/ Faith & Families


This issue of the Michigan Family Review explores two concepts, faith and families, in light of current research on resiliency, prosocial behavior, parenting, and faith-based initiatives. The introduction provides readers with a conceptual framework for understanding issues and challenges of faith and family well-being.

Key Words: Faith, religion, church, families, faith-based initiatives, human ecosystems

    1. Gloria D. Warren is Assistant Professor and Head, Family and Consumer Sciences, Marygrove College, Detroit, Michigan, 48221. Electronic mail may be sent via Internet to gwarren@marygrove.edu.return to text

    Faith and families reflect two of the oldest concepts—institutions, even—in human society. Faith and family life are both universal and diverse experiences. Anthropologists have found that a good way to understand a culture and what is deemed as the most sacred beliefs and values is to study their religion. From this value and belief system emerges a sacred ethos—faith—from which one can examine family life across generations. The goal of this issue on the relationship between faith and families is to examine how families use faith to respond to their environment.

    Human ecosystem theory may provide readers with a useful theoretical framework for this discussion of faith and families. Ecosystem theory is based on the study of relationships—reciprocal relations within the family and relationships among individuals, families, and communities, and their natural and human created environments (Bubolz & Sontag, 1993). For this discussion, families are defined as networks of people having ties of marriage or kinship who live together over time (Laing, 1971). Families are open, dynamic, reciprocal with boundaries that are always changing and adapting to everyday life (Vaines, 1998). To help us understand the environment in which families live, this introduction begins with key highlights on the state of contemporary American families, followed by a brief exemplar of the relationship between faith and family—the Black Church and Black family—as a context for discussion of the articles in this issue. Concluding remarks examine the implications and challenges that faith-based research poses for the field of family social science.

    Contemporary American families may be best understood in the context of current economic conditions, social policy, and socio-cultural mores. Over the past two centuries, America has moved through three economic eras—colonial/pre-industrial, industrial, and postindustrial. According to Zinn (2002), each economic era has influenced family well-being and household structure. First, in the transition from colonial to the industrial revolution eras, families evolved from a family-based income to a family-wage income. Work took place outside of the home. In other words, families went from being economically independent to economically dependency—from producers of goods to consumers of goods. Later, in the industrial era, men theoretically earned a family wage, one that supported the whole family; the economic climate did not require the employment of women—except for the poor, immigrant women and women of color. Concomitantly, household size shrank as children no longer contributed to household income (e.g., as economic asset); child labor laws were passed; and more families moved into cities in an attempt to cope with the system challenge of the industrial revolution.

    Today, the impact of work and technology on household structure and family formation continues with challenges in today's postindustrial economy, commonly known as the E-economy (information technology-service based). Indeed, since the 1970s the American economy and work shifted to a technological-service paradigm. Outcomes, for example, are the emergence of the dual-wage family as the optimal economic household structure, an increase in the number of women in the workplace, and shrinking wages. Wages decreased for men, who now had to work longer hours to maintain the previous standard of living, and women's wages became a significant factor in family income. In The Future of Success, Reich (2001) states that the E-economy has redefined household structure such that American families work 150 hours and an additional six weeks more than the previous generation. We have less time for family interaction and see an increase in the trend toward smaller families. The 2000 U.S. Census indicated that the fastest growing middle-class family structure is that of dual career family with one child.

    In a recent National Council on Family Relations (NCFR) policy brief (2003), researchers reported that all families—regardless of socioeconomic status—have similar needs for economic security, safety, health, and social engagement. However, according to Rubin (2003) and Zinn (2002), downsizing, corporate flight, and other workplace changes—such as increased demands for an educated worker—have undermined the security of all working-class families in all ethnic and racial groups. Low-income and working poor families face stressors in the areas of marriage and employment. Economic factors such as unemployment play a significant role in both discouraging marriage and in creating stress leading to marital breakup. Reduced household income (e.g., male employment) increases the likelihood of children being raised in female-headed single households. Children raised in single female-headed households are at a very high risk for poverty. These families live on the fault line—multiple and continued stressors with a modicum of elasticity.

