by Sheila Weber
Since any church’s goal should be to serve the spiritual needs of its members and reach out to its community, marriage should be on the forefront of its agenda. Marriage is the most unrecognized national crisis of our day. The church is on the front line of caring about poverty and caring about children. But both the left and the right agree that marriage is the biggest predictor of poverty and well-being for children. The Heritage Foundation says that being raised in a married home drops the probability of poverty for children by 82%. The Brookings Institution reports that we would have 25% less poverty today if we had the marriage rates we had in 1970.
Everyone knows that divorce rates are high and how painful divorce become on a personal level. But marriage rate decline (from 70% of US adults to 50% drop in four decades) also means that cohabitation or single parenting is replacing marriage, and ultimately this is not good for raising children. We also have 41% of US babies today born outside of marriage—50% of babies born to women under age 30 are now born outside of marriage. In 1960, even prior to legal abortion, less than 5% of U.S. babies were born out-of-wedlock.
Marriage Lifts Women and Children Out of Poverty
Research is overwhelming that children raised by both their mother and father in the home fare so much better on every indicator. Children in single parent homes have more trouble with the law, are more likely to end up in prison, experience more teen pregnancy, more drug addiction, and perform far worse in school.
Research Brad Wilcox says that boys are half as likely to have trouble with law if they are raised by their father. Boys apart from their dad are twice areas likely to be in prison before age 32. Girls also thrive – if reared by their dad, girls are 7 times less likely to be pregnant as teens. The presence of their fathers encourages daughters to save themselves for a man who is worthy of their time and attention. Physical and sexual abuse show extremely higher statistics in a cohabiting household, says Wilcox.
Men Benefit, Too
A new report, “Men and Marriage: Debunking the Old Ball and Chain Myth,” shows that married men by age 50 have three times the assets, accruing $167,000 in savings compared to only $36,000 that single men of their same background and $48,500 of divorced men. Married men work harder and smarter, says Wilcox, and earn between 10 and 40% more income. Additionally, married men have more fulfilling sex, live on average ten years longer, and have less depression and better health.
Another factor regarding men are prison statistics. During his years in ministry to prisoners, the late Chuck Colson remarked that 60% of prisoners and 70% of those in juvenile detention had no father at home. In the 1960s the U.S. had only 230,000 inmates in prison; yet in recent years those numbers have grown to 2.2 million. Colson said this was a direct correlation to growth in fragmented family structure, which is the strongest predictor of urban violence in our cities. Because churches care about reducing poverty and crime, they must promote the benefits of marriage, help people learn how to become marriageable, and help couples keep their marriages strong.
Divorce is avoidable–Marriages Can Be Saved
Over and over again, marriage ministries and conferences report the rescuing of marriages that seemed on the brink of divorce. Researcher Bill Doherty says that 35% of couples going through the divorce courts said they were open to reconciliation. That represents a huge number of children in this country who could be saved the devastating effects and trauma of divorce. Not to mention that Taxpayer Costs for Divorce and Unwed Childbearing were reported at minimum of $112 BILLION a year back in 2011—even much higher today.
Marriage curriculum such as Re-Engage by the Watermark Church reports moving the needle of marriage happiness in a significant position direction after couples have completed their course. Love & Respect cites thousands upon thousands of letters from couples who share confidentially that they were headed for divorce but their marriage was saved by the insights and understanding they got from just one Friday evening and Saturday morning workshop. National Marriage Week USA (Feb. 7-14) lists a wide variety of marriage groups, workshops, and resources to help couples or for those who want to create home groups or church classes in order to find ways to help others.
Role of the Church
There really is no brick and mortar school for the most important skill set that anyone can learn—how to have healthy relationships. The church has a unique opportunity to be that resource for its community.
Yet a 2005 research report of 800 churches indicates that only 28% of the nation’s churches offer a marriage class even once a year. Our churches can do so much better. Every church should be called upon to provide pre-marital counselling or marriage prep, as well as a regular marriage enrichment course. There are plenty of “plug and play” curriculums these days so that even small churches with limited staff can easily offer content to help its members. And when a DVD-based conference is offered in the local library or YMCA, the church has a chance to reach outside its own doors and bring new people into its flock.
The Unspoken Crisis
Marriage researcher Elizabeth Marquardt says clergy are nervous about the topic of marriage because they don’t want to offend those who are divorced or single parents. Marquardt herself was raised in a divorced home and yet she still had the aspiration for marriage and is now a happily married adult. In other words, clergy can still espouse the aspiration of marriage, while acknowledging without judgement that some of their members may not be on the path they planned. We are so afraid of hurting people’s feelings yet we do need to validate and affirm what people hold in their hearts—that they want something better for their children.
Marquardt explains that many of this generation grew up in a divorced family but they don’t want to put their own kids through that circumstance. One challenge is that young adults from divorced families are less likely to be in a house of worship. And that the marriages in the church which are in crisis can often go silent, not share their pain, and walk away from the church when everything falls apart. She reports that two-thirds of children whose parents were going through divorce say that no one from the clergy or their congregation reached out to them during that very stressful time in their childhood.
Serving Marriage Grows The Church
Years ago, my sister-in-law was quite resistant to my husband’s and my overtures about faith. For about a decade, she held us off with a polite no thank you to matters of faith and church. Years later, I discovered that her friend had invited her and my brother-in-law to a simple Friday night talk on how to have a better marriage. My sister-in-law said she was elbowing her husband throughout talk because it was like the material had been built just for them. That talk was so relevant and helpful that for the last ten years, she and her husband have been faithful members of the church that sponsored that talk. In fact, as I write, their teenage daughter is working on a mission’s project in India and is making plans to attend a Bible College. This one family’s growth in faith goes back to a small town church that offered a one-evening to talk on how to have a better marriage. Imagine what our churches might look like if every church did the same.
The health of our nations’ churches depends not on merely ministering to those sitting in the pews, but rather on reaching out to help those in our communities. Pastor Jim Franklin of the Cornerstone Church in Fresno, CA says “churches have to be intentional about a marriage ministry. Get a plan and work that plan. We’ve got to be courageous and we’ve got to be strong, but mostly we’ve just got to do it.”
It’s my hope that churches across the country will use National Marriage Week (Feb. 7-14) as the impetus to plan something to benefit their community’s marriages.
Sheila Weber, executive director of National Marriage Week USA (Feb. 7-14), has been a guest on more than 500 radio and TV programs. A native of the Washington, D.C. where her father was a pastor, Sheila has worked as a U.S. Senate press aide, a staff writer at “McCall’s” magazine, an actress and media spokesperson for the JESUS film project, solo vocalist, and director of public relations for many national efforts. She led public relation efforts for The National Preaching Initiative sponsored by The Wilberforce Forum, the Bible Literacy Project, an effort to increase study and literacy of the Bible in American public schools, and THE BETTER HOUR, a documentary film about William Wilberforce, which aired on national public television. In 2010, Sheila launched a new collaborative effort to celebrate National Marriage Week USA to strengthen marriage and reduce divorce rates. With her husband Rev. B.J. Weber, Sheila Weber is also co-founder of the New York Fellowship, a ministry in midtown Manhattan that serves leaders from around the world.