According to data gathered in 2021, a couple is divorced in America every 46 seconds. This means two to three divorces happen during an average wedding vow recital (2 minutes), more than 156 divorces occur during an average romantic comedy (2 hours), and 391 divorces take place during an average wedding reception (5 hours).
And, according to earlier studies, the highest divorce rates are produced by communities with large concentrations of conservative Protestants.
Many will find this dumbfounding. According to a common evangelical interpretation, save for a few possible exceptions, the Lord has prohibited divorce. Consequently, one would expect that divorce would be less common in Bible Belt states.
Yet this is not the case.
To understand why, we need to “look under the hood.” Researchers tell us those who participate in worship at least two times a month are actually less likely to divorce than the general population. Not so with those Protestants who attend less frequently. It is that latter group, which has been called Christian penumbra, that gives us the high percentage of divorces.
This is not surprising. For a marriage to succeed, a significant support network is needed. Those who attend church infrequently are less likely to have such a network. Couple this with evangelical biases in favor of early marriage and childbirth and against sex education, and the higher percentage of divorce among non-churchgoing evangelicals seems much less puzzling.
I do not count myself among those who believe divorce is never acceptable or is acceptable in case of adultery only. There are other legitimate reasons for divorce, such as physical abuse. Even if there is no abuse, physical or of another kind, divorce may be the best outcome. Some marriages simply hit a dead end and become toxic for all involved. Seldom is divorce an easy decision. And when the decision to terminate a marriage has been reached, those divorcing need to be given all the spiritual support and fellowship they can get.
Still, with about half of all marriages ending in divorce, we can do with fewer divorces. They tend to set people back financially a great deal. They are often hard on children. And second and third marriages are much likelier to end up in divorce than the first one.
It has been noted that the same dynamic contributes to Red states having a greater percentage of children born out of wedlock. Among the three states hit hardest by the opioid crisis, two are Red (West Virginia and Ohio) and one is purple (New Hampshire). If fraying social structures were a contributing factor to opioid overdoses, it is not farfetched to suppose that here, too, we are dealing with those evangelicals disconnected from the local church.
“Christians who do not participate in a worshipping community significantly are less adapted to some important life challenges than those who never have been religious.”
It looks as though those Christians who do not participate in a worshipping community significantly are less adapted to some important life challenges than those who never have been religious.
Does worshipping online offer a sufficient level of communal participation? Or is it a cop-out that expands the kind of Christianity that does not offer a communal structure to meet life challenges? These are the questions many are pondering over in the wake of the pandemic that moved churches online for a significant period.
Worshipping online is certainly convenient. You do not have to leave your bedroom to participate. It dramatically expanded church options by removing geographical limitations. One can attend any church that offers online streaming. As a result, some churches have been able to expand their reach significantly. And there are ways to be a part of ecclesial online communities, which offer a kind of interaction many find quite meaningful. Friendships developed online could be as strong as those developed in person.
However, there are things online worshipping communities do not offer. Several reasons have been given for in-person worship in the internet age: the need to experience fellowship and develop relationships, facilitating accountability and mentoring, taking Communion together and role modeling for children.
But the most important reason is that the church is the family of God. Technology has given us opportunities to be connected with our family members in ways we could not have fathomed. However, none of that can substitute for a hug, a touch or a dinner conversation. The same applies to God’s family.
And for a Christian, being genuinely rooted in the family of God is vitally important for dealing with life challenges in a way that glorifies the Savior. “Me and Jesus” Christianity will not do.
Jehovah’s Witnesses permit their members to watch their worship online only if they cannot come in person. Our churches do not have discipline that strict. However, I cannot help wondering if this is the habit more mainstream heirs of the Reformation need to encourage.
Andrey Shirin is a native Russian who serves as associate professor of divinity and director of transformational leadership at John Leland Center for Theological Studies in Virginia.
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