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Confronting the Idolatry of Family: A New Vision for the Household of God by Janet Fishburn


Janet Fishburn is Professor of Teaching Ministry at Drew University Theological School in Madison, New Jersey. This book was published by Abingdon Press, Nashville (1991). This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Chapter 1: The Church in Domestic Captivity


Americans who came of age in the decade after the Second World War are deeply imbued with the values and moral commitments of the American Dream. Many have a vision of a time when Americans were good citizens who went to church, when fathers went to work every day, mothers stayed home and took care of the children, and children obeyed their parents. Men and women nurtured in Protestant churches during the flowering of the American Dream long for a return to a time when all Americans seemed to share their vision of good citizenship and family life. This was a time when the rhythms of life were ordered from week to week as family members gathered for worship in "the family pew." Pastors and church members of that era still associate a sense of well-being with church membership and "the family pew."

Mr. Jones, Meet the Master was a religious best seller in the post-war recovery period. The book was written by a Scottish Presbyterian called to be pastor of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, Peter Marshall. The sentiments of a sermon in Mr. Jones, Meet the Master titled "Keepers of the Springs" may sound hopelessly old-fashioned to anyone born after 1960. Yet, this reminder that "women come nearer to fulfilling their God-given function in the home than anywhere else" still quickens the hearts of church-going Americans whose understanding of the world was formed by the domestic values associated with "the family pew" after World War II.1

Do not think me fanciful . . . too imaginative . . . or too extravagant in my language when I say that I think of women, and particularly of our mothers, as Keepers of the Springs.... There never has been a time when there was a greater need for Keepers of the Springs, or when there were more polluted springs to be cleansed. If the home fails, the country is doomed. The breakdown of home life and influence will mark the breakdown of the nation. If the Keepers of the Springs desert their posts or are unfaithful to their responsibilities, the future outlook of this country is black indeed.2

"Keepers of the Springs" was first published in 1949. The same sermon, with very few changes in content or language, could have been written in 1850 or 1950. The origin of "the family pew" as a sign of cultural well-being goes back to the decades before the Civil War, a time of cultural transition. The dream of a loving, happy, church-going family as the hope of a Christian nation emerged as part of the American Dream during a time of cultural stress in the early Victorian period. Then, as now, there were extensive changes in family life, in the social roles of men and women. And then, as now, the stability of the family unit was linked with the prosperity and well-being of the nation.3

Although it may seem obvious that the values of the "family pew" still set the agenda for conservative congregations today, those values retain considerable power in shaping the agendas of all congregations. It is a sign of the power of "the family pew" if the major source of new members is through the baptism and confirmation of children of members. "Family pew" commitments are central issues where most church program considerations relate to the needs of a family consisting of a mother, a father, and several children. Although members may no longer sanction the sexual ethics of earlier generations, congregations continue to act on those values through the way they organize their activities. The structure of programs in most Protestant congregations has changed very little since the early Victorian period.

For instance, there has never been a very secure place for single adults in "the family pew." There is a sense that "something is wrong" with adults who do not marry. An unstated expectation that adults should marry and have children is operative today in parental concern about the sexuality of teens and the failure of young adults to marry.

One of the most difficult ethical issues for adult church members continues to be that of the sexuality of unmarried young adults. Programs offered for singles often reflect the Victorian assumption that everyone should marry. The isolation of single persons or childless couples from adults who are married and have children perpetuates the Victorian way of ordering relationships in a congregation; they organized all church activities to give optimal support to their vision of the ideal Christian family: a father, a mother, and several children.4

Even though there are single-parent and blended families in most congregations today, many church members still imagine "the family pew" with a father, a mother, and several children there together on Sunday morning. If a congregation or its pastor visualize membership in terms of this kind of family ideal, it is a sign of a culturally accommodated, domesticated faith. An unexamined commitment of pastors and people to values of "the family pew" is keeping Protestant churches from being able to offer spiritual formation for people from traditional and nontraditional families.

The family is a mediating social institution, especially as it mediates social and moral values to children. But a family unit socializes into its own value system which may be more or less Christian in values learned by children from their parents. If the family unit is believed to be the primary source of Christian faith, as it was in Protestant churches of the Victorian period, then the Church becomes an adjunct socializer and ritualizer of family events.

