Print Post
  • At-risk marriages exist in every neighborhood, rich or poor, across the country.  Tweet This
  • Despite consistently emphasizing the importance of social ties—particularly marriage—few churches have a coherent strategy for strengthening those ties among their members.  Tweet This
  • Communio works with churches that show a commitment to strengthening...marriages, and that are willing to allocate...some meaningful resources toward that goal. Tweet This

Editor's Note: In his recent book Fragile Neighborhoods, Seth Kaplan lays out a plan to repair American Society, one zip code at a time. Kaplan recommends that both top-down and bottom-up solutions are insufficient. But working local and building sideways is key. In this excerpt, he explores the work of Communio–a case study of the role the church can play in fortifying marriages and stable families—and doing so at scale.

President Lyndon Johnson once said, “The family is the cornerstone of our society. More than any other force it shapes the attitude, the hopes, the ambitions, and the values of the child. And when the family collapses it is the children that are usually damaged.” 

So are neighborhoods. When family collapse “happens on a massive scale,” Johnson said, 

the community itself is crippled. So, unless we work to strengthen the family, to create conditions under which most parents will stay together—all the rest: schools, and playgrounds, and public assistance, and private concern, will never be enough to cut completely the circle of despair and deprivation.

While we have ever-increasing amounts of data highlighting the importance of marriage, this knowledge is not new. In fact, it’s been embedded in the structure of just about every major civilization in recorded history. 

My own parents divorced and remarried; if you’re older than 40, chances are your parents divorced, too. Between 1962 and 1973 the divorce rate doubled; it peaked in 1981 and has been declining since—especially among the college-educated.

And yet, marriage as a social institution is still in trouble. According to the Pew Research Center, the share of adults who are married has declined to one-half from almost three-quarters in 1960. The share who have never married has also risen, reaching one in five—an all-time high. This has led to a “decoupling of marriage and childbearing,” with around two-fifths of all births occurring to single women, another all-time high. Partly as a result, the percentage of children growing up with their two parents in a first marriage has dropped below 50. 

A quick look at other parts of the world shows how much of an outlier we have become. Two out of every five children are born outside of marriage in the United States, compared to just one out of fifty in Japan, and one out of every hundred in China, India, Indonesia, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia.

Whereas almost nine of every 10 children under five live with two parents in the European Union, in the US, only seven out of 10 do. And among all children under the age of 18 in the US, only 69% live with two parents—down from 88%  in 1960.

Such dire statistics are especially pronounced among the less educated, creating what scholars such as Robert Putnam and Charles Murray have noted is a cultural divide on marriage and family across classes—and neighborhoods. For example, whereas only about one-tenth of new mothers with a college degree were unmarried in 2014, almost six-tenths of new mothers who lacked a high school diploma were.         

Health, incomes, social mobility, poverty rates, inequality, happiness, crime rates, and the physical, emotional, and academic well-being of children are directly influenced by their parents’ relationship.

While the many attempts to strengthen the institution of marriage in recent decades have produced some isolated successes, none have proved replicable or effective in reversing the negative trends on a large scale.

J.P. De Gance saw an opportunity to try something new. Starting with the Philanthropy Roundtable, where he was the executive vice-president, and continuing with Communio, a nonprofit he established and now runs as chief executive officer, J.P. has spent close to a decade building and continuously refining an operational model that can improve marriage outcomes.                                       

His approach is grounded in three core ideas: 1) that religious participation has a major impact on family life; 2) that the positive impact local churches and nonprofits were already having could be enhanced and scaled up to reach more people more effectively; 3) that sophisticated data analytics tools could be leveraged to reach the people who stood to benefit most from the support Communio could provide.                                   

Churches—and other houses of worship—have long viewed the promotion of healthy relationships and strong marriages as a core part of their mission. Moreover, they are uniquely positioned to accomplish this work because of their role in creating community and a sense of belonging around their values and norms.           

Yet despite consistently emphasizing the importance of social ties—particularly marriage—few churches have a coherent strategy for strengthening those ties among their members. 

In fact, J.P. found that “80% of evangelical churches, 82% of Catholic parishes, and 94% of mainline churches report spending zero percent of their budgets on marriage ministry.” By shifting their energies toward enhancing the marital and relational health of both their congregations and their city, he believed, churches could help to prevent a whole host of social problems, including poor educational outcomes, crime, and poverty—at very low cost—while also sending positive ripple effects across countless neighborhoods.                                      

A Cultural Shift

Communio’s efforts are not confined to low-income or economically distressed communities. Unfortunately, at-risk marriages exist in every neighborhood, rich or poor, across the country. 

