What faith means for famlies

What’s happening to American religion? Recent reports emphasize new threats, from The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life’s publication … Continued

What’s happening to American religion? Recent reports emphasize new threats, from The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life’s publication last fall, “‘None’s’ on the Rise,” which revealed that more than one in five Americans now put themselves in the category of having no religion, to New York Times’ columnist Ross Douthat’s provocative book, “Bad Religion,” which argues that in too many pulpits, fashionable forms of spirituality are replacing traditional Christianity.

But even as family change has dominated the American scene for decades—with widespread divorce peaking in the mid-1980s at its current rate of ending nearly one in two marriages, and with out-of-wedlock childbearing skyrocketing since the 1980s—few faith leaders have examined the impact of changes in family structure on religious practices of the next generation.

We believe that the evidence proves that churches have not done enough to confront the impact of family breakdown on the spiritual lives of young people. We urge faith leaders to renew family ministries with an eye to all that we are learning about the religious lives of children of divorce.

Numerous studies are now revealing that children of divorce overall are less religious when they grow up, with clear implications for the vitality of the churches. In one study, two-thirds of young adults who grew up in married parent families, compared to just over half who grew up in divorced families, say they are very or fairly religious. And, more than a third of people from married parent families currently attend religious services almost every week, compared to just a quarter of people from divorced families. Given that about one in four of today’s young adults are grown children of divorce, and that more than 40 percent of American children are now born outside of marriage, how these younger generations approach questions of spiritual meaning and religious involvement will influence broader trends in the churches for years to come.

We can take heart, though, because in their stories of brokenness there is hope. We found that today’s grown children of divorce form a “broken leading edge” of the trend of more Americans considering themselves “spiritual but not religious.” Overall, grown children of divorce are more likely to have left the church, but some do become more religious as a result of their parents’ divorce. Yet their pathways to religiosity are more often through seeking meaning in the midst of suffering. If these young people can be understood and welcomed, their wisdom will be key in renewing the churches’ ministry to the many young people in America who now hail from non-traditional families.

A key feature of renewing family ministries will be to get marriage ministries right—to help prepare and support married couples so that there are fewer children of divorce to begin with. Our findings show that it is especially critical for churches to help couples work through moderate difficulties rather than settle for a “good” divorce—in which parents stay involved in the child’s life and minimize conflict with one another. For example, those raised in happy marriages were more than twice as likely to attend religious services, compared to those raised in good divorces. Those raised in happy marriages were more likely to report an absence of negative experiences of God, compared to those raised in good divorces. And, those raised in happy marriages have the lowest levels of religious disinterest, compared to those raised in good divorces. While some bad marriages must end, researchers have found that about two-thirds of marriages that end in divorce were low-conflict. If these couples can be supported and their marriages can be saved and strengthened, the faith lives of their children stand to benefit.

But, faith leaders might ask, what should we do? How do we talk about why marriage matters without making single and divorced parents or children of divorce feel bad? Looking at the data is a good place to start. Everyone knows divorce is painful. Pretending otherwise only alienates a lot of people and makes them walk out the door. Instead, let’s bring the rich resources of our traditions—our stories, scripture, liturgy, prayers and practices—into engagement with the new social science showing the complex pathways by which divorce affects children and young people. By authentically meeting young people and families where they are, we can show them that the churches have something to offer when it comes to the most consequential experiences of their lives. In other words, if we are real, they will come—and our faith communities will be stronger for it.

Elizabeth Marquardt, Amy Ziettlow, and Charles E. Stokes are, respectively, Center for Marriage and Families director, affiliate scholar, and fellow at the Institute for American Values in New York City.” Does the Shape of Families Shape Faith?” can be downloaded at FamilyScholars.org.

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  • WmarkW

    The principle cause of divorce is marrying before age 25. That’s the age that developmental psychology teaches is the end of “emotional adolesence.” Women’s educational needs have pushed average marriages ages up to that number, which is the leading cause of the drop in divorce rates.

    Churches need to accept later marriage as a fact of modern life, AND A GOOD THING OVERALL. And stop this business of pushing <25 year olds into marriage as a precursor to sex. There's a decade gap between puberty and matrimony, and you can't expect celibacy over that period.

  • PhillyJimi1

    Oh yea, what a crime.

    How can it be people have wised up to the controlling influences of religion. Religion teaches that you are an evil, no good fallen being doome for the pits of hell to be thrown in a lake of fire not for a day but forever and ever. Why because you were born and you are cursed because a rib woman ate an apple from a tree after being tricked by a talking snake.

    The relgion sell you the idea that all is not lost. 2000 years ago god allowed himself to be killed in order to be the blood scrafice to himself in order to atone for the fruit eating crimes of a rib women. Then the most perfect being and who knows everything decided to prove to everyone that he indeed the savior of all mankind became a creepy zombie for a few months before rocketing off into heaven.

    I wish I could said I made it all up but it really is the story religion is sellling. Oh, yea the zombie needs a few bucks so can you throw a few dollars on the plate.

    If we didn’t teach our children this story no one would ever believe a word of it.

  • PhillyJimi1

    If were going to teach our children what is right and wrong, you don’t start with insane 2000 year old zombie stories.

  • IntellectOne

    Obviously you were never open to ‘Grace’ so you have absolutely no understanding of why you even exist. Time flies while you are on earth and so where are you going after your time is up?

  • Catken1

    Ah, yes, IntellectOne, because saying, “My god will torture you forever and ever if you don’t devote your existence to flattering him and fawning on him” is such an effective argument for a religion, when talking to people who don’t already believe as you do.

  • lepidopteryx

    The author seems to be more concerned with the correlation between divorce and decreased church membership than any actual negative effects of divorce on families.

  • SimonTemplar

    There are too many unfounded assertions in this article which render it meaningless. Statistics are easily misread and can lead to “what came first, the chicken or the egg” types of questions. Also, I think there are too many terms lacking adequate definitions in this article.

    For example, what do they mean by “fashionable Christianity, “religion”, and “spiritual?”

    In my opinion, it matters little whether a Church service is “traditional” or “fashionable” as long as the Gospel is clearly presented. There are many organizations in America which call themselves churches. Whether or not the Gospel is presented there is a different question. I find it interesting that the authors suggest bringing our “traditions, stories, scripture, liturgy, prayers and practices – into engagement with new social sciences…” and yet they did NOT mention the Gospel. Yet the Gospel is the one thing Jesus Himself told us to take to the world.

    The fact that the Gospel is NOT being presented in some churches which otherwise maintain the traditions, liturgy, etc. is likely one of the main reason the “mainline denominations” are seeing people leave in droves. And as far as the “new social sciences” are concerned, all one has to do is look at the state of public schools to see how well that is working out.

    Something else is wrong with families in America. I don’t know what the true problem is, but I’m pretty sure this article has not identified it.

  • shadows7

    Simon: I think in most churchs, except perhaps in yours, the Gospels are part of scripture. If all we did in church was read the gospels, I wouldn’t be there.