As Sydney Callahan points out, a domesticated church inevitably tends to become conservative, class conscious, sexist, and ineffectual in the society at large. This is why the mission of the church in family religious education is at one and the same time to transcend and support the family.5

The Family and the American Dream

In a congregation where members experience Christian faith as a way of living in the world, a pastor has succeeded in bridging the gap between being a church member and life in a secular society. This is usually done through compelling worship, faithful interpretation of Scripture in preaching, and attention to building community among members of the congregation. Research shows that a clear focus on community-building in the congregation is related to the extent to which laity are active in ministries in the congregation and beyond the congregation.

Pastors who know how to lead laity into ministry have at least two leadership characteristics in common: They talk about the presence of God in the ordinary situations of daily life, and they are able to structure the life of a congregation so that members are encouraged and able to give ministry to one another. This involves devising an organizational structure suitable to the congregation. This unique structure gives members opportunities to learn Christian faith by living it, talking about it, and giving it away. Obviously, this means that the pastor is not the only or even the primary caregiver in the congregation.

Such pastors model servant ministry. The service they perform is in guiding the life of the congregation so that laity are free to grow through their own ministry. A lay leader of a congregation where worship is the spiritual center of the life of the congregation -- like the hub of a wheel -- reported that her pastor’s gifts in worship leadership and preaching are "unequaled." Another member said that the pastor encourages "members of a diverse congregation to work together, not to become like each other, but to live closer to the example of Jesus." It was said of the same man that, "He has a reputation for being able to delegate authority to lay leaders and staff members."6

This combination of high morale and high commitment to the ministry of all Christians is relatively rare. More pastors are able to generate excitement in worship than commitment to ministry among members. One of the reasons why it is so difficult to lead laity into ministry is that the dream of "a Christian America" influences the way people understand Christian identity.7 "The family pew" in the sanctuary continues to symbolize a well-established Protestant ideal about the role of Christianity in American culture.

Colleen McDannell describes this view of Christianity as it functioned for Protestants between 1840 and 1900.

Protestants, through domestic rituals, attempted to create a concept of "Christianity" which would link them together under one common moral canopy. The evangelical vision hoped to counter the trend toward pluralism in America with the idea of a unified "Christian" nation. Domestic Protestantism, which asserted the values of hard work, purity, individual morality, and patriotism, was the foundation of this vision. The values of the home stood as eternal truths, whereas denominational theologies appeared splintered and irrelevant. Family religion arose as a means of returning to "simple Bible truths" which made good citizens.8

For most of the twentieth century the churches of America have continued to convey these ideals. They were so common at the beginning of the twentieth century that politicians like Theodore Roosevelt could "preach" them in political campaigns.9 Through contact with family units, churches have been expected to inculcate the moral integrity necessary for freedom in a democratic society.

Support for the values associated with "the Christian home" gave moral purpose to the church and a clear role to pastors as long as no one questioned the reality of the family ideal. Churches perpetuated the American Dream by teaching and reinforcing the ideals of "the Christian home’’ and Christian citizenship. It was not until the changing family had become an undeniable reality in the 1960s that the once normative "family pew" ethos began to disintegrate. This is when two versions of the role of the Church in American culture emerged, one conservative and one liberal.10

The vision of "a Christian America" was a source of meaning and motivation for the values associated with the American Dream until very recently. It still informs the purpose and commitments of many congregations. Belief in "a Christian America" is undiminished among more conservative Protestants, especially in the South and the Midwest. Ronald Reagan and George Bush were elected by people who believe in the family ideals of a Christian nation. Although liberal church leaders are critical of the moral values associated with the American Dream, they continue to act on a belief in the transformation of American culture by the Church. This, too, is part of the American Dream.

Family Ideals After the Second World War

The changes experienced in American culture since 1960 can be interpreted, in part, as a decline in the power of the vision of "a Christian America" to provide meaning and motivation for middle-class life. Affirmations of national morality have been seriously challenged by events such as the civil rights movement and the war in Vietnam. Uncritical patriotism, family loyalty, church membership, lifelong marriage, and the place of women in the home are, for many Americans, no longer unquestioned loyalties. Yet these are the commitments symbolized by "the family pew."

