Dr. James Emery White Christian Blog and Commentary

Four Families

  • Dr. James Emery White

    James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and a former professor of theologyand culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he…

  • 2013 Jan 31

In one of the more intriguing sociological studies of late, the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia has determined after a three-year study that families fall into four distinct groups.

According to Carl Desportes Bowman, Director of Survey Research for the Institute, these family types “speak different languages, they have different sets of beliefs and suspicions.”

This explains why there are so many different parenting styles. Simply put, “we are all looking out through different windows, and therefore looking onto entirely different worlds.”

So what are these family types?

1. The Faithful (20%)

The “Faithful” are parents who put religion at the center of their world. The most important value they hold is morality, helping their children differentiate between right and wrong – a differentiation is based on God or scripture. They believe the rest of the world doesn’t have a moral compass, and they want to make sure their children do. The Faithful perceive a “strong decline since their own childhoods” in “American moral and ethical standards,” the “quality of TV, movies, and entertainment,” and “the dating and sexual practices of teenagers.” They pray as a family, believe in spanking and regular chores, turn to pastors and church for parental guidance, and feel secure in their control over their children. Eighty-eight percent are married, 74 percent in their first marriage

2. The Engaged Progressives (21%)

The “Engaged Progressives” see “tolerance” as the key to their moral code. The most important value they hold is personal freedom – theirs and everyone else’s. They believe their role as parents is to “prepare children to be responsible choosers, weighing alternatives, thinking carefully through courses of action in advance.” When faced with moral ambiguity, they look less to God or scripture and more to “What would be best for everyone involved.” These families have more exposure to pop culture and technology. Advice is gained less from pastors or church, and more from therapists or psychologists. They are hesitant to use discipline of any kind (not even grounding).

3. The Detached (19%)

The “Detached” feel marginalized and unsure of themselves and their place in society; they are “a group adrift.” When asked what they want for their children, only one-third consider honesty to be essential. They value “practical skills over book learning.” They are the least likely to believe they have the power to control their children’s technology or the right to know their children’s friends. “Their parenting strategy is to let kids be kids and let the cards fall where they may.” 

4. American Dreamers (27%)

The “American Dreamers” share the low economic and educational levels of “The Detached,” but have higher aspirations for their children. “They hope for much and invest even more,” the report says, “pouring themselves fully into their families’ futures.” Fewer than two-thirds of the parents are currently married, many have never married, and they are more likely than any other group to be women. They are optimistic that their children will be better off than they were, and will do anything to make that happen. They “are as quick to spank or scold as they are to praise or reward good behavior.”

The report’s authors offer two rather blunt assessments from their report:

First, these four types of family cultures are molding the next generation of Americans. We can talk about schools and governments, pop culture and technology, but nothing is as formative as the family and its culture.

Second, that although ”the media, the activists, and the politicians have focused their attention on the culture being fought between the Faithful and the Engaged Progressives, the deteriorating economic, civic, and familial fortunes of the Detached and the Dreamer families should be garnering even more of our country’s attention.”

If culture is defined as the world in which we live, and the world which lives in us, this study is a good reminder that the heart of that world is, indeed, the family.

James Emery White



“The Culture of American Families”, Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, read online.

Culture of American Families Project, Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, read online.

Culture of American Families Executive Report, Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, read online.

“U-Va. sociology professor: Parenting in red, blue and purple America,” Washington Post, November 19, 2012, read online.

“Parenting Styles Defined In New Report On 'Family Culture',” The Huffington Post, read online.

Editor’s Note

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, N.C., and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His newly released book is The Church in an Age of Crisis: 25 New Realities Facing Christianity (Baker Press). To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log on to www.churchandculture.org, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.