How can we save the church from divorce?

Unable to stop gay marriage, successfully promote straight marriage, or prevent divorce, the religious right is adopting a defensive posture. Maggie Gallagher has canceled her syndicated column. And the Institute for American Values has decided that, if it can’t save the family, it may as well try to save the church. (Or, as they call it now, in some weird nod toward diversity, “the churches.”)

A new pamphlet, by Elizabeth Marquardt, Amy Zeittlow, and Charles Stokes, spells out the problem of divorce — for the churches. It’s called, “Does the Shape of Families Shape Faith?”

David Smilde and Matthew May determined in 2010 that social science is increasingly studying religion’s effects rather than its causes — asking whether religion helps or hurts rather than what makes people religious. But churches are institutions, with bills to pay, zeal to project and ideological missions to fulfill. They have to worry about the bottom line. And divorce is hurting it.

Amanda Marcotte commented at Slate:

To read this paper, you’d think non-believing children of divorce are the walking wounded, barely able to make it through the day. Words like “schism,” “rupture,” and “alienated” abound, and the study’s authors warn that even having an amicable divorce leaves your child in danger of blowing off church, which we are meant to believe is a very dire fate indeed.

church4sale

But more than concern for children, the document is animated by concern for the churches:

We have learned that when children of divorce reach adulthood, compared to those who grew up in intact families, they feel less religious on the whole and are less likely to be involved in the regular practice of a faith.

The main question is, how can we keep this structural change in family life from harming the churches:

The health and future of congregations depends upon understanding, reaching out to, and nurturing as potential leaders those who have come of age in an era of dramatic social changes in family structure. The suffering felt by children of divorce may actually offer a pathway toward healing and growth, not only for themselves but for the churches.

On helpful suggestion is to take advantage of people, especially children, when they are vulnerable:

Those who have experienced brokenness in their families of origin may have had early experiences of the imperfection and frailty of human beings. They may be open to the idea of a God who loves unconditionally, a community in which to seek meaning, or a practice that engages them with more universal truths.

This can be difficult, however, because divorced parents may be turned off by the churches (especially churches that threaten them with hell-fire for getting divorced, and now are coming after their children), and thus not even bring their children to the churches anymore.

When parents do not involve their children in an active life of faith, churches seem bewildered about how to reach them.

Besides reminding parents that giving children access to the internet is risky, this might lead some parents to say, “Good! How about this: leave my kids alone unless you have my permission to ‘reach them.””

I think the churches should consider that, if the children of divorced parents are feeling some pain, the churches themselves might not be completely blameless for that. After all, many children of Christian parents are raised to believe that:

…when a child is conceived the child is a one-flesh union of his or her parents that cannot break in two. Theologically [in Christianity], then, children whose parents divorce experience brokenness because the parental unity that they embody has been ruptured.

Not surprisingly, such children may feel torn by divorce.

And of course that can happen regardless of the parents’ religions. But here’s a suggestion: don’t teach children that they are the “one-flesh union” of their parents’ marriage. Rather, find a way to explain to children that they are the biological creation of two separately living organism which, upon achieving physical independence, has its own existence that survives its parents’ breakup. Maybe we could address the emotional challenges better if we weren’t standing in the pool of blood created by the rupture of the child’s tender body.

6 Comments

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6 responses to “How can we save the church from divorce?

  1. Dave

    But here’s a suggestion: don’t teach children that they are the “one-flesh union” of their parents’ marriage.

    Umm… since when have Christian churches ever described kids this way?

    • Don’t ask me. From the pamphlet:
      “Early Christian thinker John Chrysostom wrote that husband and wife fully become one flesh when they conceive children. In his view, “The child is a bridge connecting mother to father, so the three become one flesh, as when two cities divided by a river are joined by a bridge. And here the bridge is formed from the substance of each.” This theology recognizes in spiritual terms the biological reality of children and the lived experiences of parents who find that in having children they are “giving flesh” to their own union. Even more so than in sexual intimacy, during which spouses become one flesh for a short time and then part (even as their feelings of unity may endure), when a child is conceived the child is a one-flesh union of his or her parents that cannot break in two. Theologically, then, children whose parents divorce experience brokenness because the parental unity that they embody has been ruptured. Children can be distraught because they identify not just with each parent separately, but with their parents’ union. Children’s bodies say, “My parents gave themselves to one another.” Although their parents no longer wish to live together, the child’s existence testifies to their union.

      • Ron

        Early Christian thinker John Chrysostom wrote

        This is why Sola Scriptura resonates so well with Biblical Inerrancy Protestants. (Man’s thoughts change like the shifting sands, but the Word stays forever, they would say.)

  2. Ness Blackbird

    It seems you’re very determinedly anti-religion, and of course I can see why. I wonder, have you given any thought to the question of what should replace religion in the brave new secular world? Isn’t it true, for example, that religious people live longer and deal better with questions of death and dying?

    • I’m not a Richard Dawkins devotee, but I recently read The God Delusion so it’s on my mind. In it, he wrote: “Does religion fill a much needed gap? It is often said that there is a God-shaped gap in the brain which needs to be filled: we have a psychological need for God — imaginary friend, father, big brother, confessor, confidant — and the need has to be satisfied whether God really exists or not. But could it be that God clutters up a gap that we’d be better off filling with something else? Science, perhaps? Art? Human friendship? Humanism? Love of this life in the real world, giving no credence to other lives beyond the grave?”

      • Ron

        could it be that God clutters up a gap that we’d be better off filling with something else? Science, perhaps?

        I think so.

        But I also agree with the assertion of the God-shaped gap. My opinion is that there’s no coincidence in the rise in New Age woo woo with the decline in Church attendance; people are just filling the gap with a different form of spirituality.

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