Seven years ago Don Browning, a professor of ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School, made a troubling observation. Although he was hearing "a lot of talk about family issues at the level of political culture," one important voice was strangely silent: that of mainline churches.
Professor Browning says that theological debates about abortion and homosexuality within their own congregations had diverted churches' attention from other urgent family issues, such as the declining well-being of children, divorce, the absence of fathers, and the growing poverty of single-parent families.
"Evidence indicates that mainline churches are declining because they don't address family issues, while churches that do, such as evangelical churches, are thriving," Browning says.
Convinced of the issue's importance, Browning undertook a theological study that he and other participants hope will mark the beginning of a new activism for churches in revitalizing families. Drawing on Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Jewish scholars, both conservative and liberal, he launched the Religion, Culture, and Family Project, a five-year effort to examine the Judeo-Christian roots of the family.
The project, begun in 1992, has produced 12 books on family issues from a religious perspective. Subjects range from the family and genetic technology to the family and the Bible.
Last week, nearly 200 religious scholars and practicing clergy gathered in Chicago for a national conference to discuss the project, which was funded by Lilly Endowment Inc.
In addition to their struggles with controversial social issues, Browning says that during a time of massive social upheaval, "many institutions have felt powerless. The only thing they could do is go with the tide. I'm afraid you'd have to say that has been the predominant attitude in many of the mainline churches."
That accommodation to looser moral codes has come at a price. Daniel Yankelovich, who heads the polling firm DYG Inc., observes that many people feel the church has been "a little too flexible. The clarity of moral principles people want the church to represent, they don't feel is there." A year ago, he says, 76 percent of Americans felt something was fundamentally wrong with moral values. This year, that figure is up to 87 percent.
"The vast majority of Americans are struggling to reconstruct social morality," Mr. Yankelovich says. "There's a growing recognition that it may be necessary to sacrifice again some degree of personal choice for the sake of family." He also sees "a yearning for transcendence - essentially a religious impulse beyond the mundanities of daily life."
Yankelovich adds, "What's happening today, properly understood, reveals an opportunity for leadership from religious institutions, which the public by and large feels it is not receiving."
What can the nation's quarter-million churches do to strengthen their leadership role and help families?
"The church cannot simply revel in the traditions of its past," says John Witte Jr., a professor at Emory University School of Law in Atlanta.
Project participants offer a number of practical strategies.
"The biggest role is powerful articulations from the pulpit of what family and marriage are about," Browning says. He also emphasizes the need for "early, early education" on marriage to counter "the disappearance of a marriage culture" and an "emerging culture of nonmarriage" where cohabitation is common.
"Some churches are doing a fantastic job on this, with amazing marriage programs and teenage programs," he adds, praising some inner-city black churches in particular. "Other churches have next to nothing. More churches have a little than have a lot."
To strengthen marriages in his Disciples of Christ congregation, the Rev. Herbert Knudsen, senior minister at First Christian Church in Bloomington, Ill., designates a "silver and gold" Sunday every year to honor couples celebrating their 25th or 50th anniversaries.
"It is just heartwarming," Mr. Knudsen says. Last year, the 1,200-member church had 35 couples who have been married 50 years or more. On the first Sunday in January, he also conducts a "wedding bells service" and preaches a sermon on marriage. The church also holds parenting classes and will soon offer prenuptial wedding workshops.
As Americans grapple with the persistent late-20th-century question "What is a family?" most project participants would agree with Lisa Sowie Cahill, a professor of theological ethics at Boston College, who says, "Stable, monogamous marriages are still the most propitious setting for families." Yet they emphasize that religious groups must reach out to those in other family forms, including divorced or never-married parents. They also encourage more outreach to teenagers, singles, and the elderly.
Other participants urge religious leaders to communicate with those in the legal profession to become aware of changes in family law.
"Churches can contribute their weight toward some kind of divorce reform," says David Neff, executive editor at Christianity Today. "There is a gathering movement to do something about no-fault divorce."
Religious institutions can also strengthen families, leaders say, by reawakening compassion, reaching out to a secular world, and doing more antipoverty work to provide safety nets.
Yet Browning cautions that programs by themselves won't work. "People have to have guiding images," he says. "They have to have a religio-cultural understanding of marriage and family." Without this, "the programs are finally not very effective."
Above all, clergy members say, churches must emphasize the religious nurturing of children.
"Many churches are consciously aware that if they have a good children's program, their churches will grow," says Margaret Lamberts Bendroth, a professor at Andover Newton Theological School in Newton, Mass. "This is something you see in mega churches and evangelical churches that have very well-thought-out children's curricula."
Equally important is the religious influence at home. Gwen Burbank, director of Christian education for the Church of the Good Samaritan in Paoli, Pa., asks parents in her Episcopal congregation what the church can do to help them. Almost invariably, she says, the No. 1 answer is, "Help us develop our children's faith in the context of the family." She adds, "If parents have not been brought up in a faith tradition, they find it a particularly daunting task to nurture their children in spiritual matters."
To support these parents, Mrs. Burbank will give a five-session class on faith development in the home, beginning in November.
"Leaders in the church have to be very honest about what families are facing today, in terms of being stressed economically, and the amount of time parents can spend with children," Burbank says. "They also have to not be ashamed about being the church. The church must not be afraid of its prophetic voice."
For Browning and others seeking to strengthen that voice, the task ahead will be to spread the "conversation" begun in this project and these 12 books to clergy and the public.
"I don't think there's another institution in society that has anything like the church's capacity to enter into the family field, both in the discussion and shaping of family life," Browning says.
Max Stackhouse, a professor at Princeton Theological Seminary in Princeton, New Jersey, says simply, "I wonder sometimes if religious leaders recognize what an impact they have over time."