04 Relationships to Rely On

Relationships to Rely On


In a 2011 study comparing Americans’ circle of acquaintances with their inner circle or “trust network,” the latter proved to be much smaller—and shrinking. “The mean size of core networks … dropped from 2.9 out of a maximum of five in 1985 to 2.1 in 2004, with 22.5% of the sample listing no names at all,” the report from University of Wisconsin—Madison and Columbia University details.33 Cigna’s “loneliness index” also finds that roughly one-fifth of Americans rarely or never feels close to people or that there is someone they can talk to.34 Similarly, in a 2015 Barna survey, nearly one-third of Americans (31%) admits they have no one in their local area—outside of family members—who they could rely on for help and support in the event of an emergency or tough situation. These bleak findings about the general population point to a deficit of intimacy and community. Do those in the Church fare any better, if only in their own homes?

Barna wanted to identify not only the housemates with whom practicing Christians most interact, but the housemates they trust— the confidants and most reliable members within one’s household or extended household.

As you’ll see in the following pages, there are a number of close relationships, family and otherwise, that shape and uplift practicing Christians. But some clear patterns emerge early and often, and they tend to be an extension of the relationships that benefit from the most one-on-one interactions. In other words, our most frequent companions and our most dependable ones tend to be the same. Thus, time and again, responses suggest that the women who raise us or the people we marry have the greatest potential for impact.

Lean on Me: Where Housemates Get Help

Practical & Emotional Support

Depending on their season of life or relationship status, practicing Christians point to two core relationships they depend on most: a spouse or a parent (usually their mother). The previous chart illustrates how well-rounded these relationships are in providing practical assistance or an emotional boost.

Overall, married people mainly go to their spouses for money (81%), advice (80%), encouragement (72%), sympathy (66%) or logistical help (63%). Second to their spouse, they rely next on their own children (likely grown) to address these needs. They are less likely than unmarried adults to depend on close friends, siblings or their own parents. Yet just as the presence of minors affects respondents’ regular interactions with spouses, households begin to pull from a wider circle for help, advice or companionship when kids are around. This seems organic, since the number of frequent guests increases in households with children, and parents might require a variety of input in best caring for kids.

Essentially, the addition of children to a household may result in a couple shifting their reliance on each other to others in their household network—and, depending on the couple, that could be good or bad for a marriage. Are mothers who take on the bulk of parenting duties (which, as explored on page 105, is common) left with little to give to their connection with their spouse? Could the priority placed on relationships with children contribute to fathers’ general detachment or isolation from the rest of the family unit and routines? Or could a broader network of friends, teachers and confidants highlight the unique qualities of a marriage bond, allowing spouses to be partners in the household and family in a way they might not if they were clinging to or existing alongside one another?

Unmarried adults have a more diverse mix of household and extended household members on whom they depend, but mothers still top the list for these single respondents, usually alongside significant others. This is true for advice (70%), encouragement (67%), money (66%) sympathy (64%) or logistical help (53%). Friends also play a big role in meeting single respondents’ softer needs (67% advice, 56% sympathy, 44% encouragement and 44% logistical help). After these reliable relationships, fathers, grandparents and housemates follow. For older singles, children are also considered a resource.

Tough Discussions & Big Questions

The theme of dependence on spouses or significant others and mothers continues when looking at discussions about serious issues or faith questions, with some exceptions: For the most part, practicing Christians welcome deep conversations with their mothers, just as long as sex or politics don’t come up.

Actually, sex is the issue that, with the exception of romantic partners, all respondents are least likely to discuss with anyone in their households or extended households. Couples have an obvious confidant in this case; overall, spouses (74%) or significant others (68%) are the primary conversation partner when it comes to sex. Married couples with young children are more likely to talk about sex than households without children (72% vs. 65%). If unmarried people are talking about sex with someone other than a significant other, it’s usually with a close friend (51%), before siblings (32%), mothers (30%) or housemates (28%). Male and female respondents diverge somewhat in whether they would talk to their mother or father about some sensitive matters, especially sex. Looking only at the men and women who indicate having a father and / or mother in the household or extended household, one-third of men (32%) talks to their dads, rather than their moms (8%), about this subject. A similar trend plays out among women and their mothers (29% talk to their mothers, 17% to their fathers).

After spouses, Millennials are most likely to talk to their mothers, friends or roommates about many sensitive topics. More than any other generation, Boomers say they discuss these delicate subjects with no one.

