A few years ago, everyone was speculating about why Millennials were leaving the church and their Christian faith. Reasons given for the mass emptying of the pews ranged from churches being antagonistic toward science to churches inadequately addressing sexuality. Most of us have dealt with our own qualms with the church, and we could add to this list.
A new study from the Public Religion Research Institute has found another culprit for the exodus: divorce. A Washington Post article, “How Decades of Divorce Helped Erode Religion,“ reports on the findings of the study that examined the upbringing of Millennials rather than their cultural preferences:
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.
The study also found those who grew up in religious homes were less likely to attend church as adults if their parents got a divorce while they were children (31 percent compared to 43 percent of those whose parents remained together). So what’s the connection? To shed some light on that question, the article quotes Andrew Root, a college professor who’s written a book on the spiritual consequences of divorce for children.
“Everything in a divorce gets divided. Literally everything. Parents’ friends get divided. Relatives get divided. Everyone takes sides,” Root said. “Even religion takes sides. The church gets divided. Dad leaves Mom’s faith, or vice versa. Negotiating those worlds becomes difficult.”
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.
It seems that we as the church — as a body of believers — have failed some of our most vulnerable and innocent members. We’ve failed to help these little ones reconcile faith in Jesus with what will certainly be one of the most painful experiences of their lives. Where they needed support they found silence. And they could’ve easily perceived this silence as a reflection of God’s love for them.
Michelle was 21 when her parents divorced — well past the tender childhood years — yet she still feels as if the church let her down. “No one really ever asked me if I was okay,” she says. “They didn’t ask how I was feeling or if I needed to talk.” She explains that the church took sides, supporting her dad and shunning her mom, and the result was devastating to her family. Michelle describes her experience:
The church has a responsibility to love all those involved in the divorce. The church is a place where we should feel safe and cared for. It should not be a place to judge whether they believe there is grounds for divorce. As a young person all I needed to hear was that I was loved and that I had a safe place to talk about what I was feeling. Instead I heard my parents were going to hell because they were divorced. This misunderstanding of the gospel carried through until I was well into my twenties when I realized what grace was.
Of course God hates divorce — precisely because of its devastating emotional and spiritual effects on the individuals involved, including the children. But do we ever take the time to explain that, rather than rushing to blame the parents who couldn’t “make their marriage work”? Or better yet, do we ever simply offer a hug and say, “I’m so sorry this happened. Even though this must be so hard, God loves you and will always be with you”?
Those are words Michelle, who somehow held onto her faith, heard often from her mother, throughout their ordeal. Many reading this could tell a story similar to Michelle’s. And if you can’t, you have a friend who can. It seems the entire Millennial generation has had their faith materially damaged by divorce. Think of how God might redeem our experiences and pain, as well as the wisdom we’ve acquired through these hardships, to make a positive change in the next generation.
Right now children dealing with the divorce of their parents need exactly what you needed when your parents divorced two decades ago: reassurance of God’s presence and compassion. They need to know they are more than conquerors through the One who loves them and gave His very life for them. They need to know that they are victims of, not accomplices to, their parents’ choices. And who better to tell them than those who’ve grown up with divorce and still chosen to follow God.