(CP) Churches must work to restore healthy marriages and fatherhood to combat a growing decline in Christianity, according to a survey released by a faith-based group.
J.P. De Gance is the founder and president of Communio, a nonprofit that equips churches to strengthen the marriage and relationship health of its members. On Monday, De Gance discussed the results of the Communio Nationwide Study on Faith and Relationships at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank.
The conversation also featured Delano Squires, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation's Richard and Helen DeVos Center for Life, Religion, and Family. The director of the DeVos Center for Life, Religion, and Family, Jay W. Richards, served as a moderator.
During his speech, De Gance said the study's results suggest that the decline in resident fatherhood and the collapse of marriage are likely explanations for the increase in religious non-affiliation throughout the United States.
The study's conclusions are drawn from a nationwide survey completed by 19,000 attendees at 112 different churches across 13 different states. The survey also analyzed a variety of denominations, including Protestant and Catholic churches.
Overall, the survey found that 80% of church attendees grew up in a home where their mother and father stayed married, a trend that remained true regardless of age. In addition, 87% of all 25- to 29-year-old never-married men in church had parents who remained married.
"So what this means is folks in church on Sunday are categorically more likely to have grown up with a resident dad in the home than someone who is not in church on Sunday," De Gance said, noting that the results are not "definitive," as one in five people in church grew up without married parents.
"But it does make it less likely for those folks to show up on Sunday morning," he said.
Presenting the data on the growth of non-religious affiliation, De Gance said the findings show that religious non-affiliation began to increase between 1986 and 1991 and then rapidly grew in the mid-90s. According to De Gance, this result makes sense, as the children who grew up in homes where their parents didn't remain married became adults.
The Christian leader asserted that a "married dad" is the "missing ingredient now," citing an Oxford University Press longitudinal study referenced in the Faith and Relationships study. The longitudinal study followed 3,000 adults and 350 families within a 40-year time frame.
One of the study's most notable findings, according to De Gance, is that adults who reported a close relationship with their fathers were more likely to report having the same faith as their parents by 25 percentage points.
On the other hand, the study found that a closer relationship with their mother did not appear to have a statistical effect on whether an adult had the same faith as their parents.
De Gance referenced a book by Paul Vitz titled Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism, which analyzed 30 of the world's most well-known atheists. Throughout the book, according to De Gance, there is a reoccurring theme of absentee fathers or broken relationships with a dad.
The Christian leader asserted that Christians should not find this information surprising, highlighting the Bible's allusions to marriage.
"The most common analogy that God tells for the divine love story is the spousal love story, right?" he asked.
"So, renewal, fundamentally, for those in the church interested in seeing a renewal of faith, need to see a renewal of marriage," De Gance added. "Christian marriage is central to that."
The Communio president contended that if churches can accomplish this, then they can also resolve the loneliness epidemic.
As the Faith and Relationships survey highlights, 50% of all adults in the United States are experiencing loneliness, while 22% of churchgoers are considered lonely. In addition, the survey noted that single churchgoers are more than three times more likely to be considered lonely compared to their married counterparts (15%).
The survey also addressed cohabitation, finding that the lifestyle is rare among regular church attendees; however, the study cited research that indicates a cohabitating man in his 30s (77%) is more likely to report that he is struggling in his relationship than a married man in the same age group.
A cohabitating man in church was 53% more likely to report that he was struggling in his relationship compared to a married man.
For cohabitating women, 73% were more likely to report struggling in their relationship compared to a married woman in church. As for women attending church while cohabitating, they were 87% more likely to report that they were struggling in their relationship than a cohabitating man in church.
After De Gance concluded his speech, Squires and Richards asked him questions before allowing the audience to do the same. At one point, De Gance clarified what he believes the church's role should be in forming healthy relationships, emphasizing that it must teach kids what that looks like before they start dating.
According to the Faith and Relationships survey, 85% of all churches in the United States report spending $0 annually on marriage and relationship ministry.
In an interview with The Christian Post, De Gance explained how churches can reach adults who have already reached a point where they believe cohabitation is acceptable. De Gance encouraged spiritual leaders to educate themselves on the issue and the negative side effects of cohabitation, which research suggests leads to a higher risk of divorce.
"Once someone starts to understand that because that's basically the choice [with cohabitation], then there can be a moment where you can actually inform them on the positive reasons why you would pursue marriage," he told CP.
As the Communio president explained, when the nonprofit works with churches, it teaches ministries to adopt a "full-circle approach," which includes teaching relationship skills to various age groups, as well as discernment in a relationship.
He also called it "sinful" for pastors to avoid the topic due to fears of creating controversy, highlighting the influence of family origins on faith and church affiliation.
"If we can't help Christians form the kind of relationships that lead to lifelong marriages ... if your concerns with the political hot buttons around this prevent you from doing this, you should probably get out of ministry."