Regardless of the relationship, the Bible is a subject that practicing Christians don’t shy away from in their households—but, presumably, those conversations don’t delve into scriptural stories and principles that apply to the other difficult topics respondents appear to avoid.

Coping with Crisis

Nearly three in four respondents (73%) say that a member of their household helped them in their last personal crisis. This is most likely in couple households (80%) and least likely in roommate households (66%).

The most helpful bonds in a crisis are—you guessed it—spouses and mothers. Siblings, fathers and, to a lesser extent, children are often involved, though at lower levels. Across generations, most respondents received the most help in their last personal crisis from spouses. For unmarried adults, 45 percent turn to their mothers, followed by fathers, roommates or their own children.

There is some correlation between sharing spiritual interactions in the home and having each other’s backs. Three-quarters of those whose households participate in prayer and scripture study (76% vs. 56% of those who do not pray or read the Bible together) or conversations about faith (76% vs. 43% of who do not talk about God and faith together) recall having a housemate who walked alongside them through a crisis. Establishing rituals of worship together could build an intimacy that enables relationships to be more supportive in times of need.

Aid from Other Relatives

A fifth of practicing Christian adult respondents (21%) says their household depends on family members within another household for help. This could apply to finances (14%), but also childcare (6%) or other forms of assistance (5%).

Couple households receive the least help (5%), as they are likely established Boomers, or Millennials with dual income, no dependents and fewer needs. Those in roommate households, who have the lowest average income, tend to receive assistance in the form of financial aid. Thus, we see three in 10 Millennials (29%) report getting some help with money (compared to 12% Gen X, 5% Boomers and 3% Elders).

A third of households with children (31%), especially those led by single parents (32%), receives some kind of help from other relatives. Adults in households with minors usually identify their mothers as a source of help (34%), which could be because moms are stepping into their role as grandparents or remaining on hand for childcare. Comparing help from moms and dads, the most exaggerated differences appear in nuclear families (36% mothers vs. 11% fathers) and singleparent households (43% vs. 8%).

A Single Purpose: Welcoming Unmarried Churchgoers

by Roxanne Stone


I once fled a church service during a liturgy blessing for a newborn baby. I walked around the neighborhood for a good 20 minutes, hoping nobody looked out their windows to see me sobbing while I walked. Just the night before I’d been hit by a sense of certainty that I would never have biological children. Nearing the tail-end of my thirties, and newly single again after the end of a two-year relationship, the likelihood of conceiving a child was slipping away. The liturgy was beautiful—and I held no ill will toward the church or the family being blessed—I just couldn’t stomach it that day.

Readers who are single will find this familiar.

That pang of loneliness as you sit alone in a church service, surrounded by couples and families. The unwelcome jab of envy when you hear about a newly engaged couple during a social hour after church. The inward eye-roll when couples are invited to sign up for the upcoming “marriage retreat” or “pre-marital seminar” during announcements.

“Is there a place for me here?” single people may ask, when getting married and starting a family are celebrated regularly from the pulpit.

And so I ask: Is there a place to talk about singleness in a report dedicated to studying households of faith?

There must be. After all, single people likely make up an increasing number in congregations. According to U.S. Census Bureau data, a record 45 percent of Americans are unmarried. And, though we don’t study them in this report exploring inter-household interactions, more people than ever before are living alone (28%, as of 2016).

If churches maintain a posture that marriage is the ideal, they risk alienating a growing number of their constituents. If they uphold a nuclear family as the model household, they miss out on the richness of faith that can be intentionally nurtured in households that contain singles (not to mention households where couples have been unable to have children).

I have been a part of communities of faith that were predominantly single, as well as those that felt more “traditional,” in terms of makeup: nuclear families and married couples. While I felt more seen and spoken to at the former, I also missed the interactions with married couples and children that a church community can so often offer. I believe in an integrated, multi-generational church that brings us together in various stages of life—one that celebrates and speaks into each of those stages of life. With that in mind, here are some practical offerings to better integrate single people into the life of your church family and help them intentionally nurture or participate in households of faith:

