Is Divorce in the Church the Same as the General Population? Not Really.
It has become common practice for people to quote the stat that the divorce rate for Christians is the same as the general population in America. I have said this many times over the years. The primary source for this was research by the well-respected Barna Group. Unfortunately, the criteria they used to identify Christians in their 2004 study was simply to ask people to self-identify with a religious preference. They found that those with no religious affiliation had a 35% divorce rate. Those who identified themselves as "born again Christians" also had a 35% divorce rate. And thus, we arrive at the much-hyped stat.
But here's the problem some of us have with the statistic: it does not take into consideration the day-to-day spiritual beliefs and practices of these "born again Christians." In an America where 80% of people claim Christianity as their religion, people's depth of commitments are all over the map.
Ed Stetzer of Lifeway Research did an amazing job of pointing this out in a recent article at ChurchLeaders.com. It is an excellent article and you should read it.
So here's my theory: married couples who are regularly attending worship, doing life within a small group community, and who are practicing spiritual disciplines like prayer, Bible study and service together will have a much lower divorce rate than the general population. Thus, the key to having a statistically stronger marriage is not to claim Christianity but to do Christianity.
There is some pretty solid anecdotal evidence to back up my theory when I consider the divorce rate in the mega-church where I serve. Are there marriages in our church who are in crisis and who are moving towards divorce? Certainly. But when I consider the 400 or so couples who are regularly involved in the Sunday morning small groups that I supervise, I have a hard time recalling very many divorces within that population. Quite frankly, it rarely happens. Among other things, this speaks to the value of small group community. And it is why I get concerned when a couple pulls away from involvement in their small group.
Because our marriages reflect our relationship with Christ (we are his bride, after all), the stakes on getting this right are quite high. I like what Stetzer says in his conclusion of the article mentioned above:
"One reason this is so important in this area is that when we say things like "the divorce rate for Christian couples and non-Christian couples is the same," we give the impression that Christ makes no difference in our lives and in our marriages. That is offensive to the work of the Spirit in us and is simply not true. We must not give Satan a foothold in our marriage, and bad stats can do just that."
May we all be Imperfect and Normal Families who are constantly striving to submit ourselves more and more to God's design for marriage, for the sake of the gospel and for the sake of our own joy.