In the years since we met this couple in the early 2000s, some sociologists, pundits, Christian thinkers, and church leaders have been persuaded by the idea that politics – particularly socially conservative politics – is playing a major role in driving the societal-wide decline in church participation. But the evidence doesn’t bear this out. And there is a more likely source: family structure.
An influential 2014 study found that political backlash among young adults – particularly in the areas of sexual ethics – was the primary cause of people fleeing Christianity. This study has influenced many academic and opinion elites – including many Christian thinkers and pastors. But Communio’s recent Nationwide Study on Faith and Relationships shows this explanation is no longer adequate.
It found, instead, that a 24-year-old single man in church on Sunday is just as likely to have grown up in a home with married parents as a church-going 59-year-old married man. Yes, the family structure of a typical man born in 1964 is a good bit different than the family structure of a typical man born in 1999, yet 81% of both church-going groups had married parents.
The study was based on 19,000 completed surveys taken during Sunday worship across 112 congregations in 13 different states – including Evangelical, Mainline Protestant, and Catholic congregations. It draws a clear picture: Regardless of age, church-goers have nearly the same family structure. That is, they are categorically more likely to have grown up in homes with a married father than those in the general population.
What is often forgotten in discussions of faith and the “Religious Nones” is that the family we grow up in shapes our entire worldview and how we relate to others in ways often impossible to track via multiple-choice opinion polling.
Twenty-five to 30 years before the recognized growth of religious non-affiliation began, we experienced societal shifts in family structure. Most peg 1960 as the beginning of the sexual revolution when sex became de-coupled from marriage, causing explosive growth in divorce and nonmarital births.
This change to the family altered the formation of human capital and the worldview of many.
The 2018 American Political and Social Behavior Survey found that those who grew up without continuously married parents indeed held more politically liberal ideas and voted for more politically liberal candidates than those who grew up in a home with a married dad present in the home. This helps explain why sometimes the correlation of shifting politics is conflated with religious shifts.
Going beyond politics, this same 2018 survey also found those who had married parents were far more likely to attend church on Sunday.
A millennial who grew up with continuously married parents was 78% more likely to attend church than a millennial who did not grow up with continuously married parents. White millennials who had continuously married parents were 94% more likely to attend church on Sunday.
These millennials had nearly the same Sunday attendance as baby boomers. No person can say they were first religious and then later chose to grow up with married parents. Unlike our later political views and faith practice, our family of origin definitively precedes both.
While individual reasons may vary from person to person, the societal-wide decline of adults raised in married homes is what has largely fueled the societal-wide decline in faith practice.
If the theory that liberalizing politics was actually the societal cause of religious non-affiliation, one would expect the healthiest and most vibrant churches in America would be those churches that shifted their doctrines to embrace the current political zeitgeist.
Yet, one sees the opposite.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church USA, and the Episcopal Church USA all doctrinally embraced the cultural majority on sexual ethics.
Yet, those churches have lost 41%, 58%, and 36% of their membership, respectively, since 1990. Altering doctrine to conform to early 21st-century American life does not appear to have borne fruit.
For renewal to occur, the data shows that churches must instead work to increase the number of healthy Christian marriages that exist in society and increase the efficacy of married fathers in those homes.
Today, there are 31% fewer marriages occurring than in the year 2000 and 61% fewer marriages than in the year 1970. While an overwhelming majority of Gen Z and millennials say they want marriage, too few know how to make it happen, which is leading to shorter lifespans and an epidemic of loneliness. In the pews, our survey found that one in five self-report struggling in their marriage, and women are 62% more likely to report struggling than their husbands.
The fields are ripe for the harvest – yet the laborers are few.
According to a recent Barna Study, 85% of all American churches report spending nothing on marriage and relationship ministry. The Nationwide Study on Faith and Relationshipsconcludes that, absent a miraculous intervention of the Holy Spirit, religious non-affiliation won’t stop growing until nonresident fatherhood stops growing in society.
None of this should surprise the Christian.
God reveals himself for all eternity as Father. Scripture begins with a marriage in the Garden, and it ends with the Wedding Feast of the Lamb.
When the human analog of marriage and fatherhood disappears in society, we see fewer people accepting the divine love story in their own lives. We need to help more people experience the love of an earthly father in life so they can accept the love of the Heavenly Father.
Christians of every political stripe can and do understand the relationship between living marriage well and human flourishing. My liberal friends can also see that in passing along their faith, the most important gift to their children is a healthy marriage.
J.P. De Gance is the founder and president of Communio, a nonprofit that equips churches to strengthen marriages.