  • For better and worse, a primary identifier and meaning-maker for unmarried people is their work. Talk about vocation and calling from the pulpit. Invite single people to tell their stories during services—consider, for example, a weekly or monthly moment in the service when you feature someone sharing their experience of integrating faith at work.
  • Do you have any single people on staff or in your leadership? One sure way to communicate that single people have a valuable place in the life of the church is to have them represented in a visible role. In addition, having a single person in leadership will help you understand and see the needs of single people that might be different from the rest of your congregation.
  • If you are a teaching pastor and are married, consider limiting the number of anecdotes in your sermon about your spouse or kids. Find stories to highlight your points that come from single people or that are more applicable no matter your listener’s stage in life.
  • Marriage and children are celebrated regularly from the pulpit and through various church traditions (weddings, births, baptisms). Find a way to intentionally celebrate singles from the pulpit as well, perhaps by dedicating one Sunday of the year to preach on and honor the gifts of singleness. After all, as Christians, our namesake was single, and his life is an example of the richness of faith and ministry that can result from the single life.
  • Single people are, of course, not just those who have never been married. Many single people are divorced. If you know you have a number of divorced congregants, consider offering a class on healing after a divorce. Divorced people are often hurting and lonely—especially if the divorce is recent and affected their extended friend group or community. Be intentional about reaching out to divorced people and helping them feel welcome and loved by your church. An invitation to dinner can go a long way!
  • Depending on your age, being single today may not be what it was like back when you were single. The dating world has changed dramatically. People are single for much longer and dating at 30 is different than dating at 20. Dating apps have changed the game for everyone. Spend time talking to those who are single and become familiar with what their worlds look like. Dedicate sermons to the realities of trying to live chastely in this environment. Perhaps offer a class on “modern dating” that touches on topics like honor, commitment, sex and relational health.
  • Loneliness for single people is real. Many single people in your congregation are probably far from family (if they moved for school or a job); they may be living alone or, as this report indicates, often with roommates, with whom they may or may not share regular routines. We are all aching for community, but for single people this can be especially acute. Help foster social activities outside Sunday services that will appeal to singles. My church in New York City did a “first Tuesday feast” modelled on the old-school potluck and everyone loved it. A church I attended in San Diego worked hard to build a community of artists and musicians and sponsored regular concerts at venues outside the church.
  • Enlist older married couples or nuclear families to be “host” households. Ask them to invite single people over regularly for family dinners, game nights or even children’s sporting events. Single people don’t want to only be around single people—being invited into the life of a bustling family can be a source of joy, and a single person’s presence can in turn be a valuable addition to an extended household.


Singleness can be a difficult time and it can be an enriching time. Your church has the opportunity to both support singles when they are struggling and empower them to flourish as a single person—whether that is only for a season or for a lifetime.


Roxanne Stone

Roxanne Stone is editor in chief at Barna Group. She is the former editorial director for RELEVANT magazine and has worked in publishing for more than 15 years, serving as an editor at Christianity Today, Group Publishing, Q Ideas and This Is Our City. She is currently working on a book examining healthy relationships between men and women in every realm of life. You can follow her on Twitter at @roxyleestone.

Spiritual Coaching

This study also finds evidence of intentional spiritual, even pastoral, moments in the close relationships that make up a home. Barna asked respondents about some specific examples of how some members of households and extended households not only purposefully pursue spiritual growth, but take initiative to help those around them grow as well.

Here we find that wherever grandparents, parents and spouses are present, they are steadfast in offering forms of spiritual instruction and encouragement, from setting an example to providing encouragement. Spouses are relatively less involved in instructing about traditions, perhaps because partners come to these topics on more equal footing. These are teaching moments that grandparents and parents more readily embrace, and perhaps have more natural opportunities for during respondents’ upbringings. While fathers lag behind mothers in spiritual coaching overall, they are equally likely to be noted for setting an example.

Beyond the usual key figures, siblings, distant relatives and roommates seem to rarely assume spiritual coaching roles, or perhaps feel they don’t have a place to. On the other hand, grandparents hardly ever participate in a household without trying to lead or interact on a spiritual level.

There is a spike among multiple relationships, particularly children, friends or other relatives, when respondents identify sources of broader encouragement. Though husbands, wives and mothers may be relationships that naturally have greater intimacy and access as advisors, community still has a valuable role to play in providing some forms of support.

Beyond the Household: Other Close Bonds

You’ve likely heard people describe beloved friends and neighbors as being “like family.” Most practicing Christians do have some form of familial camaraderie with a non-relative. Here, the oft-larger, busier households with minors, especially single-parent households, lead the way in having more close connections beyond family members (82% vs. 74% of households without minors have at least one friend like family).

What behaviors typically distinguish such an affectionate relationship? In Barna’s qualitative interviews with multiple types of households, these close bonds were shaped by a range of interactions: texting photos of pets, traveling together for vacations or big events, sharing holidays, borrowing items, providing care during illness, meeting or FaceTiming with a friend’s family or helping with childcare. Sometimes the difference lay in what someone wouldn’t do with a dear friend; for example, not feeling pressure to clean the house before the other comes over for a visit.