Church members and leaders who came of age before or during the years of national optimism and economic expansion following the Second World War have a vision of the way the world ought to be that comes from their experience of "the family pew." "The family pew" was a symbol that all was well with the world again -- America had triumphed over the evil powers of the world. Families were reunited. "Normal" family life resumed.

Victory in the war recalled for church-going Americans one of the recurring motifs of American religion, the vision of "a Christian America." This motif dominated the nineteenth-century church, but it reemerges whenever the economy is strong and the white middle-class experiences relative security.11 In the vision of "a Christian America," good citizens are good Christians who go to church. Good Christians have good families who go to church together. After the war, it was a mark of social standing in the community to be in church. It was a mark of higher social standing to be in a mainline Protestant church.

During the post-war period children of school age were in "the family pew" with their parents. It was a sign of growing up when they were old enough to join the youths who sat together in the back row or in the balcony. For the most part, children and youth were present for congregational worship as a matter of course. However, even those who did not worship regularly did attend Sunday School. Parents who were not active church members felt constrained to make sure that the children went to Sunday School anyway. Sunday School and Church were the Protestant Sunday ritual. No one asked why. As long as Sunday Schools and youth groups were meeting regularly or growing --as long as churches were involved in building programs -- clergy and laity were hopeful and optimistic about the future of the church.

In the public schools there were rarely objections to daily Bible reading and prayer or to the Protestant form of high school baccalaureate services. The local priest may have been asked to participate, but he was not invited to plan the service. In predominantly Protestant towns and villages, going to the Catholic church was second best, but better than no religion at all. In areas with a predominantly Jewish population, Protestant youths resented their own minority status in the public schools. For that part of the population still "unchurched" there was Billy Graham, who worked carefully with local church federations in an effort to channel new converts into a "church home."

For that same post-war generation, it was assumed that church-going would continue when youths went to college. University chapels overflowed on Sunday mornings. College students worshipped at local churches, and some provided leadership for those congregations. For those who attended college, getting married and finding work was the next step. Failure to achieve either objective seemed somehow abnormal. High school graduates who did not go to college or trade school were expected to find work and to marry.

A mother knew she was a success if her children followed the prescribed pattern. Her crowning achievement was visible whenever the family was together again -- at worship in "the family pew." Though parents might have been unhappy knowing that some of the younger generation were there under duress, it did not matter a great deal. The important thing was that they were there. Young adults, now parents, had the baby baptized, possibly to please their mothers. Sometimes the baby was baptized in the home church of the maternal grandmother rather than in the church where the parents were members. The mother who insisted that her children and grandchildren maintain traditional religious rituals was faithfully living out the role assigned to her in the vision of "a Christian America."

The Peter Marshall sermon, "Keepers of the Springs," is a classic example of the dominantly Protestant Victorian family ideal. Marshall uncritically accepted the roles assigned to men and women in the American Dream as the nation returned to "normal" patterns of work and family life. He sacralized this set of cultural ideals by proclaiming the roles to be God-given. The sermon was intended to instruct young women on their role, lest women forget their proper sphere of influence. During the war, women played an important role in the workplace by filling positions vacated by men who went to war. But the entrance of women into the workplace was acceptable only because of a national emergency. A return to normality required "women who will lead us back to an . . . old fashioned decency . . . to old fashioned purity and sweetness for the sake of the next generation."12

In another sermon, Marshall noted that if a woman tries to assume equality with men, she automatically steps down "from the pedestal on which Christianity, chivalry, and idealism has placed her." That step will cost her "moral standards," "ideals," and "essential femininity." Her proper work, which Marshall implies is really more important than the work of men, asks of her only that she give "her full time to her home, her husband, her children."

According to Marshall, men cannot carry out their work in the world unless they have a good woman waiting for them at home. She should try to

understand her husband’s work . . . to curb his egotism while, at the same time . . . encouraging all his hopes to establish around the family a circle of true friends.... If she can do all this she will be engaged in a life work that will demand every ounce of her strength, every bit of her patience, every talent God has given her, the utmost sacrifice of her love.... It will demand everything she has and more. And she will find that for which she has been created. She will know that she is carrying out the plan of God. She will be a partner of the Sovereign Ruler of the universe.13

Peter Marshall identified the roles of Christian men and women in carrying out the plan of God with the needs of the nation. "America needs young women who will build true homes." He seemed to believe that unless a man had a wife faithful to her domestic calling, he could not meet the demands of the world on him in his workplace. This theme, identical in every detail, is typical of scores of sermons and bride-books written by men for women after the Civil War.

