I remember being at a Promise Keepers Rally some twenty years ago when one of the speakers joked about his marriage, ‘We never considered divorce – murder, yes, but not divorce.’ It reminds me of a story about Sven and Hulda, a Scandinavian couple who were Christians. They sang in the choir. They were at Sunday School every Sunday. They had prayer at every meal. They went to all the church functions. But they could not get along. At home, it was terrible: bickering, complaining, fussing. After both of them had devotions one morning, separately of course, Hulda said to Sven, ‘You know Sven, I been tinking. I got de answer to dis hopeless problem we’re living wit. I think ve should pray for de Lord to take vun of us home to be with Him. And then, Sven, I could go live wit my sister.’ That story may make us smile, but the reality is many marriages are in trouble. Consequently, there has been a lot of negative reports about the rate of divorce in America, stating it is 50% (i.e. half of marriages ending up in divorce)
WHAT IS THE DIVORCE RATE ANYWAY?
To start with, it’s not what people have projected: the idea that half of American marriages end in divorce and that it’s just like that in the church. Havard trained researcher Shaunit Feldham found out that it was not so. Here is his story –
INDIANA JONES AND THE DIVORCE STATS OF DOOM
In 2006 I was a nationally syndicated newspaper columnist writing a routine piece about marriage and divorce. I wanted to accurately cite the numbers, but my senior researcher and I were soon really confused by contradictory statistics about what the divorce rate actually was. In the end, a question we originally expected to answer in two minutes took eight years of investigation to unravel. I felt a bit like Indiana Jones as we waded into the deep jungle of complex statistical projections and feuding demographers in search of great treasure: the truth that surely had to be in there somewhere.
Along the way, we kept unearthing encouraging facts not just about the divorce rate but about marriage overall. Facts we felt urgently needed to come to light, to bring balance to the national conversation and encourage individual marriages! Yes, we also saw plenty of very real concerns. And we quickly found that this field is so complicated, there is often no way to nail down one “right” answer. But we can get a lot closer.
THE GOOD NEWS
According to the Census Bureau, 72 percent of those who have ever been married, are still married to their first spouse! And the 28 percent who aren’t includes everyone who was married for many years, until a spouse died. No one knows what the average first-marriage divorce rate actually is, but based on the rate of widowhood and other factors, we can estimate it is probably closer to 20-25 percent. For all marriages (including second marriages, and so on), it is in the 31-35 percent range, depending on the study.
Now any amount of divorce is still too high! But still, knowing that most marriages last a lifetime is good news that urgently needs to be part of our conventional wisdom.
DIVORCE AND THE CHURCH
Shaunti Feldham goes on to say – Another myth that is begging to be debunked is the notion that “Barna found that the rate of divorce is the same in the church.” Actually the Barna Group found no such thing, and George Barna himself told me he would love to correct this misunderstanding because he wasn’t studying people “in the church.”
The Barna Group studies were focusing specifically on the divorce rates of those with Christian and non-Christian belief systems and didn’t take worship attendance into account. So I partnered with the Barna Group, and we re-ran the numbers. If the person were in church last week, their divorce rate dropped by 27 percent. And that is one of the smallest drops found in recent studies; overall, regular church attendance lowers the divorce rate anywhere from 25-50 percent, depending on the study you look at.
THE IMPACT OF FALSE DATA
The effect of the false data has had a negative effect on church goers. Paul Strang of CBN news notes –
For a pastor it means ‘all my work doesn’t mean very much,’ ” Feldhahn told CBN News. “For the average person in the congregation there’s this subtle feeling like, ‘If that’s true: if on something as important as marriage, doing what the Bible says doesn’t change anything, what does that mean about the Bible?'”
Virginia Pastor Daniel Floyd, with Fredericksburg’s Lifepoint Church, has seen how this can hurt people’s faith.
“Because a 50 percent divorce rate inside the church really just said the church makes no difference in your marriage,” Floyd explained. “And that’s quite an indictment of the church.”
Christian psychotherapist Angel Davis said the belief half of marriages fail can even give people permission to give up. “When you have something like a statistic like 50 percent, it gives you the option,” she told CBN News. “It becomes an option in your mind.”
But this is not so. Feldhahn goes on to say -“Pastors need to know this,” she said. “People need to be able to look around the average congregation and say, ‘You know what, most of these people will have strong and happy marriages for a lifetime. Doing what God says matters. This is a big deal to know.”
LASTING A LIFETIME
So where do things go from here? For one, pastors and counselors can now say with assurance, marriage makes sense and is likely to last a lifetime. For religious believers, if they’ll be attentive to practice their faith with their spouse, they can almost double their odds of avoiding divorce. Therapist Davis said this could go a long way to erasing the doubt that Christianity makes no difference. “That there’s no power in it to transform. And that is just not true,” she insisted. “So those statistics I think could help a lot with that belief.” Pastor Floyd believes it’ll be a major plus for the faith when this new knowledge gets around. “If you have regular church attendance, then it’s going to make a difference in the longevity of your marriage,” he said. “I think that is incredible firepower, so to speak, for the local church, for the pastor.”
Let’s finish with some positive thoughts about marriage by Billy Graham called ‘Happily Incompatible.’
Ruth and I didn’t have a perfect marriage, but we had a great one. In a perfect marriage, everything is always the finest and best imaginable; like a Greek statue, the proportions are exact and the finish is unblemished. Who knows any human beings like that? The unblemished ideal exists only in ‘happily ever after’ fairy tales. I think that there is some merit to a description I once read of a married couple as ‘happily incompatible.’ Ruth liked to say, ‘If two people agree on everything, one of them is unnecessary.’
The most important truth we need to know about marriage is that God gave it to us. True love is an act of the will – a conscious decision to do what is best for the other person instead of ourselves. That is why marriage involves commitment, the commitment of a man and a woman to each other for as long as they both shall live. Do you want to know what love is? Look at Jesus Christ. He put us first instead of Himself – and that’s what true love does. – Billy Graham