- Every church should be teaching, preaching, modeling, and celebrating marriage on a regular basis, write John Van Epp and J.P. De Gance in their new book. Tweet This
- Instead of primarily offering support after a marriage is already in trouble or on the brink of divorce, Van Epp and De Gance want to see churches focus on enriching relationships throughout every season of family life. Tweet This
- Churches should extend their rich family-friendly culture—the one that helps religious marriages thrive—to couples in the surrounding community. Tweet This
A few years ago, I was scrolling through Facebook to catch up with friends and family when I stumbled upon some news that made my heart sink. A married couple from the church my husband and I had attended for about 10 years had apparently split up since we moved away. Both the husband and the wife were popular leaders in our church and seemed to have a vibrant marriage that everyone admired. But now she was building a life with a new man in another state, while he raised their two children alone. As I was trying to digest this news, I discovered that at least five other married couples with kids from the same church had split up over the past few years. Two of the couples had been married for several decades; one couple less than five years. When I asked our pastor what happened, he was as brokenhearted as I was over the news, but he had no answers. He’d tried to counsel with some of the couples, but the spouse who wanted out (most often, the wife) was dead set on divorce.
“What’s going on at our old church that so many marriages are ending?” I wondered out loud to my husband, even as I whispered to myself: Isn’t church supposed to be the place where marriages last? And where do we turn when we have problems if the church can’t help?
These questions and more are explored in Endgame: The Church’s Strategic Move to Save Faith and Family in America, a new book by John Van Epp and J.P. De Gance, who assert that “the church is the only institution that holds the potential to save the future of marriage and family in America.” However, they point out that most “churches currently allocate almost no capital or energy either to marriage ministry or to ministry for relationship health.”
In a Barna survey they commissioned, Van Epp and De Gance found that 85% of both Protestant and Catholic church leaders reported spending zero of their church’s annual budget on marriage ministry, and only 24% reported devoting even part of a staff member’s time to marriage ministry. Overall, only 28% of Protestant churches and 24% of Catholic parishes have what the authors define as a “substantive marriage ministry” (i.e., churches that hosted at least two or more annual: date nights, marriage seminars or programs, couples’ groups, marriage mentoring training programs, and marriage retreats).
The lack of marriage ministry in many churches is unfortunate because research shows that Americans who attend church regularly are more likely to get and stay married than those who do not. Furthermore, the 2019 World Family Map found that married couples who frequently attend worship services report higher quality relationships than those who attend religious services less or not all. Couples who pray together also enjoy greater relationship trust and higher relationship quality. And regular church attendance is linked to lower divorce rates, with married couples who attend religious services together about 30 to 40% less likely to divorce than those who do not. But while religious marriages may be happier and more stable, that doesn’t mean that some married couples who attend church regularly don’t have problems or get divorced.
Growing up, I attended small, mostly Pentecostal churches with my divorced mom, where I benefited from watching the many happily married couples who filled the pews—moms and dads who offered a stark contrast to the broken family life I knew at home. But at the same time, I noticed that most of these churches lacked programming for married couples and families, and very few offered substantial teaching on relationship health. When a marriage ended, as sometimes happened, the congregation was often shocked and saddened by the news, but the only help for struggling families was typically a counseling session with the pastor. The problem was that asking the pastor for help required overcoming the shame of having serious problems in the first place. There was this myth that Christian marriages do not have problems—at least not serious ones.
My husband and I encountered this same kind of thinking at another Evangelical church about 10 years into our marriage when we attended a marriage seminar hosted by the associate pastor. The program featured several church leaders and their wives talking about Biblical marriage. During the Q&A session, one of the wives, who had been married the longest, responded to an audience question by complaining that she was “so tired” of hearing Christian couples complain about their marriages, adding that she could not recall any major issues in hers. The takeaway, for me at least, was clear and pretty discouraging: Christian marriages don’t, or at least shouldn’t, struggle.
Except that many do, as those of us who’ve grown up in church know well—and as Communio found in a recent survey of over 20,000 active churchgoers: “regardless of denomination, 24% of married people (or 1 in 4) who are active members of a church report struggling in their marriage,” with wives more likely to report relationship problems than husbands.
De Gance and Van Epp note that many well-meaning pastors are simply not equipped to handle serious marriage problems, although many try. Even when a pastor takes the extra step of referring a couple to professional counseling, the authors warn, “[m]uch of what passes for professional counseling is frequently shaped by the current relationship zeitgeist and focuses on ‘self-actualization’ at the expense of the relationship.”
Instead of primarily offering support after a marriage is already in trouble or even on the brink of divorce, Van Epp and De Gance want to see churches focus on enriching relationships throughout all the seasons of family life—both the good and the bad. “The starting point of promoting relationship health is dispelling the myth that a good and healthy relationship will run itself,” they write. “Relationships are like vehicles that run of out gas if their tanks are not filled and head off course if their trajectories are not steered.”