    At such times, people call upon their faith—belief in a supernatural presence or being—to sustain and succor their present and future well-being. Historical documents and research findings have suggested a symbiotic relationship between the Black church and the Black family. Belief in the church as a unique space for the socialization of children and future families is supported by the African practice of oral telling that conveys preservation of life and respect for God, a high value on socialization characterized by interpersonal relationships with people, and the perception of time as both rhythmical and cyclical. In her research on everyday cognition, Rogoff (1984) presented research that supports these sacred spaces as important in the cognitive development of the novice/children. For example, the church was the locus of control for the Civil Rights Movement: organizing protest, creating legislation and cultivating leadership that supported optimal family life.

    A contemporary example of this relationship is evidenced in a series of conferences widely attended by the African American community, leading African American scholars, and church leadership, entitled State of the Union: State of the Black Church. (The videotape from the first conference reportedly has sold more than any video offered through C-Span cable station.) Clearly, there is still a prevailing belief that the Black church is at the core of African American family well-being. According to Lincoln and Mamiya (1990), churches can serve as ethnic associations that can reach families who are not reached by other forms of intervention for three main reasons: (a) they are voluntary mutual aid associations—group identity is built into the structure; (b) they provide the bond of a common language; and (c) they offer cultural cohesion

    The articles in this issue of Michigan Family Review explore faith and family—in light of current research on resiliency, prosocial behavior, parenting, leadership, and future family formation. Braun's article Rural Families Speak provides a view into the lives of families living on the fault line. Central to her scientific inquiry is an understanding of faith and family life—religious belief and practice—as a framework that supports families through adversity and across time. Findings from the study demonstrate how faith is transformed into stress management skills that are operationally defined as resiliency and life satisfaction. These families talk about faith as a relationship that helps them face trials, tribulations, and transitions. Braun's contribution leaves us with an important question—does the framework of faith (i.e., a Christian belief and value system) in a rural environment supercede or challenge the values and expectations of the E-economy? Human ecosystem theory offers an understanding of how rural families may utilize faith as an interpersonal resource and how faith can be an essential part of the input, output, and feedback of the human eco-system. In other words, faith is central to the rural family life system by creating input, knowledge, and skills that support human development. As cultural anthropologist John Ogbu (1981) concluded, all cultures have a native theory of success that prescribes an adaptive formula for optimal family life and the successful acquisition of adult roles. Braun's article raises a provocative question for future researchers—should faith be a factor (like economics or education) for consideration in determining family well-being among all low-income and poor working families?

    Another challenge presented by contemporary life is with respect to prosocial behavior among adolescents. William's article on the Effect of Faith and Church Involvement on Adolescent Females is a welcomed contribution to the formation of positive healthy relationships, lessening the paucity of research on prosocial behavior among African American female adolescents. Using Kohlberg's theory of moral development and the concept of community assets, the researchers investigated how church, community, and family provide a moral foundation for African American teen girls. In Kohlberg's theory, social experiences may provide the momentum toward a higher level of moral behavior. Williams' line of inquiry examines the church as a social experience stage upon which adolescents practice moral behavior that may support the future development of positive relationships. My own research on the Black church also supports the finding that the church is a place for informal apprenticeship in which children/novices learn successful patterns for positive relationships and the acquisition of adult roles (Warren, 1996).

    The qualitative research reported by Kim, The Influence of Christianity on Korean Parenting, examines the parenting experience of Korean immigrant women. This study is an important contribution to the body of research on parenting among immigrants and non-White populations. Ecosystem theory focuses on interactions at the point of intersection between families and their environment. What happens when the Korean immigrant, Christian, and American experiences intersect? Kim asserts that the significance of examining the relationship between faith and families is in the contradictions and dialectical tension between cultural values—Confucianism—and religious values—Christianity. A Christian value system is contradictory to the traditional philosophy of Korean motherhood which is rooted in Confucianism. In Confucianism, women's central identity is based on motherhood, and children are viewed as possessions of parents. This belief system is in direct conflict with the Christian faith in which one's central identity is based upon a relationship with God and children belong to God (Kim, this issue). Kim's findings also demonstrate how families are decision-making units that negotiate, exchange resources, and explore costs and benefits. Themes from Kim's data, such as "I submit my will to God's will for my children" and "I entrust my children to the Korean church," show how these Korean immigrant mothers foster change in a new and uncertain environment. In the environment of the church these mothers have the expectation that the church will provide a sacred and safe space for youth development and, subsequently, future family formation.

