You see it in the sad eyes of a Cub Scout leader when he asks the fathers of the boys in his troop to help at a special event, and only two dads show up.

You see it in the awe-struck eyes of young boys in the inner city who look up to local gang members as their only role models.

You see it in the weary eyes of a mother trying to put her three young children to bed while her husband watches ESPN in the family room.

You see it in the downhearted eyes of a single mom whose former husband found another woman and moved across the country, leaving her with two angry teenage boys.

And you see it proud eyes of young men who feel they prove their manhood by impregnating teenage girls.

What you see, in short, is a cultural crisis that is more serious than many people realize—the absent father syndrome. Today’s media often portrays the “New Father”—present in the delivery room, involved in raising the children, sharing household chores. But statistics tell a different story. Thanks to rising rates in divorce and illegitimate births, increased acceptance of premarital sex, and a growing confusion over male and female family roles, one can safely say that a growing number of “New Fathers” today are physically or emotionally removed from the lives of their children.

It’s as if America is determined to test the relevance of a philosophy satirically voiced by playwright Oscar Wilde: “Fathers should be neither seen nor heard. That is the only proper basis for family life.”

Based on her studies of human civilizations, famed anthropologist Margaret Mead wrote that “every known human society rests firmly on the learned nurturing behavior of men.” Men, she wrote, are prone toward irresponsibility, and a culture must create social structures that encourage, train, and even force them to take responsibility for their children.

Modern-day America, unfortunately, is providing a classic study of what happens when those words are not heeded. There are two fronts to the fatherless crisis:

The physically absent father. As David Blankenhorn of the Institute for American Values writes:

“A generation ago, an American child could reasonably expect to grow up with his or her father. Today, an American child can reasonably expect not to….

“This astonishing fact is reflected in many statistics, but here are the two most important: Tonight, about 40 percent of American children will go to sleep in homes in which their fathers do not live. Before they reach the age of eighteen, more than half…are likely to spend at least a significant portion of their childhoods living apart from their fathers. Never before in this country have so many children been voluntarily abandoned by their fathers. Never before have so many children grown up without knowing what it means to have a father.”

While many single mothers do an exemplary job of raising their children, studies tie many of our social problems to physically absent fathers. Fatherless children are more likely to drop out of school, become involved in crime, and commit suicide. They are more frequent targets of sexual abuse. And they are more likely to have children of their own outside of marriage.

The emotionally-absent father. It’s a common complaint among wives—whether in the church or outside of it:

  • “My husband is just so passive.”
  • “He feels his job is to make money, and then he’s entitled to do what he wants when he gets home.”
  • “He rarely gets involved with the kids—all he wants to do is hunt, fish, and watch television.”

Some sociologists trace this problem of passive fathers to social changes of the last century, when fathers began leaving their family farms to find work at factories and offices. At some point during that transition, men began to view their role as “breadwinner” for the family and left primary responsibility for parenting to their wives.

Another factor was the feminist movement, which during the last four decades has mounted fierce attacks on men in an effort to eradicate any type of gender roles in the family. “It’s not easy being a man today,” says Stu Weber, pastor of Good Shepherd Community Church in Boring, Ore. “Men have been so beaten up for so long, and they’re not really sure what they’re supposed to be.”

Many fathers today are not physically absent, but they are so preoccupied with their work and their own interests that they pay little attention to their kids. “With this kind of uninvolved father,” writes Tony Evans, Jr., pastor of Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship in Dallas, “what we are getting is a generation of children being raised on the world’s values.”

We find ourselves today in a time of transition for men. After years of ignoring the issue, our culture is witnessing a revival of interest in family and fatherhood. Major magazines and television shows have highlighted the fatherless problem.

For many years evangelical ministries such as FamilyLife and Focus on the Family seemed like voices in the wilderness, calling for men to take responsibility for the restoration of the biblical family. Now Promise Keepers has exploded onto the scene, filling stadiums across America with men seeking to become godly leaders in their families. Evangelical bookstores are stocking books on biblical manhood, and churches are starting their own men’s groups.

These efforts must continue to multiply, because the absent father syndrome could easily become much worse. As Blankenhorn writes in Fatherless America, “The most urgent domestic challenge facing the United States at the close of the twentieth century is the re-creation of fatherhood as a vital social role for men.”

In his book, One Home at a Time, Dennis Rainey calls for a broad-based effort in the body of Christ to train men how to assume the biblical role of servant-leader in the family. “God calls us men to deny ourselves, live sacrificially, and lead with a servant’s heart,” he states. “These are weighty responsibilities that lead to life and success in marriage. At the core of a Family Reformation are husbands and fathers who sacrifice time, energy, and their lives for their wives and families.”

Copyright © 2005 by FamilyLife. All rights reserved.