Drawing from some of the themes in the qualitative interviews, Barna’s quantitative survey presented several ideas for how someone might treat their dearest friends. Respondents signal closeness with members of extended households primarily through their communication habits. Often, this means picking up the phone, either to call (55%) or text (47%). About half (48%) share holidays with these non-relatives. Merely engaging in deep conversations (46%) is another marker of this “friends like family” intimacy. Praying (42%) or having dinner together (36%) are also more common with close friends, which is telling, considering that these activities are consistent among housemate bonds in general.

Households that often welcome guests are, understandably, more likely to form intimate bonds with friends. Eighty-nine percent of practicing Christians in homes that regularly receive non-family guests can identify a friend who feels like family, compared to seven in 10 respondents in less hospitable households (71%) who have such a friendship. Across the board, welcoming households are also more likely to think of activities they share with very close friends, from having deep conversations (55% vs. 41% who don’t regularly host non-family visitors) or praying together (49% vs. 38%) to sharing meals (43% vs. 31%) or borrowing items (28% vs. 16%).

Men and women seem to express closeness differently, but men are also somewhat less likely to have very close friends anyway (25% vs. 19% of women have no friends like this). It’s possible they have difficulty bonding, limited social time or just have a higher bar for these “friends like family;” they are less likely than women to select any of the activities Barna suggested they might share in such a relationship. Meanwhile, women appear more communicative and connective, primarily developing their closest friendships through phone calls (60% vs. 48% of men), texts (54% vs. 39%), shared holidays (53% vs. 43%) and meaningful conversations (52% vs. 39%).

We see a similar theme in their willingness to confide in friends about troubles (66% vs. 51%) or have heavier conversations in which they offer sympathy (60% vs. 42%) or talk about faith (55% vs. 39%) and the Bible (51% vs. 37%). Given that we also see fathers drop off when it comes to central household activities and roles during the parenting years, it’s possible that men have trouble digging into supportive relationships in general, and especially during busier times of life.

The younger a person is, the more likely he or she is to share their time, space and thoughts with friends that feel like family. Teens appear to be more creative and open than adults in these ways, though that’s perhaps typical of the social lives of the middle and high school years. Millennials and Gen X are the adult generations most likely to report sharing deep chats with dear friends or depending on them for help. Boomers are apt to have phone check-ins with their closest non-relatives, but, like the couple households they often occupy, they are less likely to have such intimate friends in the first place. Whether because of health challenges, distance or generational mindsets, these responses are another peek into the solitary season that older Boomer individuals and couples find themselves in.

What About Dads?

Christian Fathers’ Presence & Influence Is Lacking in Households


You might have noticed that practicing Christians in this study don’t seem to share much quality time with their fathers, compared to other immediate and sometimes extended household ties. Accordingly, fathers seem to be disconnected when it comes to the actual feelings and goings-on of their housemates, namely their spouses and children. These trends become especially pronounced—and worrisome—when tracking teenagers’ responses.

For all the stereotypes of teens rolling their eyes at their parents, Gen Z in this study are actually very open with and dependent on their mothers. Consider their descriptions of one-on-one time with other housemates, in the following chart. Today’s Christian teen consistently identifies their mother as the principal housemate for almost all activities, from talking about God (70% vs. 56% fathers) to having confrontations (63% vs. 43%). Fathers only surpass mothers when it comes to playing sports (40% vs. 21%). Teenagers’ siblings are equally as involved as their fathers in key spiritual interactions such as talking about God and praying together.

In the impressionable middle and high school years, even conversations about sex (41%) aren’t off limits between teens and moms. (Understandably, when discussing sex, there is a bit of a difference depending on the teens’ gender, with 30 percent of boys and 48 percent of girls talking about this with their mother, and 50 percent of boys and 10 percent of girls covering this topic with their father). Mothers are teens’ go-to person for all kinds of needs: advice (78%), encouragement (75%), sympathy (72%). Teens also primarily seek out mothers’ opinions on questions of faith (72%) or the Bible (71%), as well as things that might be troubling them (78%). No wonder 68 percent of Gen Z say their mom was the one who was there for them in their last personal crisis.

Meanwhile, fathers play a somewhat key role in meeting teens’ tangible needs for money (74%) and logistical help (63%), though even on these two issues, they are on par with mothers.

