In the fight for faith and family in America, we have reached the endgame. The Church has only a few pieces left to play and must deploy them strategically. The time for decisive action is now. Seventy percent of all Americans said they belonged to a religious body in the year 2000. However, earlier this year, Gallup published new research that shows this number has dropped to 47 percent, the lowest number in recorded American history!
Our nation has never had fewer people getting married each year. […] Too few understand that the collapse of marriage and the cascading effects of this collapse on our broader relationship health lies at the center of the widespread retreat from Christian faith.
J.P. De Gance and John Van Epp
THE STAKES ARE HIGH
In chess, the endgame is when both players are down to their last pieces and there is no margin for error. The stakes are high, and victory is determined by each strategic move. At the endgame, every decision can mean defeat or triumph. One wrong move can be fatal for either player. Or consider a football game that’s tied in the final minutes. No one doubts that the stakes are high. A pass across the middle of the field could be intercepted. The referee might throw a flag. A field goal attempt might look straight and veer left. We feel the pressure mounting as we watch victory hang in the balance by a thread.
In Endgame: The Church’s Strategic Move to Save Faith and Family in America (Love Thinks/Communio, 2021), J.P. De Gance and John Van Epp tell us that the American Church is engaged in a high-stakes endgame of its own. They urge the American Church to see that the clock is ticking in the final minutes in our nation and marriages, families, and the future of our country are what’s at stake.
THE CHURCH’S OPPORTUNITY & RESPONSIBILITY
Backed by sound data and a proven track record working with marriage ministries throughout the country, Endgame makes the case for the American Church to rise up and seize its opportunity and responsibility before it’s too late. Like no other institution in society, the Church has the unique opportunity and responsibility, according to the book’s authors, to “build relationship ministries and outreaches into their congregations and communities—congruent with their faith—that speak to the needs of singles, couples, and families, and, as a result, will grow their churches and transform their communities.”
Marriages and families in our communities are a new mission field. Like the missionaries of yesterday and today, we must work together and employ effective ministry strategies to meet the most urgent issue in our society (“lack of relational health in dating, marriages, and families”) to save faith and family in America.
CASE STUDY: JACKSONVILLE, FLORIDA
De Gance has helped numerous marriage initiatives in cities across the country. One of the most remarkable is the Culture of Freedom Initiative to lower the divorce rate in Jacksonville, Florida. How did this collective effort of churches and faith-based organizations working together in Jacksonville turn out? Here’s how De Gance recalls what happened:
The Culture of Freedom Initiative didn’t just help churches grow stronger. It also proved that churches can shift marriage dynamics across an entire city. Jacksonville, Florida, had historically been one of the worst cities for marriage in America due to its high divorce rate. The city had never been below the state average divorce rate since the advent of no-fault divorce. Our coalition worked with ninety-three different churches in Jacksonville—Baptist, Catholic, and community Bible churches—to move 58,912 people through four-hour or longer skills-based programs. Our data team used digital impressions to micro-target people across the county, driving engagement and participation in the relationship health ministry these churches put on. The divorce rate in Jacksonville fell 24 percent over the three-year project.
24 percent. That statistic baffled experts. In the end, they determined that the biggest reason for this decline had to do with the efforts of churches coming together to work strategically to meet the relational needs of those in their communities.
THE STRENGTH OF FAITH & FAMILY
Family and faith are the invisible double helix of society—two spirals that when linked to one another can effectively reproduce, but whose strength and momentum depend on one another.
What was it that set believers in the Early Church apart from their neighbors? It was their example of how to live well in marriage and relationships. By focusing on building strong and healthy marriages and families, we, too, can be difference-makers in our culture. We, the Church, can be a community that offers support, practical help, and good news to our own and to our neighbors about marriage and family. And that’s not just good for everyone in the community. It’s good for church growth and the kingdom as well.
What does it look like for your church to build strong relationship ministries that address the real needs of those in your church and community? Consider the following points from Endgame to help create practical steps forward:
- [Many churches] overlook the development of relationship skills, even though skill development is at the heart of discipleship.
- A theology of relationships clearly challenges churches to make a paradigm shift that elevates relationship ministries and outreach to a top priority.
- Most churches simply lack a 911 or an effective marriage emergency strategy.
- When we are in an authentic relationship with someone, that person has the ability to influence us positively and help us grow as followers of Christ.
- Any effective relationship ministry must focus on creating easy on-ramps for people to belong and form real relationships. So, what are your church’s creative “on-ramps” for relationship ministry?
- Relationship skills devoid of virtues are dangerous and can create manipulative people who leverage skills without virtuous motives. But the failure to teach the skills while teaching virtue is equally problematic.
- Many churches are unaware of the extensive Christian skills-based relationship content that is available to them, but these resources are both plentiful and easily accessible.
Data also inform us of where our time, energy, and resources need to be focused. In an average church, 1 in 4 people are struggling in their marriage. Adult singles remain the most underserved populations in relationship ministry. Overall, marriages have decreased by 31 percent in the last 20 years, 48 percent in the last 40 years, and 61 percent in the last 50 years.
We can no longer wait for people to ask for help in their marriages and families. We, the Church, must make the first move, and go to them. We need to reach them and address the real problems they face with real solutions and strategies that lead them to Christ and healthy marriages and strong families.
We find ourselves in the final minutes of our endgame as the American Church and the stakes are as high as ever. The decision is ours to make as believers. Will we rise to the occasion and heed the words of De Gance and Van Epp, when they tell us:
Churches do have the power and resources to revitalize a belief and love for marriage and family across America. Churches can leverage the best in ministry strategy, technology, and skills-based practices. And churches will heal a generation that has lost its way while leading hearts back to Christ, but only when they unite together with this common mission!
We wholeheartedly believe that Jesus will build His church, and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it. We clearly know how the Biblical story ultimately ends. But between now and then, the story for our children and our children’s children will be written by the choices we make today. For the Church in America and throughout the West, we must decide our endgame.
Join us on September 7th to hear J.P. De Gance live in Little Rock. Register for the event here.
Chris Loux – Communications Director, CityChurch Network