A new study on faith and relationships suggests that absent fathers and collapsed marriages might be two of the best explanations for why Christianity is declining in the United States.
The Nationwide Study on Faith and Relationships, research recently released by the church-consulting organization Communio, reports that "family decline appears to fuel faith decline."
The study drew data from a nationwide survey of 19,000 Sunday church attendees from 112 Evangelical, Protestant and Catholic congregations in 13 states. The research comes as marriage rates have dropped 31 percent since 2000 and 61 percent since 1970, while less than half of all adults under 30 today grew up in a home with married parents.
According to the study, individuals who regularly attend church are more likely to have fathers present in their lives.
In the U.S., approximately 80% of Sunday churchgoers were raised in homes where their biological parents were married to each other throughout their upbringing.
Additionally, the study confirms that "boys who grew up in homes with married parents are considerably more likely to attend church regularly as adults."
Communio President J.P. DeGance, who contributed to the study, told The Christian Post that young people are not leaving churches in large numbers because of a lack of ministry outreach.
"We've never spent more money in the history of the church to transmit our faith to our young people, and yet they're falling away at higher and higher numbers," DeGance said.
"The reason for the decline in faith is unpacked in the study; that the absence of a married home where dad is warmly engaged in the life of his child is the cause of the fire that is the source of the reason less and less people believe."
DeGance said, "unless we get deeply effective and strategic about increasing the number of Christian marriages and young people raised in homes with faithful and healthy Christian families, we're going to continue to see an increase in religious non-affiliation."
"Throughout the Old Testament and into the New Testament, God's love is told spousally, most frequently that God is chasing after the Church like a bride. And when Jesus comes at the end of time, He is going to be looking for His bride," DeGance said.
"I think it shouldn't surprise us that when the human analog of marriage and the family breaks down, it's a lot harder for a young person to understand that there's a Father in Heaven, 'who so loved [them] that He sent His only Son to die for [them].'"
"This becomes difficult when someone has never been able to relate to a dad in a healthy way, if they perhaps hate their dad or have a difficult relationship with their dad."
The study predicts that "the overall population of the religious nones is unlikely to stabilize until 25-30 years after family structure has stabilized."
"The number of young people being born and raised and reaching adulthood in a home where mom and dad stayed continuously married appears to have been constant over the last 10 years. In some sense, that's some good news; at least temporarily it seems to be stabilized. This is incredibly important for churches," DeGance said.
The vast majority of polling shows that young people overwhelmingly still want marriage, but they just lack the ability to do it, according to DeGance.
"I see this as a great opportunity to advance the Gospel, that churches can become schools of love. They can actually help form people to discern relationships well, and to form healthy dating relationships that can actually lead to marriage and to help Christians who married to have a thriving and healthy Christ-centered marriage," he said.
"All of that is within the reach and power of the Church. And if the Church answers this time of crisis with this kind of approach, the study would suggest that you're going to see a great revival."
DeGance warned that if the Church doesn't take drastic steps to "evangelize fruitfully in the 21st century," the declining number of marriages will continue and marital health will remain low, as well as the effectiveness of fathers in those marriages.
"The sexual revolution has been a never-ending set of events in so many ways. We've certainly had a decoupling of sex from marriage and sex from partnering and sex from parenting," DeGance said.
"As Christian parents and as pastors, we also need to own a portion of the responsibility to ask ourselves: Are we discouraging marriage ourselves? Are we discouraging our young people from the ideas that would lead to a healthy marriage?"
Nicole Alcindor is a reporter for The Christian Post. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.