Research on Families and Religious Communities

Project Number: 
Start Date: 
Thu, 05/01/1997
End Date: 
Thu, 12/31/1998

Penny Becker and associates of Cornell University studied the multi-faceted ways in which congregations are adapting their ministries to non-traditional families such as single parent and blended families. Beginning with the realization not only that the traditional nuclear family is not statistically dominant in American society but that non-traditional families are comparatively less committed to religious institutions, Becker and associates sought to answer three sets of research questions. (1) How do work and family context influence an individual’s involvement in local congregations? (2) How have congregations responded to changes in work and family? (3) In what ways can the analysis of the linkages between work, family, and religion lead to a reconfiguration of the standard accounts of the ways in which religious institutions adapt to social change, in particular, without reliance on the secularization theory?

In order to assess the impact of work and family on an individual’s congregational involvement, Becker and associates relied on in-depth interviews with select individuals from congregations. The researchers identified four different modes of involvement dependent on the individual’s life course. (1) Life-long attendants had a history of congregational involvement beginning with childhood and these did not exhibit any significant gap in their congregational involvements; (2) Agnostics did not involve themselves as adults in the local congregation at all and were not usually involved as children. (3) Family attendants had a history of involvement as children, were uninvolved as young adults but came back to congregations either at marriage or more often when their first child was born. (4) Converts got involved with the local congregations as a result of some turning-point experience in their lives regardless of their earlier histories of involvement or lack of it.

For each of these four life-course pathways, the motivation for involvement was different; differences were also observed in their commitment to the local congregations. The interviews did not take into account other variables that could possibly influence an individual’s involvement in local congregations. These variables include level of education, family formation, and individual work environment. As a result of congregational involvement, an individual’s needs were met at a number of levels, most prominently their spiritual or religious needs. Becker and associates explored how time at work affects congregational involvement. Contrary to expectations, the researchers found that spending long hours in paid work does not necessarily reduce congregational involvement. Becker and associates argued that life stage and social class still largely determine congregational involvement.

Congregational responses to changes in work and family depend upon the congregation’s religious traditions and beliefs; there are distinct styles of family ministries among different denominations.

With reference to the explanatory aspect of the secularization theory, the researchers note its prominence in sociology of religion, mostly in the assumption that modernization leads to religious decline, loss of authenticity and loss of authority. However, rational-choice theory questions these assumptions and instead views continuing and growing religious vitality as a natural outworking of modernization. Rational-choice theory too is limited however in its viewing any change as equal to any other in its affect on religious affiliations and identity. Instead, Becker proposes employing Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of field in sociology of religion so as to generate a discourse that sees both religious institutions and families as structures that mediate between individuals and the larger civic realm.

Becker’s findings were published in the Handbook for the Sociology of Religion (Cambridge University Press, 2003).