National Edition

How divorce affects young adults' religiosity

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 16 2013 5:00 a.m. MST

A teen boy and girl sing hymns in church.


Elizabeth Marquardt still hasn't found a congregation where she fits in.

The 42-year-old married mother of two, whose parents divorced when she was a toddler, could be ministering over a congregation. She holds a divinity degree, reads the Bible every day, believes in God and as a researcher, has surveyed thousands of youth and adults whose faith was either shaken or steeled by their parents splitting up.

But Marquardt hasn't found a faith community that responds to the profound impact divorce has on the faith of children raised in broken homes. And her research has convinced her she's not alone.

"When death happens, people gather in support," she said. "When divorce happens, people flee. These aren't bad people, but people who don’t know what to say or what to do, and so they don’t say or do anything."

Such a response can have long-lasting consequences on the faith of people whose parents divorce. A national survey of 1,500 young adults, conducted for Marquardt's book "Between Two Worlds," found two-thirds of people from married-parent families said they were very or fairly religious, compared to just over half of the children of divorce. More than a third of those from married-parent families attended religious services almost every week compared with just a quarter of people from divorced families.

These children of divorce make up the leading edge — or what she calls the "broken leading edge" — of a growing number of adults who say they are spiritual, but don't affiliate with a particular religion. And with evidence confirming the greatest predictor of the religious lives of children are the religious lives of their parents, a report released Wednesday, "Does the Shape of Families Shape Faith? Challenging the Churches to Confront the Impact of Family Change," says this cohort of the religiously unaffiliated could have serious implications for the health of churches, both in terms of membership and contributions to churches.

Marquardt, who directs the Center for Marriage and Families at the Institute for American Values and is the principal investigator for the Families Shape Faith project, said the report is a call to churches to recognize and respond to the impact divorce has had and will have on religion. More than 20 scholars contributed to the research, funded by the Lilly Endowment, with papers that address how divorce impacts the faith of youth, how parents influence the faith of their children and how churches can respond to keep their youth's faith intact while restoring the faith of adults.

"We have a couple of generations today who grew up amid profound family change, and if churches aren't connecting with their experiences they are losing them," Marquardt said. "It's not just about helping children who are hurt, but welcoming in adults."

The Children

Within nine months of their engagement, Andrew Root and his fiancee each experienced the divorce of their parents. "That was our introduction into marriage. It was like, 'good luck,'" he recalled. At a deeper level, his parents breaking up after more than 20 years of marriage prompted some spiritual questions that Root struggled to answer. He recalled hearing his mother express relief that the marriage would soon be over and regret that she ever married his father. "It became an untenable situation for me. ... I am in the world because these two people got together and now they regret that they were ever together, ending this community that brought me into the world."

Root, an associate professor of youth and family ministry at Lutheran Seminary in St. Paul, Minn., said shoring up the structural support for children of divorce through child support and visitation schedules is important. But he believes divorce exposes other profound spiritual needs of youth that are often misunderstood or sometimes ignored.

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