Marshall assumed that woman’s sphere was a God-given role necessary to the well-being of family and nation. In this vision of "a Christian America" the church serves as a source of moral inspiration that will ensure national morality, power, and success by maintaining the stability of families. From his perspective, the woman’s sphere was as essential to the well-being of the nation as the contribution of man. For the "springs" being kept by American women were the source of character and moral integrity of future citizens.

Peter Marshall’s sermons demonstrate the way in which pastors uncritically foster cultural ideals by giving them divine status as God’s will. Visions of "a Christian America" had unusual power to shape and inform the values and attitudes of children and youth growing up in the period in which Marshall was a well-known public figure. The American victory in World War II revived a belief in American morality that had been associated with America as a world power since the end of the Civil War. An obvious, continuous rise in the standard of living after the Civil War was widely perceived as God’s special blessing on a moral nation where slavery had finally been eradicated. By the end of the nineteenth century the connection of national prosperity with national morality was so common that union leaders, politicians, and pastors all talked of "Christianizing the world in our lifetime."

The dualistic ideals associated with the Victorian family and the national dream of "a Christian America" gave Americans a way of life based on family loyalty and hard work. The separate-but-equal approach to the private work world of women and the public work world of men was taken for granted for about 130 years, from 1830 until approximately 1960. Throughout that period a stable, intact family unit was considered essential to national prosperity and to moral progress.

The American family was believed to be the building block of the nation, the very foundation of all Christian civilization. Any change in roles assigned to men and women was seen as a threat to family stability, to the future of the American Dream, and to the future of God’s whole creation.

Family, Church, and Culture in Transition

"The Christian Family Church is often haunted by the Golden Era which glows a little with increased distance and immediate difficulties."14 That golden glow is usually associated with a return to "normal" life after World War II. Men came home; families were reunited; there was a baby boom. An unusually high proportion of Americans were church members. It was a time when the American people renewed their faith in the God who gave them victory in war. During the 1950s the basic elements of the American dream were recovered with compelling force -- family stability, a rising standard of living, and seemingly unlimited career opportunities.

Any Protestant who came of age in some small town in post-war America experienced a kind of cultural homogeneity that no longer exists. They learned the same moral code -- the values of a Protestant America -- at home, at church, and at school. Although not everyone kept the code, it was clear that church members were expected to conform.

Although honesty, hard work, and thrift were encouraged, it was attitudes related to sexuality, marriage, and family life that were most explicitly conveyed. The moral code included prohibitions against masturbation, premarital intercourse, extramarital intercourse, and homosexuality. Young adults were encouraged to marry only within their own religious and ethnic group. Interracial marriages were not discussed. Divorce was possible but rare. Marriage was assumed to be lifelong. Certain misfortunes that might befall a family were not discussed in public -- a child born out of wedlock, adultery, suicide. It was a misfortune if a young adult remained single, or a couple, childless.

The freedom movements of the 1960s posed a direct challenge to the American way of life so clearly articulated during the 1950s. The loyalties of generations of church-going Americans were called into question as the civil rights movement became an anti-war movement and then a war on poverty. The limits of freedom were tested as demonstrators took to the streets and to the barricades on behalf of an array of freedoms -- race, religion, sex, age, and conscience.

Nothing less than a cultural transition was under way, with protests led by the disenfranchised: the young, the Afro-American, the poor, the aged. Some protests were led by women, an unprecedented development in American history. Everyone had a dream. Like a rainbow, the dream had many hues. But each hue was still recognizable as that of the American Dream. Everyone wanted the dream to come true for them.

Even as the meaning and limits of democratic freedom were being tested, technological achievements that would change the living and working patterns of all Americans occurred. The instantaneous flow of information through the telecommunications industry altered personal communication and human relationships. The presence of television was changing relationships at home, at work, and at church. The ability of nations to communicate within minutes of the occurrence of an event altered the way people experienced time and history.

