If one were to survey a thousand couples for the main factors that can lead to divorce, there’s a good chance that lack of communication would be near the top of that list. When it comes to churchgoing couples, however, that lack of communication isn’t just between the husband and the wife. It’s also between the couple and their church community.

Those are the findings of an American study conducted by LifeWay Research and sponsored by Focus on the Family. Although the scope of the research was limited to churchgoers in the United States, its conclusions are relevant within the broader context of the church in North America.

The study surveyed three sample groups, each one consisting of a thousand individuals: Protestant pastors, churchgoers in healthy marriages, and churchgoers who divorced in the past five years.

Two overarching trends emerged:

First, churchgoers in troubled marriages are often hard to distinguish from their happily married counterparts until after they divorce. In other words, nobody sees it coming until it’s too late.

Second, there’s a substantial gap between how pastors view the level of marriage ministry offered in their churches and how the regular churchgoers view it. This is true whether the churchgoers are married or divorced.

Lack of communication about available marriage resources

Taking the second point first, a clear majority of pastors say their church offers a wide array of marriage support services. These include marital counselling within the church (87 percent), marriage resources such as books and videos (77 percent), and referrals to outside professional counselling (75 percent).

However, there’s a different opinion among the married churchgoers. Only 62 percent believe their church offers marital counselling, just 38 percent are aware of any marriage resources being available, and a mere 30 percent think their church provides outside counselling referrals.

These numbers drop even more sharply among the divorced, to 45 percent for counselling, 21 percent for resources, and 23 percent for referrals.

Scott McConnell, vice-president of LifeWay Research, summed it up this way: “Either pastors are overstating what they’re doing or not everybody is noticing what their church is doing. There are clearly gaps in communication when people don’t even know help exists.”

A secret struggle until it is too late

To be fair, at least part of the communication problem goes back to the first point above. Churchgoers whose marriages are in trouble very often fly under the radar, right up until they get divorced.

As little as three months before ending their marriages, their level of church involvement is similar to – and sometimes even greater than – that of their happily married cohorts. This includes participation in small groups (46 percent among the divorced versus 41 percent among the happily married); service in community ministries (34 percent versus 31 percent); and positions of responsibility within the church (39 percent versus 45 percent).

But things change markedly after the divorce. Almost half of divorced churchgoers (47 percent) leave the church they attended prior to their split. Many of these wind up at a different church, which is perhaps understandable given the awkwardness of both divorced partners staying at the same church.

However, 20 percent stop going to church entirely, and 35 percent report that at least one of their children stops attending as well. When it comes to giving financially to their church, 32 percent say they give less than they did before their divorce, and a quarter of these stop giving altogether.

These numbers indicate there’s more going on besides lack of communication between pastors and churchgoers about the marriage ministry in their churches. It’s also evident that many people with troubled marriages keep quiet about it in their church for as long as they can.

A culture of silence surrounding troubled marriages

At first glance, it appears difficult to account for this. After all, according to 94 percent of pastors, their church is a safe place to talk about marital difficulties, and nearly 80 percent of churchgoers agree.

In practice, however, the situation is quite different. Only 48 percent of divorced churchgoers say they discussed their marital problems with their pastor, and only between seven and 13 percent sought help from anyone else in the church. Nearly a third – a whopping 31 percent – spoke to no one.

Clearly there is still a culture of silence surrounding troubled marriages in the church. This can even be so in congregations that stress authenticity and vulnerability among their members. To borrow an expression from one commentator, church communities often have a “sweet spot of authenticity,” a narrow zone between socially acceptable struggles no one much cares about and “really bad” struggles no one wants to talk about. For many churches, it’s possible that marriage difficulties lie somewhere near the “really bad” end of that spectrum.

But as McConnell warns, “If churches are dogmatic and not realistic about relationships, then those who have trouble in their marriage are never going to tell anybody. That’s a wake-up call to the church.”

Creating a safe, Biblically balanced environment of grace

He continues on a more encouraging note: “As much as churches already do things to help with marriage, there is still a huge opportunity to do more and to do it better. I think the typical pastor would check the box and say, ‘We’re already doing this.’ And yet when we look deeper, there’s so much more that could be done.”

It’s apparent that clearer communication is in order between pastors and their congregations about the marriage support services that are available – or should be available – in their churches.

But part of that communication – the most vital part – is to cultivate a Biblically balanced atmosphere of grace toward those who are struggling in their marriages.

Divorce cannot be taken lightly or accepted as normal, in the manner of the surrounding culture. Scripture doesn’t allow for that. But neither can it be treated as an indelible stigma that forever brands those whose marriages have ended. Scripture doesn’t allow for that either. Marriage troubles – and even marriage failures – are not beyond the forgiving, redemptive power of Christ.

As Greg Smalley, vice-president of Focus on the Family in the United States, observed, “The church should be the number one distribution centre for healthy marriages because of its unique role. Eighty percent of marriages began in church, giving the church a unique opportunity to build a relationship with couples that can last throughout their marriage.”

Sources and further reading

Lisa Cannon Green, “Threat of divorce hard to spot among churchgoing couples,” LifeWay Research, October 29, 2015. Offers a more detailed commentary on the study, as well as links to the research itself.

Brett McCracken, “Has ‘authenticity’ trumped holiness?The Gospel Coalition, January 26, 2014. Source of the discussion about the “sweet spot of authenticity.”

Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.

© 2015 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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