A large new survey suggests that as men disappear from living with their children and couples stop marrying or they divorce, Christianity in the U.S. takes a major hit.

The Nationwide Study on Faith and Relationships, by the church consulting group Communio, says bluntly that failures in family life translate into declines in faith. And it says churches, faced with shrinking attendance, need to promote healthy marriage and fatherhood.

As the report puts it: “Family decline appears to fuel faith decline.”

The study underpinning the report was conducted by surveying 19,000 attendees at church services in 13 states on a specific Sunday. The churches, all Christian faiths, included 112 evangelical, Protestant and Catholic congregations.

In the study, the researchers note that marriage rates have fallen more than 30% since 2000 and a whopping 61% since 1970. Meanwhile, less than half of young adults under 30 grew up in homes with married parents.

J.P. De Gance, report author and the founder and president of Communio, said those who attend church are more likely to have involved fathers in their lives. And that’s essential, he added, for family well-being, but also for strengthening faith. He also sees it as a powerful hedge against a national epidemic of loneliness.

“Everyone is deeply concerned about the rise of religious nonaffiliation,” De Gance told Deseret News. “Second, they are concerned about loneliness. Our survey IDs both of those phenomena as being caused by the same thing: our society’s flight from marriage. Never have fewer people been married, which also means we are at the highest point in the nation’s history where adults have grown up without the continuous presence of a father in the home, which is a fruit of marriage.”

He pointed out that there are good dads who are unmarried, but on average they are not as involved in the lives of their children.

De Gance believes that a healthy relationship with an involved father helps young people understand the love of a heavenly father. And fathers who regularly attend church are also more likely to be involved in home and family life, he told the Deseret News.

Many have not made that connection, De Gance said, noting that the decline in the number of Christians over four decades has, as the report says, “prompted numerous explanations advanced by experts, pastors, church leaders and those in the media, most of which are either wrong or, at best, incomplete.” It says the “gap in understanding” has led those who are worried about the decline in church attendance and practice to “chase phantoms.”

Dad in the pews and at home

Per the study, 80% of all Sunday church attendees in the U.S. grew up in homes with biological parents who were married to each other. Now, that’s increasingly unusual. But the finding was true across all age groups, including those under 30. And it was true of 80% of never-married Sunday church attendees ages 25-29, while fewer than half of the general population that age grew up with continuously married biological parents.

So boys who grew up in homes with married parents are “considerably more likely to attend church regularly as adults,” according to the survey. By 2021, 4 in 10 births were to unmarried women, driving up the share of nonresidential fathers. The report says in the last decade, “fewer than half of all 17-year-olds are in homes with their two biological, continuously married parents.”

The report also notes that loneliness is rampant, experienced by about half of the adult U.S. population, according to a May advisory from the U.S. Surgeon General. The study found that just 22% of churchgoers are considered lonely, compared to about half of all U.S. adults. There are differences by marital status, too, with just 15% of married couples saying they are lonely. Half of single adult churchgoers ages 30-39 are lonely. Lonelier, in fact, than widows, De Gance said.

The report says that nearly 1 in 5 married people struggle in their relationships, and women are more likely to struggle in marriage than men. But cohabiters are more likely to struggle than those who are married, 32% vs. 18%. Cohabiting women seem to struggle most of all.

De Gance said in an interview with the Deseret News that marriages were failing before churches were. But between 1986-1995, more than a quarter century after the sexual revolution, religious nonaffiliation became significant and continues to grow.

The perils of cohabitation and why timing is linked to later divorce
Survey: Do most women take their husband’s last name? And will future brides?

Linking marriage and faith

Per the report, “While family of origin is a vital ingredient to influencing adult faith practice, its influence is seen in general trends. It is not determinative in individual cases. For example, our survey found that 1 in 5 churchgoers today come from unmarried homes. Furthermore, it is well-known that not all adults who grew up in married homes attend church.”

View Comments

But a 2018 American Social and Political Behavior Survey said those who grew up in an intact family are nearly twice as likely at 78% to go to church regularly compared to those who did not grow up with both parents at home.

Communio’s research also suggests that the share of those who respond “none” to faith is not apt to change anytime soon. The report says that it “could happen 25-30 years after family life stabilizes.”

Among its advice for churches, the report says that churches must emphasize cornerstone marriages, rather than capstone marriages, as healthy norms. When couples marry fairly young and build a life together, it’s a cornerstone marriage. Marriage is a capstone when couples wait until they feel like they have all their ducks in order, including finances.

It also notes that churches “MUST” — the report used all caps — address the gender gap in the pews. Women are more likely to attend church than men. And it adds that “cross-generational fellowship that includes building community between singles and married people is clearly needed.”

Join the Conversation
Looking for comments?
Find comments in their new home! Click the buttons at the top or within the article to view them — or use the button below for quick access.