Category Archives: Uncategorized

The Future, the Family, and Your Church

There are high rise condominiums growing up out of the concrete all around us here in Houston. Many are replacing older apartment buildings that took up more space. But there is also brand new construction all around easy access to transportation routes in the downtown, mid-town and westside neighborhoods like Memorial, the Heights and Upper Kirby.

These new trends in residential building are following demographic trends:

  • The birthrate has been on the decline, women are waiting later to have children and are having fewer children – the time to move out to the suburbs and focus on the school district is coming later.
  • People are waiting later to get married, more are living together first. Most couples who marry today, cohabit first. This means there is a longer transition period into the neighborhood housing experience.
  • More people are living single for longer. This means that a smaller, more convenient living space makes better sense.

Our physical living arrangements in large cities like Houston are changing because of the new ways we are choosing to live our lives. Many of these choices are not necessarily deliberate.

There are three big social changes that have come to dominate our lives that I think the local church needs to spend its energy and focus:

  1. Working is coming to dominate our lives – we want to live closer to where we work. We now have technology that allows us (if we like it or not) to work all the time. The old fashioned 9-5 workday has disappeared – along with the typewriter. Younger people feel a tremendous amount of anxiety about their work future.
  2. Relationships are more transitory and fragile than ever before. Traditional families, composed of mother, father and their children are at the lowest numbers ever in our history.
  3. People are less and less knowledgeable about what and why they believe about their faith. This means that decision making based on personal and collective faith becomes less certain.

How is your church organizing itself to minister to the  new world emerging all around it? Take a look at your church website, newsletter or even weekly bulletin. What clues can you learn about the way your church has organized itself for ministry?  What is aimed inwardly, how much outwardly?

  • Is your church using the internet effectively to communicate, teach, and involve members and seekers?
  • Are you scheduling activities that are convenient for only a limited segment of your church?
  • How are you taking your church into the neighborhoods? Do you have regular gatherings in people’s homes – including those condo’s and apartments?
  • Are you finding ways to help people in your church and community find ways to solve larger problems related to raising children, adult relationships, taking care of parents, finding a new career?

The ways that your church has organized itself – committees, funding, programs, etc. will tell you how prepared it is for the changing world.  Very rarely will your church be able to do things it is not organized to do.

Take a good hard look at the world around you – and then pretend you are an outsider and look hard at your church. How well do the these two worlds connect?

Learning to Be Lonely

“Loneliness is about the scariest thing out there.”  ― Joss Whedon

A colleague recently sent me an article about cities of the future and how human loneliness is now a serious design factor. Jessica Brown, the author, reminds us that;

  • humans are social animals
  • the current loneliness epidemic is now being called a public health crisis

Her first point is a little more complicated than first glance. Humans must have other humans in order to physically survive. You can’t leave a baby in the woods and hope he will just turn out okay. Sorry Tarzan. Parents and family are essential for human survival.

But it’s even more important than that. Not only are we dependent upon others to help us survive, during infancy and childhood, we need adults to teach us how to survive. Imagine all of the skills that you were taught in order to head off to first grade:

  • Asking for help
  • Going to the bathroom on your own
  • Obeying authority figures
  • Finding your way home
  • Making new friends (and enemies)

Have you read the recent research about children, social skills and time in front of a screen? Children and teenagers are spending so much time on their electronic devices – they are missing out on critical time with real people, learning real social skills, developing real relationships that could prepare them for adulthood. Instead, it seems that more and more young adults are not prepared for casual and even more developed relationships that protect them from loneliness.

Being on your phone busy with work, surfing through posts online, watching the latest media doesn’t replace social contact with real people. As children are learning to make their way in the world, they need to practice social skills like understanding non-verbal communication and environmental cues. These are difficult to attain when a majority of time is spent online.

When I walk into college classrooms these days they are filled with students and silent. There is rarely any talking, sharing or laughing. Everyone is sitting alone, attention locked on their cell phones. The zombie apocalypse has arrived.

Jessica Brown’s article reminds us that it’s often easier for us to rebuild the world we live in than take deep and difficult looks at our own selves and the ways we are raising the next generation.

