“They’ll come back to church…once they marry and have kids…”
How often have you heard that assertion? Is it true? Is it an assumption? Wishful thinking?
Christel Manning’s book “Losing Our Religion: How Unaffiliated Parents Are Raising Their Children” offers some evidence-based insight into this perplexing, and important, question for ministry leaders (as well as other useful research, check out my series on book and other sociology and demographic data here).
Key Point #2: We Don’t Really Know if Marriage and Family Brings Nones Back to Church
Prior to the recent statistical increase in Nones, there was indeed “a life cycle pattern in religious affiliation,” where young adults disaffiliated and then re-affiliated once they married and had children. Those who re-affiliated, typically returned to the religion of their childhood or their spouses’–this was especially true for Baby Boomers (p. 34). Also, the female spouse’s religion tends to be more likely for re-affiliation.
It’s probably not a sound conclusion to assume that this will continue with younger generations because “the societal pressures that may have pushed previous generations of None parents back to religion are less powerful today” (57). What we see already is that “though it’s true that Nones are more likely to be single and childless than religious Americans, that difference is largely because they are younger” overall. When controlling for age, it turns out to be a relatively small difference between the religiously affiliated or unaffiliated based on parenthood/marriage (57). Marriage and family life doesn’t seem to cause a significant increase in religious affiliation.
Okay, so what is it about marriage and/or starting a family that might cause Nones to re-affiliate with a religion? Some theories (that likely interact/overlap)(p. 55-56):
- the new spouse (especially the female) influences the other
- a desire to do so “for the sake of their children,” i.e. an interest in life cycle rituals, positive emotional ties to one’s own childhood religion, and/or a marker or preservation of ethnic/cultural identity
- desire for community
Manning’s research revealed that “there is something about having a family that raises questions about religion identity and commitment for people” (58). However, these questions don’t automatically lead back to religion (seeking answers to the questions raised by marriage and family can also lead someone from an Unchurched Believer to Indifferent, etc.). As a parent of young children (as Manning is as well) this rings true. The questions of children force adults to grapple with their core beliefs. As Manning explains it, children’s questions and/or existence in a family structure often lead to:
- open articulation of worldview identity as parents interact with others in the family
- a new articulation of boundaries and/or the importance of their worldviews in their lives
The most powerful relationship to shape a parent’s religious or secular identity may be with the child…thinking about and interacting with their young children compelled None parents to consciously confront and continuously reevaluate their worldview ways in ways that are different from those induced by interactions with their partners and extended families…because a None’s worldview can be transmitted to another, [who is “unformed”], it suddenly matters (69)
This makes sense. For me, just thinking deeply about the prospect of raising children in my mid 20s compelled me to discern moving from identifying as “Christian” to the truth of particular traditions–reaching a “room” from in the “great hallway” of Christianity, as C.S. Lewis imagined it.
For those in ministry, Manning’s research on this pressing question reminds us:
- Avoid making decisions as if history is normative or determinative, just because Baby Boomers “came back” doesn’t mean that holds true for others–>awareness of current trends is necessary for informed decision-making and expectations
- Not to assume or take for granted that GenX and Millennial parents will return to a church of previous affiliation once they marry and/or have children
- See the opportunity in the “baby” years of 0-3, when many children’s ministries do not yet “offer” anything specific for children, but when parents may be starting to ask those big questions about life, the universe, and religion/spirituality. These can be socially isolating years for new parents, so there’s a significant and meaningful opportunity here to offer a supportive spiritual community for Nones at this time (and, believer-parents as well!)
- Follow-up to the sacraments of baptism and marriage may be even more important than the preparation for these sacraments (which typically receive more resources in parish life) when it comes to helping parents explore those big questions of life, especially for Nones
Stay tuned in the coming days for more key points and applications from this study! And, as always, feel free to offer your own insights, observations, and applications in the Comment box.