    In Blake's essay Bring in Tha' Noize: Black Church, Black Family and the Hip Hop Culture, the author engages us in an analysis of faith-based institutions as a vehicle for youth development, family formation and leadership training. At the heart of the challenge is the perception of Hip Hop as a destructive art form having political and social implications for the African American community and family. Blake's analysis calls for re-visiting the church's/faith-based institution's role in the twenty-first century particularly as it relates to re-connecting with this generation for positive black male development, leadership training and future family formation. For example, in the post-Civil war era, Black Church mission societies legitimized informal marriages and worked to reunite former slaves (males) to their households. Historically, the church acknowledged and deconstructed the anger and violence of social and economical injustice. According to Blake, the key to future Black family formation and leadership development is this deconstruction and subsequent embracing of the hip-hop generation by the Black Church.

    Although the world at the beginning of the twenty-first century is vastly different from the beginning or middle of the twentieth century, in the new E-economy, families in transition are adapting to the realities of this social and economic framework. History reveals that families have always struggled with outside circumstances, adversity, and inner-conflict. Perhaps it is this state of uncertainty that generates a desire for a belief in an enduring power or being beyond ones self and creates an openness to knowledge and skills that support human development. Dhavamony (1973) stated that—just as nature requires ritual attention in order to ensure that its fertility and benevolence will not fail or slow down—a community of people, from time to time, need to be restored in their attachment to the values and their customs of their culture.

    In this issue dedicated to the theme of faith and families, we explored faith as a resiliency factor, a way of life, a pattern for successful adult roles, and as a paradigm for future family formation. The articles reflect a diverse array of experiences by different communities—rural low-income mothers, Korean immigrant mothers, African American adolescent girls, and the Hip-Hop generation. An emerging theme in all of the contributions is the role of faith-based institutions as an important physical space for cognitive and moral development across the life cycle. Finally, the book reviews offer us insights into how individuals and families have used faith to overcome adversity in their everyday lives as well as a Christian social ethical perspective on families in America. Our hope is that family social science scholars and practitioners will be challenged and encouraged to view faith as a viable tool for strengthening and working with families.


    Bubolz, M. M. & Sontag, M. S. (1993). Human ecology theory. In P. G. Boss, W. J. Doherty, R. LaRossa, W. R. Schumm & S. K. Steinmetz (Eds.), Sourcebook of family theories and methods: A contextual approach (pp. 419-448). New York: Plenum

    Dhavamony, M. (1973). Phenomenology of religion. Rome: Gregorian University.

    Hunter, M. (1999). Work, work, work: Taking over our lives, invading our homes. Modern Maturity, 35, 36-49.

    Laing, R. D. (1971). The politics of the family. New York: Random House.

    Lincoln, C. E. & Mamiya, (1990). The black church in the African American experience. Durhan, N. C.: Duke University.

    Morris, P., Hembrooke, H., Gelwasser, A. S., & Bronfenbrenner, U. (1996). American families today and tomorrow. In The state of American families, (pp.90-145). New York: Simon and Schuster.

    National Council on Family Relations. (2003). Competing stressors and tension. NCFR Policy Brief, 1(3).

    National Council on Family Relations. (2003). Marriage promotion in low-income families. NCFR Policy Brief, April.

    Nichols, S. Y. (2003). Human eco-system theory: A tool for working with families. Journal of Family and Consumer Sciences, 95(2), 15-18.

    Ogbu, J. (1981). Origins of human competence: A cultural ecological perspective. Child Development, 52, pp.413-429.

    Reich, R. (2001). The future of success. New York: Random.

    Rogoff, B. (1984). Introduction: Thinking and learning in social context. In B. Rogoff and J. Lave (Eds.), Everyday cognition: Its development in social context, (pp. 1-8). Cambridge: Harvard University.

    Rubin, L. B. (2003). Families on the fault line. In A. S. Skolnick and J. H. Skolnick (Eds.), Families in transition (12th ed., pp. 303-319). New York: Allyn and Bacon.

    Warren, G. D. (1996). Another day's journey: Sacred and embedded patterns of family life. Unpublished dissertation. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota.

    Vaines, E. (1998). A family perspective on everyday life: The heart of reflective practice. In K. Turkki (Ed.), New approaches to the study of everyday life, Part I: Proceedings (pp. 15-35). Helsinki, Finland: University of Helsinki.

    Zinn, M. B. (2002). Diversity in families. New York: Longman.