01 At Home with Christians

At Home with Christians


At Home with Christians

What makes a household? According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the term simply refers to “all the people who occupy a housing unit.”8 These people could be family members related by birth, marriage or adoption, as well as non-family such as boarders, foster children, wards, employees and so on. It’s a fittingly vague definition, considering the evolving nature of American households, both at this moment and over time. There are not only multiple kinds of households in general— many of which do not fit a stereotypical nuclear family construct—but the average person will progress through various types of households during their lifetime. The diversity of household models is of particular interest to church leaders, as their congregants likely represent a range of living arrangements themselves, each with its own opportunities to form and be formed by the rituals and relationships therein.

For this study of practicing Christians, Barna categorized households based on how respondents describe their homes and housemates. The primary categories observed are: nuclear family households made up of two parents and their children (25% of the total sample); roommate households made up of unmarried adults who share a home (17%); couple households made up of spouses with no children at home (14%); single-parent households made up of one parent and their children (12%); and multi-generational households made up of at least three generations in the home or a grandparent raising a grandchild (12%). There is a small overlap between these last two categories. A smaller segment of grown-up, or all-adult, nuclear family households (5%), made up of two parents and their grown offspring, is described further on page 73.

Combinations of any of the above categories are included in “other” households. Though it comprises 17 percent of the sample, this “other” group is not often included in this report, as its miscellaneous compositions and circumstances make it difficult to analyze. Think of this segment as multiple small, untraditional households that do not have enough statistical significance to be included for comparison (examples include adults or teens living with siblings or relatives other than their parents, adults who are married and / or have children and also live with roommates and so on).

The median size for nuclear and multi-generational households—the busiest homes examined in this survey—is four people. The average (mean) number of household members runs slightly larger for nuclear families, a third of which (33%) has two kids at home. Roommate setups are typically quite small; half (51%) refer to just two people sharing a space. Single-parent homes are also more intimate, usually including a mom or dad with just one (21%) or two (33%) children. Couple households, by definition, contain only two people.


Though they are a growing group, individuals living by themselves are excluded from this study altogether. That’s not to dismiss the valuable spiritual communities and practices that these solo residents take part in both inside and outside their home—indeed, their presence is implied among regular visitors to other households, who often play a crucial role in faith formation. This sample, however, is not designed to be representative of all household types in the U.S.—more than a quarter of which, census data tells us, are made up of one person.9 Instead, the goal of this study is to observe interactions among practicing Christians who live together and how faith is experienced and transmitted among them. Thus, households of a single person did not qualify for participation.


Traits of Respondents & Households

By offering a glimpse of the domestic experiences of practicing Christians today, this report aims to help churches better reflect and disciple a vast array of family and household types. In the process, it also naturally speaks to different seasons of life and generational experiences. Among this sample, couple households are dominated by Boomers (59%), presumably because a large proportion of these adults is now empty-nesting. Similarly, this is also the type of household that sees the most Elders (22%). Gen X is the adult generation usually found in a nuclear family scenario; three in 10 respondents in this category (30%) belong to this generation—still well ahead of the percentage of Millennials in this category (18%). Millennials, meanwhile, are most represented among roommate households; 39 percent of this category is made up of these young adults. Barna’s survey also includes Christian teens, members of the leading edge of Gen Z. These young respondents make up half of the study’s nuclear families (49%) and more than a fifth of single-parent households (22%).

As you can see, many Millennials live in household structures that aren’t defined by spouses and children, and do so longer than adult generations before them. Further, Barna data predicts Gen Z may be following suit, with marriage and family ranking fairly low on their present list of priorities.10

Considering this, churches that want to understand and serve teens and young adults—a skeptical group with a higher tendency to drop out of church—should focus first on true household ministry, not just family ministry.

If thinking of congregations as collections of households, it’s important to consider how these structures also vary in minority or multi-ethnic contexts. White respondents are more likely to have couples-only residences (19% vs. 6% of non-white respondents). Non-white households are usually slightly bigger than that of white respondents, with Hispanic households being the largest. Minorities more often live in a single-parent (19% vs. 9% of white respondents) or roommate context (23% vs. 14%). For the most part (85%), households are made up of occupants who all share the same ethnic backgrounds, so churches hoping to cultivate integrated, diverse faith communities should note the reality that homogeneity starts in our homes.