 

Millennials and Marriage

Who is a Millennial? Someone born in the 1980’s and early 1990’s. The term was coined based on the idea that children born in 1982 would graduate from high school at the start of the next millennium.

The Pew Research Center reports that Millennials:

  • Are more likely to still live at home with their parents
  • They have now overtaken Baby Boomers as the largest generation
  • They tend to be less religious than previous generations
  • Currently they experience more financial burden
  • This slice of the population is more racially diverse
  • They are less trusting of others
  • Typically are more politically liberal
  • They are the first generation to be digital natives

Despite some of the research you have read and even some of the magazine covers (designed to sell issues), Millennials are probably not that much different from any other generation. What’s different is the world around them in which they have to build themselves and forge paths toward their future.

A recent article in Relevant Magazine pointed out some alarming numbers when it comes to Millennials and marriage. I guess these are only alarming if you believe in marriage and it’s benefits for individuals and for society as a whole.

  • Younger people aren’t getting married at the same rate as previous generations
  • Cohabitation before marriage is now the new normal
  • Online solutions for starting relationships are increasing

Seems to me that what Millennials might need is some information to help them make wise decisions about their lives. Why is marriage good for individuals? People who are married live longer, report higher levels of personal happiness and are generally healthier, both physically and mentally. Children thrive at a much higher rate in married homes than in single parent or cohabiting homes. Overall, marriage and family is good for everyone involved, including all the rest of us. The higher the rates of marriage in a society, the great the economic and civic benefits for everyone in town.

To be honest with you, people still make bad decisions even when faced with facts to the contrary. I do, don’t you? This leads me to believe that what young people really need is not the will to make wise choices, but the environment in which to experience more options that are smart and healthy.

Where in the world is a millennial supposed to find someone to go on a date with these days? Because of technology (which was supposed to liberate us) work has now crossed the 9-5 borders. There are fewer and fewer “safe” public social venues. So often, today’s crowd offers an abundance of moral confusion instead of a confirming environment in which to seek meaningful connections.

What about your local church? Why is that the last place most young singles consider when thinking about a place to meet a great person to date?

Why does the local church not organize itself in such a way to facilitate healthy and meaningful relationship building among young people? I’m not talking about offering boring classes! Hip social experiences, adventures, concerts and nights out should be the new norm for the local church.

Maybe Millennials are just like every other generation before them, they just some help.

Together In the Dark Nights

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I remember being in the hospital as a young married spouse. I soon came to realize how dependent I was on my wife. She stayed too long with me in my room as I recovered. I kept trying to get her to go home. But as we reflected on the experience and in light of subsequent hospital stays (our own and those of friends and family) we have come to realize how essential it is to have someone close by for so many important reasons.

  • You need an advocate to help communicate (both ways) with hospital staff and doctors. Who can remember what’s going on at 5:30 in the morning when they make their rounds, or when you’re heavily medicated and roused out of your stupor to hear detailed instructions?
  • You need someone else to be there and constantly remind you with their presence that you really aren’t alone. Recovering in the hospital isn’t just a physical effort. Having another person there – or even a visitor, reminds you of the essential connections that keep you healthy and whole.
  • All those other people in your life need to practice their faith. Helping to take care of you, to keep in touch, to pray, to be consistently present in so many ways – it’s essential for your loved ones to have opportunities to live out their faith.

A recent report from the Pew Research Center tells us that the number one reason Americans choose to get married is because they are in love. Romantic love remains the primary motivating force behind marriage these days. This report is entitled, “5 Facts on Love and Marriage in America.” Love was the number one fact, number two on the list was that the number of Americans who are married is at its lowest number than ever before.

Together, do these two “facts” mean that love is getting scarce in America?

Maybe.

When it comes to real love, maybe people aren’t as certain as they thought. What if it’s becoming more difficult to tell what real love looks like? If that’s true, then isn’t it even more important for people who are in love to demonstrate what it looks like in the good, the bad and ugly of life?

Love is probably not so much an internal feeling that you catch like the flu as much as it is a series of everyday acts of unselfish sacrifice. Love is something you have to do and then keep doing.

It looks like our world still needs us to love one another.