But it was medical technology that most immediately affected daily life, that challenged all traditional definitions of morality and personal ethics. For the first time in American history inexpensive, reliable birth-control methods became available to the public. Radical changes in sexual self-expression accompanied an unprecedented freedom from fear of conception. The response of pastors and theologians to these issues has been sporadic. Denominational attempts to give moral guidance through policy statements are usually met with apprehension and theological conflict.

It is unmistakably clear that there is no longer a standard form for a family. The average life-span has increased from 60-65 in 1900 to 70-75 in 1985. A marriage now has the potential of lasting longer than ever before in history. Better health and longer lives mean that people have more productive work years than ever before. The abilities to control the process of procreation and to delay death raise fundamental issues about life and death in a new way.

The 1980 census report indicated that nearly one-half of people ever married are divorced. The number of people staying single doubled between 1970 and 1980. Compared to the ideal American family of "the family pew," 23 percent of all households in 1980 consisted of one person living alone. One out of every five children lived with one parent -- a 33 percent increase since 1970. A new study indicates that 57 percent of Catholics under 30 have never married; 41 percent of Protestants under 30 have never married.

Church-going parents of single young adults cannot expect their children to accept the moral code learned by their generation before the sexual revolution. No moral issue has the kind of black-and-white clarity for people born after 1960 that it had for those who came of age before 1960. Americans born after 1960 are not imbued with the family ideals of the American Dream. Christian parents wonder how to respond to all the issues that are now part of daily family life. They can no longer assume that values taught in public schools are those taught at home or at church. They often get little help from the church in thinking through the many issues that divide the two generations -- those born before and those born after 1960.

The reemergence of a Victorian family ideal as part of the vision of a Christian America in the 1950s was an epiphenomenon, a temporary spark of life in a dying ethos. Had the resurgence of "the family pew" ethos not occurred, events of the 1960s would have been less shocking to church-going Americans. Since the end of the First World War, American culture had been acquiring a more urbane international flavor that did not mix well with the sexual prohibitions of the Victorian moral code. The sexual revolution of the 1960s only made obvious the changes in American sexual behavior that began after the First World War.

Protestant churches have exerted relatively little influence over moral behavior in American since the end of the First World War. Compared to the influence of church leaders through the public press and platform at the end of the nineteenth century, the church has steadily lost ground as worthy of coverage as "news" by public media. "The Church" as a social institution has had only a marginal and indirect influence on American culture in the twentieth century.15

After the Second World War, pastors like Peter Marshall continued to inculcate a Victorian code and the family ideals associated with it; but the life of men and women in the 1950s bore little resemblance to the lives of Victorian men and women for whom the complementarity of the sexes was a part of daily life experience. Young men and women gave lip service to ideals of moral purity being taught at home, church, and school. Yet, research demonstrated that premarital sexual activity was already more the norm than the exception.

The Kinsey reports of 1948 and 1953 were shocking only because they confirmed what careful social observers already knew -- the Victorian social code had been the moral code of the American middle-class in word only since the end of the First World War. In Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield, that tireless cataloguer of "phonies" in the adult world, became the hero of American youth in the late 1950s because he told the truth as they knew it. Adults in his world were not reliable; his life experience contradicted the ideal of that happy American family he had only heard about.

The so-called sexual revolution of the 1960s was not a sudden explosion of oversexed youth. Nor was the seemingly sudden disintegration of family life a sign of the end of the family. Both events signaled the end of the power of a Victorian sexual ethos to inspire Protestants to live according to the values of "the family pew."

What appeared to be a sudden change in national moral values was not discontinuous with developments in American culture since the beginning of the twentieth century. The Victorian moral code that was taught and sustained in Protestant churches had become unworkable in the culture at large. The great surge of patriotic spirit and church-going after World War II was accompanied by a revival of a Victorian family ideal. Yet, it was that decade of renewed family idealism and uncritical patriotism that was discontinuous with twentieth-century cultural history. Against that one decade of apparent calm and normal "apple-pie" life in America, the freedom movements and demonstrations of the 1960s appeared to be an aberration. They were, in fact, only a phase in a longer cultural transition in which the stated ideals and moral codes of the Victorian era were gradually being discarded.

