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.