“Real magic can never be made by offering someone else’s liver. You must tear out your own, and not expect to get it back.”  ― Peter S. Beagle

Who Stays Married Longer?

It looks like people who have had less sexual partners before marriage.

There is a National Survey of Family Growth with numbers from 2006-2010 that indicates, after the first five years of marriage, almost 95% of both men and women (who had only one sexual partner – each other) were still married. That percentage dramatically declines as the number of sexual partners before marriage increases.

It’s just a correlation – it doesn’t tell us which causes which. Does promiscuity before marriage cause the union to crumble afterwards? Is being married too much of a commitment for people who were promiscuous?

But it does indicate that lasting marriages and promiscuity don’t mix well.  Marriage has always been about someone else. Promiscuity has always been about me.

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Our values about sexual behavior have dramatically changed in the recent decades.  Our behaviors may not have changed that much, but the stigma associated with having sex…

  • as a teenager, still in school,
  • before marriage,
  • on a first date,
  • with a stranger, or
  • with someone of the same sex

has faded as our values (what we believe) about freedom and sexual activity have changed, especially for women. People are acting and thinking differently about sexuality because American values about personal freedom, social liberty and individuality inspire new values and come into conflict with others.

If the local Christian community can’t demonstrate and communicate effectively the reasons and rewards for marriage, faithfulness, commitment and sacrifice, values that have sustained the family will never stick. Families will continue to fragment.

Never Let Go

Madeleine L'Engle reads with granddaughters Lena, left and Charlotte (now Charlotte Jones Voiklis). L’Engle’s “A Wrinkle in Time” became a favorite of young people, Voiklis says today, because “kids read it and understand that they are not being talked down to.” Illustrates KIDSPOST-WRINKLE (category l), by Moira E. McLaughlin (c) 2012, The Washington Post. Moved Wednesday, March 14, 2012. (MUST CREDIT: From Crosswicks)

“No long-term marriage is made easily, and there have been times when I’ve been so angry or so hurt that I thought my love would never recover. And then, in the midst of near despair, something has happened beneath the surface. A bright little flashing fish of hope has flicked silver fins and the water is bright and suddenly I am returned to a state of love again — till next time. I’ve learned that there will always be a next time, and that I will submerge in darkness and misery, but that I won’t stay submerged. And each time something has been learned under the waters; something has been gained; and a new kind of love has grown. The best I can ask for is that this love, which has been built on countless failures, will continue to grow. I can say no more than that this is mystery, and gift, and that somehow or other, through grace, our failures can be redeemed and blessed.”

Madeleine L’Engle

In this day and age – family is sometimes all you’ve got. So many around us don’t even have that. Fragments are all that’s left. L’Engle describes her marriage as a construction project that travels like a roller coaster up and down through life. I get the sense that she felt it was something worth hanging on to – a relationship like no other that couldn’t be found elsewhere. A relationship that mattered, for the sake of her children, for the sake of her spouse and always – through the long haul – for her own sake.

  • We sometimes get exasperated with one another too quickly. Family has to learn how to stick it out to the bitter end. Take a long road trip together or get snowed in during Christmas.  Make sure there’s only one bathroom.
  • When you’re feeling sorry for yourself is the best time to start doing something for others. Families are where our children learn to live by seeing examples. Show them how to give instead of take.
  • Call your adult children and ask them how you can pray for them this week. Be sure you pray and then follow up, keep following up. Tell your children how they can pray for you.
  • Treat each moment together as if it were you last. That helps you to put things into better perspective. It helps you to stay in the moment and not lose sight of what is really important – right now.
  • The most important activity that members of a relationship and families learn how to do is to “get over themselves.”

The building of relationships is an ongoing project of success and failure. All that matters is that we never give up. Marriage and family takes work – a task that each generation has to put it’s shoulder to with a committed heart. No half measures will work. It’s encouraging to read the words of famous figures who affirm what a difficult journey it often is. It’s typically very discouraging to see every single week another famous couple calling it quits and then rationalizing their failure as a sensible decision. Your children have been raised watching this “play” over and over again. It will compete with the story you tell with your own lives together.

