We’ve reached a major milestone in American childbirth trends: a majority of births to unmarried women are by those who are in cohabiting relationships. As Religion News Service reports:
Nearly three in five births to unmarried women across the United States were to women living with their partner — marking the first time a majority of these births were to women in cohabiting relationships, according to a new analysis of federal data released Wednesday (Aug. 13).
The increase was sharp; the percentage of nonmarital births within cohabiting relationships rose to 58 percent from 41 percent in just a few years, says the report, based on various data sources from the National Center for Health Statistics, collected between 2002 and 2013, the most recent available.
Meanwhile, the overall number of births to unmarried mothers has declined:
In 2013, the 1,605,643 births to unmarried women was the lowest since 2005. The birth rate for unmarried women has steadily declined. The peak was 2007–08 with 51.8 births per 1,000 women compared with 44.8 per 1,000 last year. That 14% decline was the steepest ever, the report says. And, the percentage of births to unmarried women declined slightly, to 40.6% in 2013 from 40.7% the two previous year.
What are we to make of this new report? Three reflections come to mind:
- The baby carriage continues to come before marriage: We all grew up hearing the children’s rhyme, “First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes the baby in the baby carriage.” For many families today, this is no longer true. I remember when we went to a hospital orientation class before my wife had our first child. The instructor always referred to the male and female as “dad” and “mom” rather than “husband” and “wife.” This trend explains why. Churches must continue to think through how to champion a counter-cultural trend when it comes to marriage and children.
- More broken homes means more broken hearts: The data confirms what we already recognize about American family life: many families are broken. Broken homes often lead to broken hearts. So, churches must have a robust plan for loving those in their community who are in challenging family situations.
- Less single moms means our ministry strategy must adjust: More unmarried births are happening to women who are cohabiting rather than to single moms who are on their own. This shatters the common narrative in many churches that out of wedlock births are occurring almost entirely with single moms who are not surrounded by any semblance of a support structure. Now, this doesn’t mean that ministry to cohabiting new moms is any easier than to single new moms. Instead, it means that it can often be more messy as churches think through how to show the love of Christ to both the mother, the new child, and the rest of the people living together in their situation. This means that our ministry strategies must be prepared to adjust.
As the landscape of the American family changes, the strategy of the American church must adjust as well.