 percent of Americans. They agree (69 percent) that children need both a mother and a father. Even as rates of births to unwed mothers have skyrocketed, this strong disapproval has held steady.

But the survey also notes that Americans are less able to live up to their ideals: Roughly 37 percent of births are to unwed mothers, and nearly half (47 percent) of adults have lived in cohabitating relationships.

"Marriage exerts less influence over how adults organize their lives and how children are born and raised than at any time in the nation's history," the survey says. Between 1960 and 2005, the rate of unwed childbearing increased sevenfold, from 5.3 percent of all births to 36.8 percent. The survey finds that the average unwed mother "is more likely to be white than black, and more likely to be an adult than a teenager. …" The survey attributes this "sharp increase in non-marital births" to "an ever greater percentage of women in the 20s, 30s, and older … delaying or forgoing marriage but having children."

We can be thankful that the public still disapproves of out-of-wedlock births in general. But more Americans than ever naively think they alone can make single-parenting work.

Day-to-day realities slowly undermine this optimism. Single parents who have been at it awhile know better than anyone how less than ideal their situation is. That's one reason we can expect to see more and more single parents looking for outside support. Single mothers (to take the typical example), often long for a strong, caring male to enter their children's lives. So it nearly goes without saying: The church has a unique opportunity at this cultural moment.

For years, we have been preaching the supremacy of the two-parent family, offering classes and seminars for young couples and families. But the church is also caught up in an individualistic, ambitious culture, and we find it difficult to carve out time to offer ongoing, concrete help to single-parent families. We pray for them. We urge the parent to find a mate. But, to take the case above, it's hard to find a church that intentionally helps men of the church connect regularly with the children of single mothers. Would a "father program," on the order of Big Brothers and Sisters, be something the "family of God" might institute?

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A single mother at Christianity Today International adopted two African American boys. Though she's given them extraordinary care and discipline, she has long felt that they desperately needed adult males in their lives. She says plainly that her church let her and her boys down in this regard. Only after one of the boys ended up in prison did the church's men rally around and enter this young man's life.

A dramatic example, but boys without father figures and girls without mother figures have a strike against them. The latest national study shows that more children than ever are entering the world with such strikes. It's an unprecedented cultural moment for Christians, to see if we can act less like individual consumers of spirituality and more like the family of God.

Related Elsewhere:

Pew Research Center has a summary of their study on marriage and children, as well as the full report. Also available are charts on their findings about how Americans view single women having children, the morality of premarital sex, the purpose of marriage, and other topics.

Other articles that have addressed single-parent families include:

For Shame? | Why Christians should welcome, rather than stigmatize, unwed mothers and their children. (September 1, 2006)
Can This Institution Be Saved? | A curious alliance of helping professionals is working to rebuild marriage in a culture of divorce. (November 1, 2004)
Solitary Refinement | Evangelical assumptions about singleness still need rethinking. (June 11, 2001)
Where True Love Waits | How one woman dramatically changed the teen pregnancy rate in Rhea County, Tennessee. (March 1, 1999)
Conversations: Barbara Dafoe Whitehead | Barbara Dafoe Whitehead confronts our postmarriage culture. (November 17, 1997)
The Dilemmas of a Pro-Life Pastor | How churches should handle the delicate issue of abortion when nearly one-fifth of women who get abortions are sitting in our pews. (April 7, 1997)

Our recent editorials are:

Amusing Ourselves on Sunday | Why the church must practice a different kind of comedy. (October 8, 2007)
What It Means to Love Israel | Beware giving the nation too much theological meaning and the Jews too little. (September 5, 2007)
All That's Good in Sports | The NBA is as good a place as any for working out one's salvation. (September 4, 2007)
Statistical Shell Game | The numbers we report are a matter of gospel integrity. (August 16, 2007)
Virtue That Counts | Why justification by faith alone is still our defining doctrine. (July 13, 2007)

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