In a recent Washington Post article, entitled, “How Decades of Divorce Helped Erode Religion,” Julie Zauzmer discusses a new study from the Public Religion Research Institute, which addresses the growing exodus of Americans from organized religion. In the study, multiple causes for the religious exodus are considered, but Zauzmer picks up on the relationship between divorce and religious disaffiliation. Zauzmer writes, “People whose parents divorced when they were children are significantly more likely to grow up not to be religious as adults, the study found. Thirty-five percent of the children of divorced parents told pollsters they are now nonreligious, compared with 23 percent of people whose parents were married when they were children.”
At this point, much could be said (and in another forum, should be said) about the impact of divorce, but I have another point I would like to highlight the point made by Andrew Root, a professor at Luther Seminary, who is quoted in Zauzmer’s article. Zauzmer writes,
Root said churches are not doing enough to speak directly to the concerns of children in those situations, so the kids lose faith in the ability of the church to help them. He said that when the divorce rate climbed in the 1980s, many members of the clergy, especially mainline Protestant pastors, stopped speaking out against divorce so as not to alienate struggling congregants. But by going silent on the subject, they didn’t offer any comfort to the kids.
I believe Zauzmer makes a good point, but it needs to be supplemented. Not only did churches, in general, do no favors to those impacted by divorce by going silent on the subject, they also diminished the glory of the gospel, which offers forgiveness and hope for reconciliation. As a senior pastor, I have encountered many people who have been impacted by divorce and have an interest in being a part of the church, but they feel too much shame to really plug into the church community. They do not feel like that will be able to be accepted, and I believe this is part of the reason, if not the main reason, for the statistics found in Zauzmer’s article.
I cannot help but wonder how many of these single parents would have continued to be affiliated with a church if they would have received pastoral care and congregational compassion instead of ostracization. I cannot help but dream of how these children might have turned out differently if a church would have stepped up, spoken clearly and lovingly, and supported them in the devastation that is divorce.
On occasion, I have asked my congregation, “Would a single mother feel welcome here? Would the fatherless child feel loved here?” When I read studies like the ones mentioned above, I am once again reminded of how high the stakes are in how the church ministers to those whose struggles may be more public than my own but no less in need of deep applications of God’s grace and mercy.
My prayer is that the church will acknowledge its failure in previous decades to minister to those impacted by divorce, repent, and change course, so that if a study like this one is done again in 20 years, the divorce rate will be down because churches ministered to families in their turmoil and held couples accountable to their vows while also helping those who do divorce pick up the pieces of brokenness and carry them to Jesus, the Great Mender of Hearts and Comforter in all our sorrows.