Sociologists like Robert Putnam (Bowling Alone) and Mark Chaves (American Religion: Contemporary Trends) have called our collective attention to the dissolution of the ties that used to bind us. Mainstays of 1950s America like denominational loyalty and that felt pressure to join the Rotary Club have fallen victim to the cult of the self. So in this climate where that which binds us seems to pale in comparison to that which divides, it should come as no surprise that American marriages are not in good shape.
So why hasn’t this been on my radar?
It probably should be. I’m in the midst of planting a church whose target demographic just happens to include the first generation of adults to grow up in this post-sexual revolution “culture of divorce.” At Root and Branch Christian Church in Chicago, we are tackling the theological work of translating the good news into an idiom that hits home with that demographic. We believe the good news should actually sound like good news.
That’s why this report is important for my ministry. The children of divorce described in this study have grown up to be many of the adults in our church. And if the church is in the business of proclaiming good news, then the onus is on us to get to know the deep pain that dwells in the hearts of this generation and longs for redemption.
The central claim of this report is a bold one: when children experience their parents’ divorce, their lives of faith do not go on unchanged. It’s bold because a lot of armchair psychology implies otherwise. As a youth minister, I heard it all the time. So long as parents carry out their divorce amicably, their children will be fine. So long as the parents are happier after the divorce, their children will be happier too.
But by the lights of empirical research, this appears to be a myth. As the report puts it: “While a good divorce is better than a bad divorce, it still is not good.” No matter how you slice it, switching from one home to two homes is a big deal. Watching the union that brought you into the world disintegrate before your eyes is necessarily traumatic. And missing out on youth group to spend a weekend at your dad’s house across town has a serious, destabilizing effect on young people.
This being the case, the authors of this study do us all a favor by resisting the urge to moralize. Their goal is not to affix a millstone of guilt around the necks of divorcées. But they do believe that everyone considering divorce should be aware of the real impact of their decision on the spiritual lives of their children. So instead of the usual religious finger wagging, this study chooses to empower parents to make their own moral decisions by disabusing us all of the myth of the good divorce. While there are certainly times when divorce is the best decision, this decision should not be one we make under false consciousness.
But what positive steps can we take as a church to prevent divorce before it starts?
Part of living a faithful life of discipleship is to risk engaging our fellow sojourners on the messiest, most fundamental parts of our lives. Practically, this means asking people out for coffee and checking in on the health of their marriage. It also means being willing to share stories of the trials, tribulations and redemption of our own relationships.
What the authors of this report are recommending is sorely needed in American Protestantism: a more robust application of Christian love. Liberal Protestants have focused on Christian love as “radical hospitality” in the last few decades – and we are, no doubt, the better for it. Generally speaking, these churches are more welcoming than they were 40 years ago. Showing others the extravagant welcome of Christ is a powerful first-step towards loving them.
But if we stop at welcome then what started as Christian love can degenerate into merely polite toleration. his creates a culture that shudders when anyone dares to hold another person accountable to his or her commitments. To be questioned by a church member on the way we raise our children or the way we relate to our partners feels to us like an impolite impingement on our own personal affairs.
But Jesus wasn’t overly concerned about politeness. Not long after he radically welcomed his followers to come and follow him, he began to make disciples of them. He loved them enough to have expectations, to hold them accountable, and thereby to form them into a particular vision of what it means to live a good and faithful life. And then he told the church to go and make more disciples.
Bourgeois niceness tells us that the moral and personal lives of others are none of our business. But as this study rightly suggests, Christian love demands that we make it our business.
It is our business because something theological is at stake in the well-being of our marriages. Healthy marriages are the best environment in which to pass on religious practices and beliefs to our children. And marriages are healthiest when they are surrounded by a community who dares to love across the polite boundaries of suburban propriety.
In sum, what Marquardt, Ziettlow, and Stokes are asking of us is to try out an authentically Christian love, the kind of love that calls others to a higher standard, that cares enough to take notice when other families are suffering, and to risk the kind of holy, intimate, vulnerable interactions that make the church the church and not a social club.