The Connection of Family to Faith

The Connection of Family to Faith December 1, 2023

As church affiliation and attendance decline and more and more Americans identify as “Nones,” the assumption has generally been that church teachings–especially about sex and politics–are to blame.

But J.P. De Gance, drawing on the research of his Communio think tank, argues for a deeper reason in his RealClearReligion article It’s Not Politics: Fatherhood Decline Causing Rise of Religious Nones.

His research found that 81% of church-goers were brought up by both of their married parents.  This holds true for 59 year-olds and for single 24 year-olds.  Furthermore, it holds true across different kinds of churches–evangelical, mainline Protestant, and Catholic.

Looking at the data from a different angle, the study found that a millennial (someone born between 1981 and 1996) who grew up with married parents is 78% more likely to attend church than a millennial who did not.  And white millennials who grew up with both parents are 94% more likely to go to church!  (Not that 94% of them will go to church, but that they are 94% more likely to.)

Yes, fewer millennials go to church, but that may well be because so many millennials came from broken or single-parent homes.
Yes, church teachings about sex and politics are a factor, but De Gance says that those who grow up without both parents tend to be more permissive about sex and more liberal about politics.  So it still comes down to a child growing up with both parents.
Besides, as De Gance observes,

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.

Since, as De Gance says, today there are 31% fewer marriages taking place than in 2000, and 61% fewer than in 1970, there is little wonder that church attendance is in decline and that it will get worse.  The problem today is not just divorce but single parenthood, with fathers not in the picture.  (Note that he is not saying that marriage increases church attendance, but that having married parents increases church attendance.)

“For renewal to occur,” De Gance concludes, “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.”  De Gance’s Communio ministry offers resources and programs to help churches do that.

These findings are grim, but they are also encouraging, giving parents a clear way forward:  If you want your children to go to church when they grow up, stay married.


Illustration:  “Family Attends Religious Church Service on Sunday” via Wannapik, CC

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