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This Easter Season, Remember: Church Growth is About More Than 'The Marrieds'

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Church leaders nationwide should consider a New York Times front-page report about unwed mothers a wakeup call to rethink so-called church-growth strategies. The Times report by Jason DeParle and Sabrina Tavernise now is echoing through the wire services to other major news outlets from Kansas City to London, where a version appears now in the Daily Mail.

Here's the big headline news: Now, a majority of the American women giving birth under the age of 30 are not married. Startling, but true. As recently as the 1960s, unwed mothers amounted to single-digit percentages of the women giving birth each year. Now, unwed mothers are the majority of women under 30 having babies. No, this is not a report about poor women. No, it's not just women in urban settings. Read this one more time, because it's a shocker to church leaders: Most women under 30 giving birth this year in America will be unmarried.

Couple this Times report with new data about marriage in America, in general, and the shocker should become an electric jolt to congregational leaders. In January, University of Michigan sociologist Dr. Wayne Baker reported for an entire week on new Pew data showing that a majority of American adults are not married, for the first time in our modern history. What's more, a large and growing number of Americans don't think marriage is all that important, anymore. Baker headlined his opening story in the series, "Marriage: Who needs it? Millions of Americans Don't."

Why does this matter to church leaders? And why does it matter now as we enter Lent, planning ahead to Easter? Because the vast majority of church-growth strategies and evangelism programs in America's churches are limited to traditional nuclear families. I travel widely as a journalist and meet with groups of clergy nationwide. Pastors all know that weddings and baptisms rank among the most important gateways to church membership. Beyond those two milestones, what holidays bring the most visitors through our doors? Everyone knows the answer: Christmas Eve and Easter. Based on these assumptions, how do we welcome visitors to our churches? With programs aimed at Mom, Dad and the children.

These latest reports about childbirth and marriage suddenly show us that our typical evangelism efforts in churches are aiming at less than half of our nation's population. What's more, an exclusively married-with-children focus on outreach may actually be offensive to a majority of Americans. How could such outreach seem offensive? Single adults and single parents tell me that they immediately sense when all of the spiritually rewarding experiences in a congregation are aimed at nuclear families. That's not a welcoming place, they tell me, even if no one actually raises an eyebrow in their direction or makes awkward comments because they are single or an unwed parent.

One of the smartest church consultants in the country, in this regard, is the Rev. Carolyne Call, a United Church of Christ pastor who wrote a terrific book about the spiritual challenges of going through a divorce. She writes from personal experience, from her academic research, and from her hands-on work with congregations. I recently conducted an in-depth interview with Call because church leaders need to hear her message, summed up in the phrase: "Church Growth Is about More than The Marrieds."

You may be reading this column and thinking: Oh, great! One more bit of bad news about my beloved and struggling church! On the contrary, Call's work and my own work as a journalist and author is aimed at encouraging church leaders to dig more deeply into the broad spiritual richness they have in abundance. In fact, the Lenten season is a perfect opportunity for reaching out to non-traditional households. I just completed a new 2012 edition of my own popular Lenten devotional, Our Lent: Things We Carry, with an eye toward strengthening this basic message. Unlike the Christmas season, which is heavily weighted toward nuclear families in our culture, Lent is a wide-open invitation to people of every marital status to come along on one of the world's oldest spiritual adventures.

Wherever you find your congregation's strengths in your community, pass around this news about marriage and parenting. Simply reporting these facts about our population is a great way to spark spirited discussion in your small group or Sunday school class. It's a great theme to reflect upon throughout the Lenten pilgrimage, considering ways to widen young congregation's welcoming message. Perhaps when you reach Easter this year, you may find you've got some unexpected new companions sitting in the pews beside you.

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