Responses to Change in "The Family Pew"

The typical congregation at worship on Sunday morning no longer looks like "the family pew" of the post-war period. Congregations are graying. There are fewer children at worship with their parents. If children are at worship, they often leave the service after the children’s sermon. Unless there is a youth choir, the population of the back pew may be sparse. College students and young adults are even less visible. Statistical reports are not needed to verify what is obvious: The power of "the family pew" has declined. There are more older adults in the church-going population but there are also fewer younger families in most churches. As church membership has decreased, so has the relative percentage of active members, Sunday School enrollment, and optimism about the future of the church.

Concern about the future of the church is most obvious in relation to children and youths. Quite literally, these groups are the future. Responses to change or perceived decline in the church are usually attempts to restore the sense of well-being associated with "the family pew" after the Second World War. As change in the family has become obvious, several strategies have been tried to attract younger families.

Churches in the more conservative Protestant traditions attract new members and are growing because they still support "the American way of life." To participate in the life of a conservative congregation is to experience life as it seemed to be in the post-war period. The life of a Christian is described according to the moral standards and social roles associated with "the family pew" ethos; few members would object to the way a woman’s role is described in "Keepers of the Springs." Members of conservative congregations are self-consciously conserving the values of the American Dream. They are confident that America will return to a Christian way of life if the moral standards of the past can be reclaimed.

Liberal congregations are more likely to adapt teaching and traditions to the tempo of the times. More liberal churches experiment with groups for singles to meet new needs. They are more likely to change worship traditions to appeal to modern people. Members of such churches may prefer a dialogue, children’s sermons, or clown ministry to the traditional sermon. They may prefer the ambiance and intimacy of informal worship to the stuffy boredom of more traditional liturgy.

Liberal congregations have a new tradition -- a shorter, less formal family service designed to include children in worship. Some of the new forms of worship and much of the "family service" is little more than worship at a child’s level of comprehension, not unlike the opening exercises of the Sunday School. This is the liberal way to recover the well-being associated with "the family pew"; it preserves the appearance of the tradition without trying to teach an obviously dysfunctional moral code.

Congregational response to change in the family usually takes one of two forms, strategies to preserve the past or strategies to adapt to the present. Both have the same objective; most congregations want to see their buildings bustling with activity and growing as they did after the Second World War. Leaders of congregations continue to hope for a future when "the family pew" will look the way it did then.

Domestic Captivity in Protestant Congregations

Before change in sexual behavior and family structure challenged the moral commitments of "the family pew," anthropologist W. Lloyd Warner had observed that beliefs and practices in the church and in the family were so intertwined that, "Should the present form of the family disappear, the Christian church would necessarily undergo revolutionary changes."16 As he studied the values of American culture just after the Second World War, Warner concluded that the symbol system giving moral form to life relationships -- especially family relationships -- was a sacred symbol system. In his study of the way Americans order and interpret their lives through rituals and moral codes, he found that religion and family were dependent on each other in supporting a symbol system that gave meaning to life and moral behavior.

The extensive use of family language and metaphors found in most Protestant ritual represents the kind of symbiotic union between the church and the family that Warner considered dangerous. A symbiotic, or dependent, relationship in the natural order is a relationship in which two organisms live in a close and mutually advantageous union. However, the union can become unbalanced to the point that one organism saps the life and vitality of the other.

Warner’s observation that the Christian church would necessarily experience revolutionary change "should the present form of the family disappear" was prophetic. The form of the family in American culture has been unstable and changing since the early 1960s. Protestant old-line congregations have experienced loss of members, purpose, and direction ever since.17

When the life experience associated with religious language changes, the rituals of a religion lose their power to give meaning to the lives of believers. The extensive use of family language in Protestant liturgies today no longer connects with life experience as it did when it emerged in the cultural experience of a Victorian America.18

It is striking that a major change in the form and function of American families does coincide with considerable reorganization in Protestant denominations. The mission and purpose of Protestant congregations was related to their reputation for undergirding the morals of the nation by supporting the family unit. In reality, Protestant influence has been a less vital force in shaping twentieth-century American values than many church leaders have imagined.

