In this series, we’ve been looking at the Book of Genesis and the beginning of families. Families are not what they used to be. They come in all different kinds of configurations. Today we’re going to look at the fastest growing type of family in the US: single parent families. One-third of American children – a total of 15 million – are being raised without a father. Nearly 5 million more children live without a mother. More children are living with unmarried parents than ever before. Even as the total number of American households with children increased by 160,000, the number of two-parent households decreased by 1.2 million. Marriage has declined most significantly among the "moderately educated” and the poor. Between 1960 and 2005, the rate of unwed childbearing increased sevenfold, from 5.3% of all births to 36.8%. The survey finds that the average unwed mother "is more likely to be white than black, and more likely to be an adult than a teenager. …" One of the most eye opening things the Elders learned as they went through the demographic data is that 40% of all households with children are single parent families, significantly higher than the national average.
What should be the church’s response to single parents? Scripture calls us to care for them. Psalm 146:9 says, “He (God) cares for the widows and orphans.” And what God does, we need to be doing as well. The widow, many times, is the single mom. In Biblical times, widows and orphans were the poorest of the poor and needed to be provided for. The same is true for single parent households most of which live at or below the poverty line. Luke 14:13 challenges us to “invite the poor.” 1 Timothy 5:3 advises us to “take care of the widow.” Gary Sprague, who started the Center for Single Parent Family Ministry puts it this way, “Single parents and their kids are modern-day widows and orphans. Helping single parents and their kids is not just good to do; it’s a biblical mandate.”
In our Scripture today, we have the story of Hagar, an Egyptians handmaid of Sarah in Abraham’s household. Sarah had been barren all of her life and now was past child bearing age. Yet God sent two angels to Abraham and Sarah and told them they were going to have a child. But ten years passed and still no child. So Sarah asked Abraham to take Hagar as his concubine so that she might adopt her child. Long story short, When Hagar conceived, she became domineering and then Sarah became pregnant herself. Their two boys fought until Hagar was again cast out in the wilderness.
Imagine how hopeless Hagar must have felt as she and her son were sent away from their home, with food and water strapped to her shoulders to last for how long? The desert stretched endlessly as she wandered with her son, carefully rationing her provisions until, finally, the food and water were gone. With no other options, she laid her starving child under a bush and collapsed at a distance to avoid seeing him die. They both began to cry. In the parched wasteland, God heard their cries and showed mercy and led them to a well to save them. Hagar was truly in a hopeless situation. Only God could rescue her, and He did. God says to single parents today, as He said to Hagar and her son, I hear your cries. He knows the pains of your heart that are too deep for expression, the tears you’ve cried for your children and for yourself, the frustration and hopelessness that weighs upon your heart and the exhaustion you feel. And He hears the cries of your children, too. He says to you from Matthew 11:28: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” He wants you to have abiding rest now in His Son Jesus Christ, even amidst the busyness and chaos of your daily life.
The role of a single parent may be the most difficult role of all. They are stressed financially. Making ends meet is difficult for many families, but single parents often struggle with finances more than others. Raising children is one of the hardest jobs on the planet--if not the hardest. When you take into account that in 2010, raising a child cost $226,920 on average, it can almost seem overwhelming. Roughly 27% of single parent families live below the poverty line which is $23,400. When you take into account that the household has now gone from two salaries to one but the costs of raising kids has stayed the same, it’s often a paycheck to paycheck existence and there have to be a lot of financial compromises and juggling of bills. It’s not uncommon to have almost $0 in the bank at the end of the month, if they even have a bank account at all.
They have a shortage of support and friendships. While the constant interaction with children has its satisfactions, if that’s all there is, it is severely draining. Couples generally find it refreshing to have some time together away from their children -- to go out together for an evening, to be together after the children are in bed, to have adult support and conversation. Most single parents must learn to live without such moments and opportunities. There is so little time or energy to have any personal friendships or to belong to any group. Yet they need not just friendships but long-term fellowship with other single parents in similar seasons of life. They need to know that they are not alone though they often feel that they are.
They’re physically and mentally exhausted. Unless they are very fortunate to have extended family nearby, single parents are never "off duty," and are drained to exhaustion by the constant demands of parenting. Single parents have to work at a full time job or more to support the family, as well as try to be two parents and run the household: take care of lawn, the automobile, plan the family budget, take care of tax returns, shopping, cooking, laundry, and so forth. They come home from a full day of work to full day of work at home, day after day, night after night. Some don’t even get to do that every night as they go from their first job to their second or nighttime job. As a result, they almost never get enough sleep.