Building a civilization is accomplished in each daily decision to . It’s never perfect, it’s but a love built on failure, it is a mystery that can endure.

“In a word, live together in the forgiveness of your sins, for without it no human fellowship, least of all a marriage, can survive. Don’t insist on your rights, don’t blame each other, don’t judge or condemn each other, don’t find fault with each other, but accept each other as you are, and forgive each other every day from the bottom of your hearts…”Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison

The New American Family

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Research based on the latest census data indicate that the American family is no more. The dramatic changes in living arrangements, delayed child-bearing and longer singlehood mean that what we once thought of as a “traditional” family may be long gone.

But here’s something very interesting from a news report on the study:

Despite the negative changes in American families, one group has remained stable and most closely resembles what was once considered the American norm and that is the immigrant community. [This study] found that immigrants tend to be married at a higher rate, and divorce and remarry at a lower rate when compared to those born in the United States.

It seems like those on the road to becoming our newest citizens seem to look and act more like traditional Americans than even we do! Immigrants depend upon their families for so much:

  1. Economic support and launching into a new society – who but family wants me to succeed more?
  2. Remaining close in order to maintain important traditions and values during assimilation – while we’re becoming Americans, we want to keep cherished traditions from where we came
  3. Collaboration with other immigrant families from similar backgrounds for help making the social transitions – people who have come here ahead of us can help to show us the ropes. Family members help other family members.

As I think about it, what’s tragic is that we all need our families like this, still. It doesn’t matter if we are immigrants or native born. We all need help making it in the world around us. Family is supposed to fulfill that function.

More people in our country have terrible difficulty in life because their family just isn’t there anymore. Maybe we should look to our immigrant neighbors as examples?

 

Why Are We Addicted to Our Cell Phones?

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“Computers are useless, they can only give you answers” – Pablo Picasso

I’m teaching classes and I can’t seem to understand why college students can’t get off their phones for an hour. They put them on their desks, hunch over them, stare at the little screens, click away and seem addicted to this little device. I call them out, make fun, a little shaming, all to no avail. The “addiction” is too strong.

Maybe these findings from a recent Pew study can shed some light on the phenomenon.

  • The largest category of people who use their cell phone as their primary means of internet access are 18-29 year olds
  • Overwhelmingly, people are using their cell phones as a tool for tasks like getting directions
  • Mostly, using a cell phone makes people feel productive and happy.

The cell phone technology seemed to appear overnight. We still haven’t caught up with it. Social norms are lagging behind when it comes how to use this technology and still fit in during social interactions.

I sat in a hospital waiting room the other day and had to listen to a grandpa’s out loud detailed business conversation he was having on his cell phone. He never seemed to think he should get up and leave the room – sparing all of us the embarrassment of being forced to eavesdrop on his life.

Families are responsible for what we call primary socialization – helping children learn how to navigate the world (yes sir, look both ways, sharing, etc.). Cell phone norms seem like something we are all going to have to develop and teach as we grow up with this rapidly advancing technology.

Based on these findings from the Pew research;

  1. I need to help my students by providing them with some specific norms in my classes.
  2. I should find ways that students can use their phones in class to search for information and help us all to learn (a technique one of my colleagues already uses).
  3. There are sure to be ways that I can piggy back important lessons in sociology to their strong desire to remain socially connected during class. Their desires to be productive on their phones can be used to also be productive in learning content in the course. I think. I’m going to work on this.

It’s a relief to see in this Time Magazine survey report that the U.S. is BEHIND other countries in our cell phone addiction!

How Good is Being Alone?

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I was reading the review of a book the other day. All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation by journalist Rebecca Traister traces the history and the changing role of single women in our history. According to the Census, there are now more single women than married. How did that happen?

The status of women, families and marriage is undergoing dramatic change in our society. Here is an interview with Traister where she points out some of the most significant demographic changes that she has written about in her book. An important fact she points out:

One of the most startling statistics is that today only 20 percent of Americans aged 18 to 29 are married, and that compares to 60 percent in 1960. The other figure that I find very startling, in part because it was so resilient for so long, is the median age of first marriage for women. From the time they started recording it — which was 1890 — until 1980, that median age of first marriage for women fluctuated only between 20 and 22. … In 1990 it jumped to over 23, which is a huge jump from having been in that small range for so long. Today, for women, it is over 27. So if you’re just looking at the sort of historical picture, there’s this relatively flat line for almost 100 years and now there’s not just a jump over that line, but way over that line.