Religious familism refers to the use of religious language and rituals to express and reinforce family commitments. There is a kind of folk religion or domestic religion in which believers use God as a means to achieve their own ends. Where religion has become domestic the rituals of a particular religious tradition are identified with seeking God’s blessing for the family-related hopes and desires of believers. Beliefs of the religious tradition are adjusted accordingly.19

A folk religion is always related to, but different from the historic faith from which it springs. Religious familism is the American folk religion; it adapts the language, symbols, and rituals of the Christian tradition to serve the family needs of the people. Ideals from the Christian tradition are conflated with those of the American democracy to express the hope for "a Christian America." Americans tend to uncritically identify loyalty to family with loyalty to church. Congregations in which loyalty to church and family are virtually synonymous are engaged in an American form of religious familism.20

As evidence, consider the results of recent research concerning the importance to laity of various tasks performed by pastors. Preaching, pastoral care, and administration are at the top of the list. Laity say that they would not be likely to consult with their pastors about an ethical or a work-related issue. Of all the tasks of the pastor, leadership in mission and leadership in evangelism are of least importance to both pastors and laity.21 Preaching, pastoral care, and administration are valued primarily for personal reasons. The symbiotic union between church and family has become unbalanced to the point that family-related needs have become a major preoccupation of congregations that have turned in on themselves.

The captivity of Protestant congregations in visions of a domesticated church leads to a severely truncated vision of the nature and mission of the church. It threatens to reduce the role of a pastor to that of family chaplain. Clarification of the legitimate roles of both pastor and people in the congregation depends on being able to distinguish the role of the church from the role of the family in the lives of Christians. Chapter 2 is about the way "the family pew" ethos affects program planning and leadership roles in congregations.

  

Footnotes

1. "The Family Pew": The Church in Domestic Captivity

1. Peter Marshall, Mr. Jones, Meet the Master (New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1951), p. 155.

2. Ibid., p. 149.

3. This connection is commonly made by historians of religion and culture, and by feminist historians. For a concise account of the connection, see Neill Q. Hamilton, Recovery of the Protestant Adventure (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1983).

4. Colleen McDannell, The Christian Home in Victorian America, 1840-1900 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986), p. 19.

5. Gloria Durka, "The Changing Family," Religious Education 83 (Fall 1988): 509.

6. Janet F. Fishburn and Neill Q. Hamilton, "Characteristics of Effective Ministry: A Research Report," Quarterly Review 9 (Spring 1989): 70-71.

7. Robert T. Handy, A Christian America: Protestant Hopes and Historical Realities (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971).

8. McDannell, The Christian Home, p. 106.

9. Janet F. Fishburn, The Fatherhood of God and the Victorian Family (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1981), p. 108.

I0. Robert Wuthnow, The Restructuring of American Religion: Society and Faith Since World War 11 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988), chap. 4.

11. Ibid., chap. 3.

12. Marshall, Mr. Jones, p. 152.

13. Catherine Marshall, A Man Called Peter (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1951), pp. 56-57.

14. Carl S. Dudley, "Using Church Images for Commitment, Conflict, and Renewal," C. Ellis Nelson, ed., Congregations: Their Power to Form and Transform (Atlanta: John Knox, 1988), pp. 99-100.

15. Wuthnow, Restructuring of American Religion, p. 31. The best evidence for this point is Wuthnow’s study of the difference between the rhetoric of pastors about the church as compared to social realities.

16. W. Lloyd Warner, The Family of God (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1962), p. 266.

17. Jack Markum, "Membership Decline: Is It a Lack of Babies?" Monday Morning (December 18, 1989): 8-9. Markum shows that loss of members in the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. is not due to a change in birth rates in the population.

18. Fishhurn, The Fatherhood of God. See chap. 6 for an analysis of the prominence of familial language in social-gospel theology.

19. Handy, A Christian America, p. 220.

20. The Christian tradition has always been ambivalent about the role of the family in the life of faith. It has been theologically difficult to balance the tribal concept of redemption in the Old Testament covenant tradition with Jesus’ challenge to this tradition and the imminent-return eschatology of the New ‘Testament. There has been elevated love of family in other periods in the history of Christianity. This i5 usually related to use of covenant theology in which a form of Old Testament tribal attitudes about {family have been uncritically adopted. Roots of family idolatry of the Victorian period can be found in the covenant theologies of both English Puritans and Scottish Presbyterians who emigrated to the United States.

21. Janet F. Fishburn and Neill Q. Hamilton, "Effectiveness in Ministry Report," unpublished paper, 1985, pp. 13-14.

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