Realistically, we should acknowledge some factors that might push the bond between mother and child to the forefront during parenthood. If mothers spend a lot of time at home with their kids, they may become the default voice on matters practical, political, spiritual, relational and so on. Some combination of maternal or biological instinct or a traditional understanding of gender roles might also position mothers as the attentive parent with a listening ear or a greater emotional capacity. Additionally, though nuclear families are the norm for practicing Christian teens, 15 percent live in single-parent households, which more often than not are single-mother households (88% vs. 12% of teens in single-parent families who say their father lives with them).

That context granted, practicing Christian fathers still have much ground to make up. The disparity seems obvious if we assume respondents subscribe to traditional ideas that frame Christian women as having more domestic, affectionate strengths and Christian men as providers and spiritual heads of households. In such a case, fathers do not seem to be filling either the role of logistical or spiritual leader as well as mothers. If, on the other hand, respondents subscribe to an egalitarian perspective in which couples come to the business of marriage or parenting on equal footing, the gap seems even more troubling, as clearly these couples are far from parity in terms of child-rearing. The reality is that, whatever the general theology or philosophy of parenting, mothers consistently exceed fathers across the board, including in instilling children with the values and disciplines of their faith. Moms are simply and inarguably far ahead of dads as teens’ partners in prayer (63% vs. 53%) and conversations about God (70% vs. 56%), the Bible (71% vs. 50%) or other faith questions (72% vs. 56%). This is consistent with Barna data through the years that show mothers to be the managers of faith formation (among other household routines and structures), but that doesn’t make the gaps any less startling.

Additionally, at the same time that fathers and teens struggle to connect, spouses appear to become less interactive in and dependent on their own partnership when minors are in the household (as explored on page 69 and 70). This study can’t say with certainty whether men and women become equally less dependent on their spouses and equally more dependent on others during this time, only that there is a redistribution of intimacy and support. Of course, a diversity of relationships and influences can be an asset to the development of an individual, a marriage or a household! But given the stark differences in how teens regard their parents, one wonders: Could a somewhat greater level of connection or at least collaboration during parenting help fathers be more engaged or impactful in their teens’ lives?

After all, though mothers appear to rise to many demands of parenthood, that doesn’t mean it’s easy. For instance, another Barna study shows that employed Christian moms struggle not only to feel connected to their work, but also to feel a sense of “calling” at all or to find satisfaction in most areas of life.35 Working Christian fathers, meanwhile, thrive in all of these areas. Considering that moms carry a large share of the logistical, emotional and spiritual weight at home, this contrast in parents’ fulfillment is something the Church might need to help mothers and fathers address—especially as moms increasingly remain in the workplace and become breadwinners.36 That’s a dynamic Christians aren’t alone in encountering: For instance, one study found that when wives earn a higher salary than their husbands, the latter actually does less housework.37

Solving this dilemma has long-term consequences for both spouse and child. As it is, when older couples who are done raising children begin to withdraw from more socially active lives, adult kids continue to esteem their moms as sources of strength, companionship and wisdom. Mothers still meet a range of needs and provide support for their grown children or, when applicable, grandchildren. Fathers, meanwhile, may find a renewed intimacy with their spouse during empty-nesting—but they don’t necessarily regain an opportunity to be a crucial, impactful presence in their child’s formative years and beyond. For the most part, those relationships and rituals have long been solidified—or, in some cases, those chasms between father and family may be too difficult to close. Sharing more of the challenges of raising and discipling children while they are young could help spouses, or even entire households, share more of the joys of the parent-child relationship throughout their lives.

Whatever dads do or don’t intentionally invest in family faith formation, their children are still watching. For example, teens consistently identify mothers as the ones who provide spiritual guidance and instruction, with fathers well behind in encouraging church attendance (79% vs. 64%) or teaching kids about the Bible (66% vs. 50%), God’s forgiveness (66% vs. 47%) and religious traditions (72% vs. 49%). Yet there is one point on which dads see a boost: Seven in 10 teens (71% vs. 73% mothers) says their dad teaches them about faith by “setting an example.”

How embodied, attentive and consistent will that example be?

Equipping Parents for Spiritual Leadership

A Q&A with Barbara Reaoch

Barbara is Bible Study Fellowship’s director of children’s division and author of A Jesus Christmas, Why Christmas? and Why Easter? She loves God, her husband, their family and writing gospel-centered children’s materials. She provides help for starting faith-based conversations and prayer at reachingheartsandminds.com.

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