Editor’s Note: This piece first appeared in the Center of the American Experiment symposium entitled Fragmented Families and Silence of the Faithful: How Religious Leaders and Institutions Must Speak Up and Reach Out.
Working-class adults are not only more vulnerable to family fragmentation but also less likely to attend a religious congregation regularly compared to those with a four-year college degree or more. Thus, the question about how religious institutions can help strengthen marriage and families must address how religious leaders can engage young people who are not likely to be in the pews. We have four ideas.
1. Acknowledge the suffering that many young adults have experienced in their families of origin.
Fifty-three percent of adults aged 25 to 44 without a high school education, and 43 percent of adults with a high school education but no four-year college degree say, “Marriage has not worked out for most people I know.” This contrasts to only 17 percent of college-educated adults. Their experiences of family fragmentation, whether witnessed directly or indirectly, are formative and defining. For instance, one young man who never met his father described his struggle to trust people and to trust that marriage that could last. Why? “What really f***** me is the dad situation,” he said. “Of course that’s gonna make me grow up and feel like I can’t trust nobody... He turned his back on me.”
Because of family fragmentation, many young adults carry wounds from their childhood into adulthood, as documented by researchers such as Judith Wallerstein and Elizabeth Marquardt. In response, religious leaders could create safe spaces for young adults from fragmented families to share their stories. In that encounter, religious leaders could also share their own traditions’ theologies of suffering that might lend meaning and hope to young adults struggling to make sense of difficult family histories. Existing retreat experiences like Christ Renews His Parish, which gives a team of congregants the opportunity to share their life stories with each other, offer potential models.
2. Provide practical help to fragile families.
For all the trends that signal a retreat from institutions—documented, for instance, by Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone—religious congregations are ideally suited to offer havens of solidarity, as well as practical help, to single parents and fragile families. While those are the very families that are most likely to be absent from congregational life, congregations could take the first step and go find them. For instance, a team of women from a congregation could form a “Mom’s Team” in which volunteers identify single moms who could use an extra hand around the house for a few hours a week.
3. Look for the assets that adult children of family fragmentation have.
It is true that children of family fragmentation are at greater risk of a host of problems, but it also true that their experiences sharpen their resolve to give their own children the family stability that they did not experience in their own families. As the young man quoted above put it, “That’s one good thing I can say that came out of me not having a father: That makes me a better father, because I know how it feels to not have a dad.”
Adult children of divorce carry a hard-earned wisdom and resolve, and religious institutions can empower them to apply that wisdom to their own lives and to share with others. As Bill Doherty and Jason Carroll put it, “The greatest untapped resource for strengthening families is the knowledge, wisdom, and lived experience of families and their communities.... Families must be engaged as producers and contributors to their communities, and not just as clients or consumers of services.”
For instance, the pastor of a congregation could invite a team of young people—including some who come from fragmented families—to advise the congregation on how better to reach those who experience family fragmentation as well as to provide ideas about improving the congregation’s ministry to young couples and single parents.
4. Propose a better story about love and sex and marriage.
For divorce-wary young adults who wonder how to make love last, a religious leader could invite a couple celebrating their golden anniversary to share their story. For young adults jaded by the expectation of early sex in relationships and wondering how to find a good man or woman, congregations could retrieve what their own traditions have to say about the meaning of sex and love.
In an era when America is coming apart along class lines, religious congregations have an opportunity to become places where people from across class lines can come together for a common goal. Creating that space, however, may not happen without the ingenuity of risk-taking religious leaders who are willing to go out and meet the very people—working-class men and women who are divorced, cohabiting, and rearing children outside marriage—whom few congregations are reaching.
David Lapp is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Family Studies, Affiliate Scholar at the Institute for American Values, and Contributing Editor for the I Believe in Love Project. W. Bradford Wilcox is a professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, Senior Fellow at the Institute for Family Studies, and a Visiting Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.