High income is associated with nuclear families, and the lowest incomes are reported among roommate households, followed by single-parent homes. It shouldn’t be automatically assumed, however, that nuclear families are financially comfortable. Their salaries must also stretch to accommodate, on average, a greater number of residents. Respondents of an ethnic minority typically report lower income; one in five non-white practicing Christians in this study (20%) makes less than $20,000 annually.

This study’s sample is predominantly Protestant, though about a third of the practicing Christians surveyed (34%) identifies as Catholic, a group that sees similar representation across household types. According to Barna’s theolographics (see the glossary in the Appendix for all definitions), similar proportions across all households qualify as nominal Christians. Evangelicals are less common, but appear most in the “other” and couple households.

As we delve into household experiences in the following pages, imagine either suburban neighborhoods (40%) or urban streets (32%). Practicing Christians living in rural areas (18%) or small towns (10%) make up a minority of the sample.

For a more extensive breakdown of the demographics and dynamics of each household type, refer to the profiles in the Appendix of this report.


Extended Households

A cornerstone of the concept for this study is that household dynamics are not only defined by occupants and family members, but by the people we invite (or don’t invite) into our homes and routines. This study refers to these familiar faces as extended household members. Many practicing Christian respondents regularly host visitors at least several times a month. These guests—usually relatives (69%), but also close friends, neighbors, significant others, exes, caregivers and more—have a degree of influence on residents.

Still, two in five respondents (40%) say that nobody comes to spend time with them or other household members frequently. That percentage is highest among couple households, half of which (49%) don’t have guests on a regular basis. When these couples do have company, it’s usually their own adult children (29%) or perhaps also their grandchildren (23%). As mentioned above, couples in this sample who live alone are typically older, and this report consistently reveals them to be very family-centric—and also concerningly isolated—in this stage of life. In all other households, the most common type of guest is an intimate friend (22%), followed by siblings (13%), neighbors (11%), mothers (10%) or other relatives (10%).

Overall, statistical modeling reveals that one’s generation and whether they have kids at home are the top predictors of how extensive an extended household may become. Millennials—though still less likely to be married, or living with or raising children themselves—are the generation most likely to have people in their home multiple times a month, perhaps because so many are in roommate contexts or are embracing a fairly social season of life as they focus on career, dating and friendships. Millennials also see a lot of value in opening their homes to others; a separate Barna study shows that one in five Millennials (21%)—more than any other age group—believes being hospitable is the best way to express generosity.11

Households with children tend to become hubs of meaningful social (and, as we’ll see, spiritual) activities that transcend family bonds alone. Roughly one-quarter of homes with minors present (26% vs. 18% of others) consistently receives visits from friends. We’ve heard “it takes a village” to raise children, and the data seem to bear this proverb out—or at least suggest that raising children provides plenty of opportunities to get the village together.

Throughout this study, we see that welcoming households—typically, households that are larger and / or with children present—are prone to foster spiritual development, especially when non-family guests are the norm. On a similar note, a sense of responsibility to tell others about one’s Christian beliefs is common among those who have regular guests; 50 percent of this hospitable segment hold this belief (vs. 44% of those who don’t have frequent visitors). This is not to suggest people have guests in order to evangelize; rather, these characteristics may be associated with those who, for example, are more candid and open with others or who perhaps try to emulate the New Testament Church values of fellowship and breaking bread (Acts 2:42). Generally, faith formation is connected to and increases with a spirit of hospitality.

Starting Small

A Q&A with Bianca Robinson Howard

Bianca has a degree in broadcast journalism from Valdosta State University, an MDiv from Howard University School of Divinity and ThM from Princeton Theological Seminary (PTS). She is currently an associate pastor and the full-time children and youth pastor at Zion Baptist Church in Marietta, Georgia. Bianca also has served as a chaplain for Emory University Hospital, a blogger and mentor for Baptist Women in Ministry, a staff member for the Academy of Preachers and a representative for the PTS Alumni Association Executive Council. Her missions experience has taken her to India, throughout Africa, Costa Rica and Europe. She is in the process of authoring her first book, addressing the fundamentals of a successful children & youth ministry in the black church setting.

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