I’m a sociologist. When I see changes like this I want to know about what’s happening in other dimensions of our society. There’s an interconnection between all things. Higher levels of education for women, a transforming service/information economy, higher income equality for women, shrinking size of family, more family debt, higher levels of choice in all areas of life, exploding access to social media…phenomena like these all have an influence and even causal effect on why changes occur in marriages and families.

There’s so much changing all around us. Of course we will see effects of these changes in places like our relationships and institutions like family.

We are studying Genesis in my Sunday School class. God proclaims everything he makes to be good. Then he creates man and sees that he is alone and declares that this is not good.

Our society is now trying to figure out all sorts of ways to solve this eternal problem. Marriage used to be the best solution. Now only half of adults live with a spouse, the other  half are cohabiting, living alone or are in some other arrangement. 40% of cohabiters break up within five years.

It seems that we are trying to piece together fragments and shadows of something we know to be better. What we have ended up with are too many people alone – for whatever reason. And that is still not good.

“The real loneliness is living among all these kind people who only ask one to pretend!”  -Edith Wharton

Where Did “Dating” Come From?

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“None of us marry perfection; we marry potential.”  – Robert D. Hales

As I ask my classes of college students each semester, it seems that the numbers of students who go on “dates” is declining.  Current research tends to support the growing trend among young people – dating has gone out of style.

Where did “dating” come from in the first place?

Courtship here in America started out with much more close contact than you might realize. Ellen Rothman writes that in the late 1700’s as many as 30% of brides were pregnant at the time of their marriage. Even though unwed pregnancy was rare, people who were engaged often began sexual intercourse before their marriage. The patterns of living enabled people to spend much more time with one another as they were courting.

As the Industrial Revolution began to reshape American society, courtship rituals also had to be adjusted to fit all the new ways of working and living. As people began to live in larger cities, work and home became two separate spheres. Interaction circles grew wider as people came into contact with more and more people and often with people of different habits.

What we now call “dating” became a custom later, after the Victorian era, when sexual norms became more restrictive. Sexual regulation became more important in families. Working class families searched for ways to better oversee their children’s social lives. When it came to courting, all sorts of obstacles prevented parental oversight. There wasn’t any privacy in their homes for young couples to socialize. There weren’t enough regular social occasions around which families could invite courting couples to participate. Who could afford it? Interaction needed to be formalized in some way.

What evolved were arranged dates and times during which a male suitor could take his female acquaintance out of her home and spend time together in another location. Her father, of course, was the one to set the day and start/stop time for this “date.”

Once “dating” became the norm, it soon spread to the other social classes. When the 20th Century arrived, romantic love and adolescent experiences became dynamic components in the development of the distinctive identity we now know as “the teenager.” Youth spent more years in school, worked outside the home and began to consume the new mass culture (television, radio and Elvis). They were developing an independent identity earlier than ever before. Dating was a central role of this new identity.

By the time most of us started, dating had also become a way for men and women to conspicuously consume – to demonstrate their social status by spending money and looking beautiful. There were very specific gender roles. The male was always the initiator and took responsibility for pleasing his date. The female, while not being the damsel in distress, was expected to follow along. Even though her role was more like that of a special guest, she had all the right to provide her opinion about the plans for the evening. As the relationship developed, they would collaborate more on choices and familiar patterns.

I am indebted to Gene H. Starbuck for this lesson

Today, things have changed. Single’s aren’t dating very much.

Most young singles in America do not describe themselves as actively looking for romantic partners. Even those who are seeking relationships are not dating frequently. About half (49%) had been on no more than one date in the previous three months. (Mary Madden and Lee Rainie, Romance in America)

When we talk about the fragmented family, it’s important to not just look at how families fall apart and come to an end but to also examine how people learn to fall in love and decide to create a family in the first place. If dating has come to the end of its usefulness, what new social practice will we use to help people create the most important bonds in their lives?