Over the decades, divorce has become common enough that it affects every corner of American society—including the church. Congregations have to balance their convictions and their sense of welcome, upholding the institution of marriage while still offering a supportive place for those who are going through divorce.
But have churches been effective at reducing the stigma that comes with ending a marriage?
The General Social Survey has been asking people about their marital status since its inception in 1972. The question is posed this way: “Are you currently—married, widowed, divorced, separated, or have you never been married?” (This question asks about current marital status; therefore the results visualized below do not depict all Christians who have been divorced, just those who are currently divorced or separated.)
The common assumption that the vast majority of Christians are married used to be true but is no longer the case. In 1972, nearly three quarters of all Christians were married (73.1%); however, that has declined by over 20 percentage points in the past four decades.
Now, just a slim majority of Christians report that they are married (52.4%).
Many have observed that more young Christians—along with the rest of society—are delaying marriage or staying single for good, and the data show that today’s Christians are more than twice as likely as in 1972 to have never been married (24%). But they are also more than twice as likely to be divorced (17%).
With twice as many divorced believers now than in the ’70s, many churches have struggled with how to gracefully minister to current or potential members who have split, changed their family structure, and felt more socially isolated as a result. The stigma of divorce can feel especially heavy in theological traditions that espouse the concept that divorce is a sin even in cases of abandonment or adultery, or that do not bring divorced members into certain leadership roles.
Research has shown that women are much more likely to suffer economically than men after divorce, and many are left with the burden of single parenthood. Both factors may lead to a feeling of stigmatization. But across Christian traditions, despite those factors, divorced women are not deterred from church attendance.
Overall, divorced women have been more likely to be regular attenders than divorced men. Divorced evangelicals of both genders are more likely to attend church regularly today than they were 40 years ago. For evangelical women, the increase is 10 percentage points, but for men it’s even larger—17 percent. The results from black Protestants mirror evangelicals’ very well, with attendance trending upward for both genders. Though these faith traditions are often seen as having a conservative view of marriage, the shift could signal that some of the stigma keeping divorcees from church decades ago is fading.
For both mainline Protestants and Catholics, attendance is much lower across the board. However, both groups have seen an interesting recent development. While, historically, divorced women were consistently more likely to be church attenders than divorced men, the lines have converged in the past five years. Now there is no essentially no gender gap in these traditions. Attendance among divorced Catholic women has declined significantly since the mid-1990s.
While evangelicals can celebrate the significant increase in attendance among divorced people, it’s important that this finding be placed in context—in comparison to the married couples in their pews each week.
Evangelicals clearly stand out from the other three groups. On the positive side, around 40 percent of divorced evangelicals attend church nearly every week—that’s as often or more often than married Catholics, black Protestants, or mainline Protestants.
There is, however, a more sobering way to look at these results: The gap in church attendance among married and divorced evangelicals is at least twice as large as any other Christian tradition, at 20 percentage points. Even more worrisome, the attendance gap between the two has actually widened among evangelicals in the past decade. So, despite more divorced evangelicals coming to church, they still aren’t as eager to show up as their married counterparts.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus told his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few” (Matt. 9:37). If churches want to continue to see growth in their attendance, then equipping workers to welcome, include, and minister to the divorced and separated people in their communities could be a wise use of resources.
Previous LifeWay Research has shown the difficulty of ministering to those who have suffered a broken marriage. Even among regular churchgoers who divorced, a third didn’t let their pastor know they were having difficulty. After the split, some opt to switch churches, stop bringing the children to church, or no longer attend at all.
Many people in these situations have lost family and friends as well as their spouse and are cut off from the same rhythms and relational ties that they built as a couple. It can be incredibly isolating and spiritually exhausting. A congregation of welcoming and helpful Christians could be exactly what they need.