WACO (ABP)—Conventional wisdom says “the family that prays together stays together.” But one study of 15 Baptist congregations found that what families want most from their church are opportunities to serve.
In 2004, Baylor University researchers polled more than 3,000 members of churches in 12 states affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship or both. While not statistically representative of all Baptists, researchers Diana Garland and Jo Edmonds said findings shed light on the struggles church families face at different stages of life.
Seventy percent of families in the survey were married couples with or without children, far higher than the general population. One in four of those were a second marriage. Fewer than 1 percent were unmarried or separated couples, far below the national norm, while widowed single adults were double the rate of society as a whole.
Researchers asked respondents to mark items from a list of 37 possible causes of family stress. Four of the top five reported stressors involved physical or mental health. A third reported serious illness or disability of a family member, close friend or relative had caused stress for their family in the previous year. About one in four mentioned death of a loved one, depression or other serious emotional problems or financial strain.
Some stressors varied by age. Teenagers felt the same stressors their families reported, like death, illness and depression, but others—such as school problems and parent-child conflict—were unique to their age.
Among families in their 20s, 61 percent reported financial strain. Thirty-eight percent cited problems balancing work and family. Three in 10 reported stress about moving from one home to another.
Financial strain was somewhat less common for families in their 30s, but a new issue emerged—30 percent reported difficulty on the job for a family member.
Families in their 40s continued to experience stress from balancing work and family and finances, about 40 percent each, while death of a family member, close friend or relative entered the top five most prevalent stressors, affecting 28 percent of families in the survey.
Respondents in their 50s carried the dominant stressors of younger groups, along with higher rates of worries related to physical or emotional health. Nearly half (46 percent) reported stress from serious illness or disability of a family member, close friend or relative, 38 percent from caring for a sick or disabled family member, and 36 percent because of a death. Financial strain remained a problem for more than a third (36 percent) of families in their 50s.
Financial strains decreased to 19 percent for families in their 60s and older, while health-related worries became more common. Nearly half (46 percent) cited stress from serious illness or disability of a loved one, 38 percent mentioned pressure of caring for a sick or disabled family member and 36 percent the death of someone close to them.
In terms of religious practice, daily Bible study and prayer historically have been considered important for Baptists, and 86 percent of individuals reported praying on a daily basis. Barely half, however, (55 percent) reported doing so as a family.
Fewer than one in four individuals said they studied their Bible daily. That rose to 62 percent on a weekly basis. Researchers said that probably is a result of Sunday school and weekly Bible studies, but daily Bible studies by families was reported by a scant 5 percent.
The most common religious activities engaged as families were caring for the created world (more than 50 percent weekly), caring for others in need and helping their community to be a better place.
“These examples suggest that families are more likely to be engaged in the world around them as expressions of their faith than to be engaged in studying the Bible together,” researchers surmised. A majority also mentioned forgiving and encouraging others and talking and listening to one another’s deepest thoughts at least once a week.
Respondents also marked up to six items in a list of 47 ways in which they would like to see their church help their families. The most common were:
• Serving others outside our family, 26.8 percent.
• Family prayer and devotional time, 21.8 percent.
• Communication skills, 20.6 percent.
• Developing a strong marriage, 19.6 percent.
• Developing healthy habits—eating, exercise, rest and recreation, 19 percent.
• Talking about our faith together, 18.5 percent.
“A majority of these families already is engaged in their communities—serving others in need, caring for the created world, offering hospitality, seeking more justice in the world and stronger communities—and still list help in these areas at the top of their requests from their congregation,” researchers reported.
Second, researchers said, families wanted more help in developing prayer and devotional time as families instead of as individuals.
“Perhaps the most interesting challenge for the church is to offer guidance and support for families in these needs of common areas of concern that are grounded in the beliefs and values of the Christian faith,” researchers noted.
“Families can go to schools and community centers for marriage or parent education or anger or money management, but only the church can ground these life issues in Christian values and practices.
“Similarly, families can go to any number of social service agencies seeking volunteers and find ample opportunities to serve their communities. There are a myriad of ‘walks’ for various causes, community cleanups and so on. These families are asking their churches to ground their service in Christian mission.”
“They not only want to offer charity, they want to strengthen their communities,” the study concluded.
“The data suggest that these families are seeking an integration of the life of service with the life of prayer and worship.”