By Gregory K. Moffatt
The phrase extended family largely meant the same thing for generations. These were families living under a single roof, a household that commonly included grandparents, adult children, and other relatives or close family friends.
But our evolving culture has changed the meaning of extended family. This change has come about due to economic difficulties, the advent of our digital and mobile culture, and today’s ever-changing multicultural environment.
The once distinct lines defining our past concept of family blend into today’s complex cultural melting pot. These changes present critical implications to the Christian church as we attempt to minister to people in the coming years.
A Short History
Until the industrial revolution, nearly all families worldwide included extended families. The transition from rural to urban culture, and the mobility this brought with it, began conversion of the U.S. culture norm from multigenerational family in a single dwelling to the separated nuclear family.
In the past 50 years, especially as the divorce rate began to explode in the 1970s, nuclear family has come to mean an ever smaller group, sometimes including only one parent and his or her child or children. Today many nuclear families consist of adults who were never married at all. In fact, 41 percent of children born in the U.S. these days are born to unmarried mothers.1
But the changes continue. With heavy immigration (both legal and illegal), economic troubles, and changes in the meaning of family, the number of people living under a single roof is again growing. Since 1980, statistics show a steady increase in U.S. families with extended family in the home.
Recent research indicates a growing trend of adult children in the U.S. either remaining in the home with parents or returning home due to economic issues, convenience, or for the “joy of being with parents.”2 Grandparents are also moving in with their adult children to assist with child care, which cuts costs during difficult financial times. Other relatives are choosing to pool their resources because of job loss, housing foreclosure, or other life challenges and are inhabiting a single dwelling. The extended family once again includes several generations.
Effects of a Digital Age
There is no doubt our computerized, digital age has drastically changed the family. One person recently equated the invention of the Internet with the development of fire and antibiotics. That may not be much of an overstatement when history looks back. Skype, smart phones, FaceTime, texting, Facebook, and other communication systems make it possible for families to stay in contact with each other, regardless of their residence.
These ever-present communication avenues may not only support extended families, but also increase the unwelcome intrusion by extended family members.
Typically, immigrants arrive in the U.S. alone or with a small group. Once established, with a place to live and work, they summon relatives a few at a time. Many immigrant homes can include extended family members, along with close friends and neighbors from the country of origin, coming and going as they seek to establish new lives in this country.
Early immigrants to the U.S. congregated in neighborhoods where they would maintain their culture in isolation from the host culture. Assimilation wasn’t required. This occurs much less often today.
The church can no longer ignore the fact that our nation is truly multicultural. Immigrants from around the world inhabit nearly every corner of the country, in cities large and small, and often in numbers that allow them to preserve their own cultural behaviors, language, and customs. The church must embrace this truth.
Role of the Extended Family
The extended family has historically provided many benefits, especially to Latinos and African-Americans; people of both cultures in the U.S. are far more likely to live with extended families. Churches have frequently either failed to adequately minister to these families or ignored them altogether. Nonwhite families either sought religious bodies sensitive to their culture, or they took on more “white” lifestyles. Otherwise, they would not stay involved in the church.
Ironically, any trend to become more “white” would potentially be harmful to families that often rely heavily upon their extended family for financial stability, adaptive strategies as they learn a new culture, and social and emotional support. In addition, these families often live in the inner city or other areas with limited resources and limited social support.3 4 5
Living with extended families provides other benefits as well. A study in 2009 found that involvement of the extended family increases the likelihood of involvement with the nuclear family (and children) by nonresident fathers.6
Living with extended family also has long-range benefit for wealth accumulation. Caucasian and minority families who live with extended family are more likely to “make the transition to home ownership” than nuclear families living in isolation.7 This has an immense impact on wealth because home ownership is directly related to long-term wealth accumulation and stability.
Implications for Church Leadership
The church needs to recognize that past norms no longer apply. Families have less money, less space, and busier schedules to manage than ever before. Many are facing the stress and complexities of multiple relationships among people residing under the same roof. Extended family members will not get involved if the church doesn’t meet their needs, and the nuclear family may not come if extended family members are not happy.
I propose five issues the church must address in the current age if it wants to minister to extended families.
• First, extended family is not synonymous with multicultural family, but easily could be. Therefore, the church must consider potential language and cultural barriers in the development of programs, presentations, signage, sermons, classes, and activities.
• Second, the church must be aware of how the digital age has changed who we are. There needs to be a better understanding of expectations today. Will we provide streaming of content? Will we use Twitter or Facebook? Will we provide instant availability of information and easy contact with staff? Do we understand that a relative living in another city, state, or country may have as great a positive or negative impact on the family as any person who lives in the home?
• Third, counseling and family intervention services offered by the church must consider the needs of multiple generations. The traditional idea of family systems is radically different for an extended family than a nuclear family.
• Fourth, church leadership must consider the financial limitations that extended families face. The economy may cause problems for all families, but resources are stretched especially thin for extended families.
• Five, financial resources are limited, but so is time. Constraints on time because of multiple schedules may make it difficult or even impossible to stay involved in church to the same degree families once were. Doctor’s visits, educational commitments, athletic practices, social events, and family get-togethers stretch households to the limit.
Meeting the needs of the extended family is not insurmountable, but it requires cultural sensitivity, understanding, and awareness. With these tools in hand, the church can bring the gospel to those who might otherwise be left out.
1James G. Linn, Debra Rose Wilson, and Thabo T. Fako, “The Implications of Changing Family Structure for Childbirth and Childbirth Education,” International Journal of Childbirth Education, October 1, 2012, 18–26.
2Doug Donaldson, “The New American Super-Family,” Saturday Evening Post, July/August 2012, 38–42.
3Naomi Gerstel, “Rethinking Families and Community: The Color, Class, and Centrality of Extended Kin Ties,” Sociological Forum, March 2011, 1–20.
4Robin L. Jarrett, Stephanie R. Jefferson, and Jenell N. Kelly, “Finding Community in Family: Neighborhood Effects and African American Kin Networks,” Journal of Comparative Family Studies, Summer 2010, 299–328.
5Jennifer E. Glick, “Nativity, Duration of Residence and the Life Course Patter of Extended Family Living in the USA,” Populations Research and Policy Review, Vol. 19 (2000), 179–98.
6Armon Perry, “The Influence of the Extended Family on the Involvement of Nonresident African American Fathers,” Journal of Family Social Work, Vol. 12 (2009), 211–26.
7Matthew Hall and Kyle Crowder, “Extended-Family Resources and Racial Inequality in the Transition to Homeownership,” Social Science Research, Vol. 40 (2011), 1534–46.
Gregory K. Moffatt is professor of psychology and chairman of Counseling and Human Relations Department at Point University, West Point, Georgia.