Most single parents feel guilty and spend their lives apologizing. They apologize for being late to work (which is often unavoidable), for having to be absent themselves because one or other child is ill, for not being as productive as others because they are doing two full time jobs, for being distracted because there is no one to share worries or decisions. They apologize to schools for not being more involved in meetings, class trips, bake sales etc. Most of all, they apologize to their children constantly in many ways for not being two parents, though not necessarily in those words and for not having the resources to provide more for their kids.
Lastly, they don’t feel like they belong in the house of God. They fear that they will be judged as 71% of Americans say births to unwed mothers is a "big problem”. Even as rates of births to unwed mothers have skyrocketed, this strong disapproval has held steady. Combine that with the unchurched’s perception that Christians are judgmental because that’s all they see on the news and that only lends to their apprehension. They’re concerned that others won’t understand their journey and will look down on their life circumstance no matter how it came to be.
How can we care for and minister to single parents? First, accept and love on them. Sadly, today’s culture and church routinely judge and criticize single parents with labels like “broken families.” Terminology like this—and the attitude behind it—makes single parents feel like second-class citizens. Second, understand that parenting—not singleness—drives single parents’ lives, They don’t need a dating service, but they do need help in raising their kids, and this means any ministry to single-parents must include the kids. Third, physical needs must be met before addressing spiritual ones. For many single-parent families, practical needs can be overwhelming. Gary Sprague says that almost 80% of their issues fall into four categories: childcare, car, house and money. If you’re not willing to help with these four things, you will not be able to reach them.
What can you do to help single families?
• Make a point to call and include them in key activities. This will help ease the sense of isolation. Of course, make sure the activity is appropriate for them and their situation.
• Offer to take the kids out for a day or half a day. Time without kids is like gold for single parents. They love their children, and many single parents literally live their lives for the wellbeing of their kids. At the same time, there are some things that can be accomplished quicker and easier without kids! This is also a great time for the children to feel special and valued.
• Foot the bill sometimes. Money is tight for single parents. Occasionally paying a utility bill, or buying new shoes for the kids can make an amazing difference to a single parent.
• Give the single parent some church service time alone! It’s tough to worship while going for a drink of water, or to the bathroom every ten minutes. Carry a little totebag of Bible storybooks, crayons, and puzzles, and snag one of those kids from mom during church for an hour or so.
• Listen to them. This is sometimes really tough! We’re busy, and we often have lots of great advice to help “fix” a situation. Just listen to the single parent and they will tell you what is in their hearts. Advice is best given when we are asked for.
• Have at least a class and one fellowship event per month for the single parents. This is not too difficult, it just takes some consistent effort. You can do it! And you would be surprised how often a hamburger cookout will uplift the spirits of single parents.
Rather than dare to give single parents advice without the life experience of walking in their shoes, listen instead to the advice of other single parents. They said, First, maintain your relationship with Jesus Christ, who's the true source of strength. This means be in church on Sunday and at a Bible study during the week. Try to have my own personal devotion time daily, and family devotions at the dinner table most evenings. Second, to take care of my family, take care of yourself. Go to a gym to work out and release stress. Try to stay healthy in other ways too, by eating right and seeing your doctor regularly
Third, have regular "date" times with your kids. Take one of your kids out after school to do something special with just the two of you. It isn't the activity (or food!) that's important, it's that one-on-one time with my children. This really has helped keep the lines of communication open between you and your kids, because sitting across the table from each other with no one else around to distract us makes us talk together
Fourth, surround your kids with good, godly adults. In the words of Julie, a single mom, “We live in a culture that keeps trying to tell us you can do it all. That’s just not reality.” You won’t be able to fix everything, clean everything, cross off all the items on your to-do list. I’m not naïve to the reality that I cannot parent these two children successfully into adulthood on my own. So I ask other adults who I trust to spend time with my children and to pray for them. I’m not too proud to admit that it truly takes a village.
Fifth, pray. I’m praying against darkness taking over in my children’s lives. I’m praying for healing. I’m praying that they make better choices than I made. I’m praying for emotional and spiritual breakthroughs for each of them to occur before they reach adulthood. And I’m praying that I am able to see redemption burst forth in beautiful ways in both of their lives. Singles parents, as all of us do, need to lean into the power of God through prayer for the challenges of our lives.