February 11, 2013

Fragmented Families and the Future of the Church

(Photo Credit: Front Page Magazine)

(Photo Credit: Front Page Magazine)

by James Tonkowich

Did anyone ever read let alone preach a sample sermon I wrote on Malachi 2:13-16? I wonder. Most of us would rather not think about “Why God Hates Divorce.” Yet as the authors of “Does the Shape of Families Shape Faith?” — a new report from the Institute on American Values — write, “The health and future of congregations depends upon understanding, reaching out to, and nurturing as leaders those who have come of age amid increasing family fragmentation.”

Consider:

  • One million children live through divorces every year.
  • One young adult in four is a child of divorce.
  • “By the time they turn 15, 40 percent of children in the United States will confront the dissolution of a parent’s marriage or cohabitating relationship…”
  • While practicing Christians are less likely to get divorced that the rest of the adult population, 26 percent of Evangelicals and 28 percent of Catholics, many with children, divorce anyway.

While we can all cite examples of how their parents’ divorce turned some children to a strong and growing faith in Christ, that is far from the typical story. “We have learned,” the report notes, “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.” Many have difficulty thinking of God as “Father” and they “stand at the leading edge of a generation that considers itself ‘spiritual, but not religious.’”

Why? Well, it’s all there in Malachi 2. God hates divorce because divorce not only tells a lie about God but it tells that lie to children, damaging their faith.

Throughout the Bible, God uses marriage between a man and a woman (the only sort there is) as a picture of his faithful and enduring love for his people. When divorce shatters that picture, the implication is that maybe God’s love isn’t quite as faithful and enduring as advertised. And that’s a lie.

Who hears the lie? Family members, church friends, and coworkers hear and are more likely to divorce if their friends are doing it and — most important — our children hear the lie.

Malachi wrote that through intact marriages God is “seeking godly offspring.” Marriage should result in children who follow their parents in a life of faith, hope, and love for God and neighbor. Divorce distorts godly offspring by telling children the lie about God in clear, painful and unforgettable terms.

The report mentions “Melissa, who found that a God she could not see and touch was too much like her own father, who lived on the opposite coast and did not respond to her letters. And Ashley, who as an adult continued visiting churches once a month, looking for a place where she might feel a sense of belonging, yet still not trusting that anyone could really understand her.”

Even, the report points out, in cases of “good divorce,” huge problems remain.

  • “The odds of religious attendance are more than twice as high for those raised in happy, intact marriages compared to those raised in amicable divorces.”
  • “Those raised in happy, intact marriages have the lowest levels of religious disinterest, compared to those raised in amicable divorces.”
  • “Those raised in happy, intact marriages are more likely to report an absence of negative experiences of God, compared to those raised in amicable divorces.”
  • “Those raised in happy, intact marriages are somewhat less likely than those raised in amicable divorces to identify as ‘neither religious nor spiritual.’”

Fortunately, “Does the Shape of Families Shape Faith?” doesn’t simply catalog bad news. Nearly a third comprises “A Plan for Congregations” with recommendations for pastors, youth ministers, parents, children of divorce, church members, and marriage ministries. This includes the most important strategy:

One of the most profound ways that we can support children of divorce is by helping there to be fewer children of divorce in the first place. It is more important than ever for churches to reflect deeply on their role as custodians of the marriage tradition, and to engage actively in preparing and strengthening congregants and people in the community to have healthy, lasting marriages.

God may hate divorce, but he loves the divorced and he loves their children. And God’s people can do no less.

“Does the Shape of Families Shape Faith?” — a free download — is an invaluable resource for more loving and effective outreach and ministry to the many, many people in and around our congregations whose lives have been impacted by divorce. Get your copy today.

This article originally appeared on Religion Today.

 


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  • J S Lang

    I have a cousin, mid 40s, who is in her 4th marriage (which is breaking down) and attends a very conservative charismatic/Pentecostal church (where she met 2 of her ex-husbands). She tells me that at least half the members (more like two-thirds) have been divorced at least once, almost all cohabited before marrying, and none of them really see anything wrong with sex after a 3rd or 4th date. When I asked her what would happen if their pastor (only married once) suddenly took a stricter line on divorce, she said most of the divorced members would find another church where the issue of divorce (and also cohabiting and pre-marital sex) got swept under the rug. The people in her church have been very active and outspoken for defining marriage as between one man and one woman, which is commendable, but they probably don’t see that they themselves are part of the same mindset as the gay activists, i.e., it’s all about finding the maximum pleasure and not being encumbered by all those outdated biblical admonitions. If her church is typical of many conservative churches (and I have no reason to think otherwise), it appears the conservatism is more a veneer than solid wood. When my cousin tells me that lots of people in her church speak in tongues, I think, well, that’s nice, but wouldn’t it be more pleasing to God if your morality chimed in with your Sunday morning demeanor?

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