Another week, another story on millennials comes out. This time we have one about millennial attitudes towards marriage. According to a new Pew study, almost 70% of my peers think that “Society is just as well off if people have priorities other than marriage and children” as opposed to almost 30% who think that “Society is better off if people make marriage and having children a priority.”
But as Emma Green over at The Atlantic points out, “Looking at this chart is a little like taking a Rorschach inkblot test on the topic of ‘American values’: You could see a lot of different things, if you wanted.”
For instance, this could easily be read as a blaring alarm sign-posting the grim future of marriage in America. Still, given that 75% of millenials in a 2013 Gallup poll said that they’d like to get married in the future, it could be something much more benign like a “not quite yet,” which would make sense given the way average marriage ages are creeping higher each year. Green says part of the ambiguity may come with the way the question was phrased:
The second option [“Society is just as well off if people have priorities other than marriage and children.”] seems to leave a lot of room for interpretation. If you think it’s okay to want a career plus marriage and kids, you might plausibly end up in that category, even if you think family values are important.
But it’s also possible that the poll results say something about American judge-y-ness. People may want an Instagram feed full of adorable babies for their own lives, but they don’t necessarily think society will end if other people don’t want the same thing. It’s also possible that this says something about the somewhat-taboo nature of evangelizing family values on the left—particularly among liberal-leaning Millennials, it may seem unacceptable to suggest that people, and especially women, need to find husbands and birth children in order to do their part for society.
I think Green’s analysis is eminently reasonable. Yes, I do happen to work at a church, which means that the population I interact with is probably more slanted towards marriage and family than the general millennial population. That said, I haven’t seen a large, wholesale rejection of marriage and family in toto. Church folk can probably slow down on building that compound out in the woods in preparation for the imminent social collapse following the next election.
Still, what should we think about this? Well, probably a few things, most of which should just be common sense. Then again, common sense has historically been in short supply when it comes to discussing millennials, so I’ll say them anyway.
On the front end, there is at least one positive I can think of, and that is that millennials are less likely to make an idol of family and children than members of other generations. While I tend to be a bit suspicious of polls in general, this does reveal something about the relative dethroning of families and children in our social imagination. If that’s the case, given the way social imaginaries play a role in shaping our desires, and given the idolatrous nature of the human heart, polls like this do provide access to which idolatries tend to be more popular in a given culture. Not making an idol out of the family and children is a good thing. People understanding that we do not find our ultimate worth in contingent and finite relationships will take the burden of eternity off of them — a burden that inevitably leads to distorting and disfiguring both marriage and family.
Now, before we get too excited about that, the bad news is that this is probably a function of shifting cultural priorities. In other words, we’re less likely to make an idol out of those things because we’re more likely to fall into the idolatry of other things like experience, autonomy, public career, or the self in general. As Calvin said, the heart is an idol factory that keeps pumping out newer, shinier models. If “family” and “children” aren’t selling as well, that’s because something else probably is. Just as older generations shouldn’t be too quick to climb up on their high, moral horses because of their family ethic, millennials shouldn’t be too proud of their relatively greater ability to resist the idolatry of the family.
All of this serves to reinforce the fact that local churches need to have a well-thought-out approach to ministering to both families and singles in their communities. In the first place, these considerations continue to give us more reason to create space for singles to join in community of the Church. And by that I don’t just mean start a singles ministry: this can’t just be an afterthought or an add-on ministry, but part of a general awareness of and approach to the culture we are ministering to. We need to be aware that a significant portion of the population will likely be remaining single longer, and so our preaching and teaching needs to reflect that reality. We need to hold out visions of singleness that call Christians to see it not as the world does, but as a time of vocation to be made the most of for Christ and His kingdom. If we haven’t already (and some have!), we really need to ditch the attitude that a single Christian can’t really be a full participant in the various services, leadership, and general life of the congregation.
At the same time, I believe churches absolutely need to continue to hold out a non-idolatrous, whole vision of the good of marriage and family as forming a key part of God’s creational call go forth, be fruitful, and multiply. The cultural separation of sex from marriage, or the rise of gleefully “child-free by choice” marriages that separate romantic love from its procreative fulfillment represent an ethic deeply antithetical to God’s vision for the human community’s flourishing. While Christians shouldn’t be “Chicken Littles” about this sort of thing, sidelining marriage and children actually does represent a theological and sociological error, and a long-term threat to the good of human community. For that reason the Church has a call to push back on the hyper-individualistic and narcissistic visions of the good life that are contributing to it. Finally, our communities absolutely need to be discipling congregations to have an eye out for singles who need the wisdom, attention, and love of older men and women, and especially married couples, who can embody that vision before them.