It works with churches that show a commitment to strengthening relationships and marriages, and which are willing to allocate at least some meaningful resources toward that goal.

They begin with a survey of church members and analysis of the surrounding area to better understand the relational needs in and around the church. The group then develops a practical outreach plan that is unique to each church.                         

Just as political campaigns, national nonprofit organizations, and companies have used Big Data to reach potential voters, donors, and consumers, Communio uses advanced analytical tools to help its partners reach individuals in their neighborhoods who could benefit from their interventions.                                   

Communio has developed several predictive models that analyze consumer data for a given area to identify particular patterns of behavior and character traits that predict individuals likely to marry, divorce, or become single parents, as well as those struggling with a wide range of related challenges such as anxiety, financial stress, spiritual concerns, health crises, and substance abuse, and whether those individuals might react favorably to an invitation from a church. 

The most common risk factor for divorce, for example, is the presence of children in the home, especially children two and under. Other risk factors include an uptick in television dinner purchases, a new gym membership, spending on thrill-oriented activities (e.g., adventure travel), and dozens of other changes in behavior.

Communio then works with each church to hone its direct mail, digital advertising, and social media outreach by determining what—if any—invitation would be most attractive and add the most value to each of those at-risk individuals or families. They may, for example, extend an invitation to a date night with free child care to couples with kids under 10 years of age. 

Communio can thus act something like a full-service marketing agency—and in doing so earn the revenue necessary to grow without any fundraising. As J.P. explains it, “microtargeted marketing has long existed in the commercial world. It’s existed in the political world. It’s existed in finance, and it’s even used today in the marketing of many groceries and disposable consumer goods. But in a lot of ways, the family and faith sector is still living, technologically, in the 1990s. This project is bringing it forward.”   

Their approach proved effective from the outset, significantly reducing the divorce rate in a relatively short period in Jacksonville, Florida, one of the first three test cities along with Phoenix, Arizona, and Dayton, Ohio.

Jacksonville proved to be the most successful of the three test cities, where two local mobilizers significantly boosted participation in marriage enrichment programs in Duval County (where Jacksonville is located)—from 300 in 2015 to almost 60,000 over the three years of the initiative, as well as its targeted online campaign. During that time, divorce rates in Duval County declined by 24%, a decline considerably larger than that found in other parts of the state during the same period. In the first year of the program alone, the divorce rate dropped by 20%, “the highest in recent Duval history,” according to an evaluation by Wilcox, James, and Wang. “Duval’s divorce rate drop was exceptional,” the authors of the evaluation concluded.                   

Building on this success, Communio began a national roll-out in four medium-sized urban areas—Billings, Montana; Denver, Colorado; Fort Worth, Texas; and the Permian Basin—in 2019–2020. While the pandemic made larger assessments difficult, at the church level, the organization can point to reductions in divorce risk, improvements in communication and conflict resolution skills, and decreases in loneliness due to its programming. 

In 2022, the organization launched a new strategy that focuses on the most influential churches in the 40 largest metropolitan areas, in which three-fifths of the country’s total population lives. This is the type of scale that a venture-backed start-up might achieve but that is rarely seen among nonprofits.

Marriage as a social good has long been neglected, especially by social entrepreneurs, and for those who have tried, strengthening it has proven difficult. Given the myriad challenges married couples face in every neighborhood across America, perhaps only an organization as entrepreneurial, innovative, and committed as Communio can make a real difference.

Seth Kaplan is a leading expert on fragile states. He is a professorial lecturer in the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at Johns Hopkins University, senior adviser for the Institute for Integrated Transitions (IFIT), and consultant to multilateral organizations such as the World Bank, U.S. State Department, U.S. Agency for International Development, and OECD, as well as developing country governments and NGOs. 

Editor’s NoteExcerpted from the book Fragile Neighborhoods: Repairing American Society, One Zip Code at a Time. Copyright © 2023 by Seth D. Kaplan. Used with the Permission of Little, Brown Spark, an imprint of Little, Brown, and Company, a division of Hachette Book Group Inc., New York, NY, USA. All rights reserved.