Ultimately, churches should be doing “much more” than marriage prep, annual retreats, or crisis counseling, the authors assert, and they should be extending their rich family-friendly culture—the one that helps religious marriages thrive—to couples in the surrounding community.
“The single biggest barrier to a successful marriage and relationship ministry is the perception that the only people who attend or participate in such a ministry are people who have problems.”
So, what exactly does such a robust marriage ministry involve? What I appreciate most about Endgame is that its authors do not simply chastise churches for not doing enough to support healthy marriages; they provide a detailed roadmap and tools to help church leaders launch a “marriage renaissance” in their congregations and beyond.
Of the nine practical steps they recommend for a church to establish a successful relationship ministry, four stood out to me as much needed in Evangelical churches.
1. Preach regularly on marriage and relationship health.
In the small churches I attended as a young person, most of the sermons on marriage focused on the “sin” of divorce without much attention to the meaning, purpose, and good of the marital bond. This is not the way it should be, according to Van Epp and De Gance, who emphasize that churches should “preach, teach, model, and celebrate” marriage on a regular basis. This preaching, they explain, requires authenticity from the church’s leaders, who should share about their own relationship ups and downs when they can: “Sharing your own personal struggles places any ‘negative’ message within your own life experience, giving credibility and allowing others in the church to identify with it.”
2. De-stigmatize relationship enrichment.
This recommendation is so important for helping churches get rid of the damaging myth of the ‘perfect’ Christian marriage and the shame that often comes with it. “The single biggest barrier to a successful marriage and relationship ministry is the perception that the only people who attend or participate in such a ministry are people who have problems,” Van Epp and De Gance write. “By making a positive case for relationship ministry—that it’s for everyone at this church, especially for people with great marriages—you allow those who are struggling in their marriage to attend without any shame.”
3. Stress that every marriage has seasons.
“Advancing a message that marriage has different seasons (and some are more challenging than others) can help couples see their struggles as part of the norm of relationship life,” the authors write. “Every couple should be told and understand, through your preaching and teaching, that such ebbs and periodic unhappiness are normal for all marriages—including great marriages.”
I can’t say enough how much this message matters to a church’s marriage ministry, especially for those who come from broken families and need to hear it again and again. As I shared earlier, this is not a message I consistently heard from pastors or church leaders growing up—or even as a single or newlywed—in the small, Evangelical churches I attended. The ideal of Biblical marriage that is too often presented from the pulpit often feels like a pinnacle of relationship perfection that is impossible to reach. Being assured that there is nothing abnormal about experiencing hard times in a relationship can encourage couples and free them to seek help when needed.
4. Publicly recognize relationship milestones and new marriages.
Van Epp and De Gance note that marriage is declining in the United States, writing that “every church in America should lean into the catastrophic decline in marriage by holding up and encouraging marriage in creative ways.” They recommend highlighting couples who are engaged or newly married, as well as celebrating the anniversaries of long-time married couples. Putting the spotlight on both new and long-term unions in the congregation also helps connect newlyweds to more mature couples and vice versa. Moreover, celebrating couples who have been married 30, 40, or even 50 years sends an inspiring message to the entire congregation that stable, lasting marriages do exist and are attainable. It is a great way for a church to hold up the beauty of marriage and to applaud those who have gone the distance, while offering support to those who are new at it and may have never seen a strong marriage in their own families.
Of course, there is much more churches can do to strengthen family life in America, and De Gance and Van Epp provide a game plan for faith leaders, including recommending that churches realign their “vision statement to prioritize marriage and family health,” conduct regular assessments of relationships in their congregations, and institute “skills-based relationship supports that address the most relevant needs of their people.”
There is evidence that church-led marriage enrichment efforts can strengthen family well-being in entire communities. In Jacksonville, Florida, De Gance led an extensive three-year marriage campaign working with area Protestant and Catholic churches and non-profits. A study of that campaign found that divorce in the Jacksonville area dropped by over 20% during that three-year period—significantly more than the rest of Florida and similar counties across the nation.
Endgame builds a strong case for why every church has a responsibility to prioritize relationship enrichment in its ministry and outreach efforts. By doing so, the authors note, “churches would become known as centers of relationship health, and Christians would become known for their commitment to building and sustaining secure marriages and families.”
As I think about the many marriages of fellow churchgoers that I've watched crumble over the years, I can’t help but wonder how many divorces might have been averted—how many families saved—if more churches focused their time and resources on nourishing family relationships both inside and outside the church doors? Thankfully, with Endgame, faith leaders now have the resource they need to launch the church-led marriage renaissance our nation—and world—needs.