Can Our Nation's Churches Save Marriage—and the Family?

One of the central ironies of modern American life is this," begins the book Endgame: The Church's Strategic Move to Save Faith and Family in America. "Faith and family life have hit record lows even as the science continues to mount telling us how much they matter for the welfare of men, women and children," the book's authors, J.P. De Gance and John Van Epp, write.

Here's some recent evidence for their claim. Gallup polling found that men and women who kept attending church in 2020 were 58 percent more likely to report their mental health as "excellent," compared with those who rarely or never attended. Similarly, married Americans were 51 percent more likely to say their mental health was "excellent," compared with Americans who were not married.

And yet declines in marriage and church attendance continue along unabated.

"Almost half of the adult American population is unmarried (45.5 percent) compared with just 28 percent in 1960," the authors note. "For the first time in history, we have a generation (millennials) with more first-time mothers that are unmarried (55 percent) than married."

What can be done about these trends? Is there any hope for marriage? And our churches? The authors of this compelling new book assert that the decline in church attendance in America is inextricably linked to the decline of marriage. Moreover, they make the case that it's the church itself that is best positioned to revive declining marriage numbers, and by doing so, it can also resuscitate its declining membership rolls.

church cross
The sun rises behind a stone cross atop the historic Cathedral Basilica of St. Frances of Assisi in Santa Fe, New Mexico, on June 21, 2020. Photo by Robert Alexander/Getty Images

And it isn't mere conjecture—or Pollyanna-like thinking—upon which the book's authors base their thesis. From 2015 through 2018, the Philanthropy Roundtable conducted a pilot program in Duvall County, Florida (which includes the city of Jacksonville), a county that is routinely ranked near the bottom in the state in terms of divorce. The effort involved local churches, ministries and modern marketing methodologies, all with the hope of driving down divorce numbers in the region.

In the ensuing three-year test period, divorce rates fell an astounding 24 percent countywide. And for the first time since the advent of no-fault divorce in Florida, Jacksonville's divorce rate fell below the state average. In fact, over that time span Duvall became the county with the lowest divorce rate among all large counties in Florida.

There were some hits and misses along the testing road, but what the pilot program revealed was profound: Churches are ideally situated to become the catalyst for a healthy marriage culture because they can do what the government can't: love. "Love and mission allow churches to tap into a network of volunteers and existing staff to run and deliver programs," co-author De Gance told the Washington Examiner.

But love alone wasn't the driver of success in Jacksonville. Modern marketing methodologies were deployed to bring to church local residents who otherwise might not have attended. The Roundtable's program developed a predictive model to identify individuals most likely to divorce in the area. Churches then determined which activities were most useful within their sphere of influence—say, a 5-mile radius—and they then microtargeted those individuals for direct mail, online advertising or social media outreach.

"Targeted couples had a high propensity both to get divorced and to accept an invitation to attend an event at a church, even though they were not members," Seth Kaplan, a lecturer at Johns Hopkins University, wrote in National Affairs about the Jacksonville initiative.

Churches that participated reported a large increase in church attendance as a result of the pilot program—between 25 and 30 percent, according to Kaplan. "Given that attending church regularly significantly increases the chance that someone will get and stay married, such figures are likely to have a positive impact on other indicators over time," he wrote.

But it wasn't marketing alone that drove the big changes. The efforts of a local mobilizer, Live the Life, a Florida nonprofit dedicated to strengthening family life, played a crucial role as consultant, content provider and coordinator.

The book begins with some compelling data, including the huge mismatch between the amount of money Christian churches and organizations invest in their youth and the amount they spend on their adults, especially adult relationships and marriage. Of the over 19,000 American churches with a weekly attendance above 500, nearly $855 million is spent on youth ministry. Add to that the amount invested in groups like Young Life, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and others, and the numbers rise above $2 billion annually.

Conversely, a staggering 94 percent of mainline churches report spending zero—zero—percent of their budgets on marriage ministry, the book reports. The authors of Endgame see this not as a problem for the church but an opportunity.

Then came even more compelling research on declining church attendance among millennials and Generation Z. One clear pattern emerged. "What we found looking at the family of origin data is that differences between age groups in church attendance vanish if you control for just one variable: parental marriage. Baby boomers, Gen Xers, and millennials who grew up in continuously-married homes all went to church at nearly the same frequency," the authors note.

Millennials from continuously married families, it turns out, are 78 percent more likely to attend church twice monthly or more frequently than millennials from divorced, never-married or widowed homes. While church leaders have responded to the "smoke" of young people moving away from church, the authors conclude that "the Church must instead fight the fire—the flight from healthy, Christian marriages."

Then came some equally compelling data from the book. "In 1960, nearly 70 percent of American adults were married; now, less than half are. And when it comes to births, eight times more children are born to unmarried parents today than back in 1960," the authors note. "When sex, partnering and parenting become decoupled from marriage, relational security, stability and permanence spiraled downward."

Furthermore, undefined and ambiguous commitments such as cohabitation—and "dating with benefits"—spawned mass confusion, the authors explain. Many individuals felt too embarrassed to ask a simple question—"What's happening in our relationship?"—for fear it might imply some level of commitment.

In a 2013 New York Times article titled "The End of Courtship?" Alex Williams interviewed 20- and 30-something singles about their romantic and sexual relationships. "The word 'date' should almost be stricken from the dictionary," one subject said. "Dating culture has evolved to a cycle of text messages, each one requiring the code-breaking skills of a cold war spy to interpret," another subject reported.

Dinner at a hot new restaurant? Forget it. Women in their 20s are lucky to get a last-minute text to "hang out." One subject said it best: "I've seen men put more effort into finding a movie to watch on Netflix than composing a coherent message to ask a woman out."

Conversely, preparing for marriage, the authors note, prompts deeper conversations—and intentionality—about the future than those of cohabitating couples. "Couples who remain in their own residences and follow a progression of dating, becoming engaged, planning for their marriage, and then marrying are mutually involved in considering and discussing their future together during each decision point along their relationship journey," the authors note.

Also compelling was the impact marriage had on Americans living in poverty. "For those who grew up in the lowest third economic bracket but made the choice to marry before having their first baby, 71% moved to the middle or top third of the distribution in their young adulthood," the authors write. "This is almost three out of four young adults moving out of poverty." That story alone about marriage and children is worth repeating in every schoolhouse in America.

The research on divorce by author Shaunti Feldhahn presented by the authors was itself quite fascinating. Among the many findings in her research was this nugget: "Two out of three unhappily married adults who avoided divorce or separation ended up happily married five years later." Information like this would be good to present to couples considering divorce. Time doesn't always heal old wounds, but it often does.

The book also investigates how churches handle the gap between the virtues of marriage and the less-known skill sets that make marriages last. It is the deficit of relationship skills that are in short supply in our churches, the authors assert. They then go about sharing those skill sets, and the ways churches can teach and reinforce them, thus becoming change agents for good within their communities.

"As the family goes, so goes the nation and so goes the whole world in which we live," Pope John Paul II wrote in 1986. The authors of Endgame agree. "Anybody reading the book should be incredibly hopeful that a healthy marriage is written into the human heart," the authors told The Christian Post. "The solutions to these problems are possible, and it's the church that has them."