How significant is a father’s role in healthy marriages? In the spiritual formation and flourishing of their children? In church growth and societal flourishing? The findings from the faith-based non-profit Communio in their Nationwide Study on Faith and Relationships suggest that a father’s role in all of these areas is critical. The study, which surveyed 19,000 Sunday church attendees across different denominations, highlights the profound impact fathers have on promoting healthy families and better overall outcomes in society.
With Father’s Day just around the corner, let’s look at what this study reveals about the importance of fathers embracing their God-given role to lead in cultivating healthy marriages, families, and flourishing communities. Let’s also look at the ultimate model for men to follow – Jesus – and what he reveals to us about the true character of biblical manhood and what it looks like to love and lead for the sake of others.
MARRIAGE AND FAITH DECLINE
The decline in marriage rates and the rise in nonmarital births and divorces coincide with the decrease in religious participation. Over the last six decades, changing family structures have significantly influenced personal views, political perspectives, and behaviors, including church attendance. This correlation highlights the significance of stable and intact marriages in promoting religious affiliation and the vital role fathers play in fostering healthy family units.
The reality is many fundamental decisions, such as someone’s faith practice, operate on a deeper psychological level. A person’s family of origin provides deep and long-lasting influences that many are not aware of on a conscious level. Few can identify a deficit in their relationship with their father as a key driver in their faith or church affiliation decision, yet research indicates that nonresident fathers may indeed play an important role in a person’s faith affiliation.
FATHERS AND THEIR CHILDREN
The study emphasizes the crucial role of a married father in a child’s emotional health. Research consistently shows that children raised with married fathers experience fewer adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and are more likely to thrive in various aspects of life. Married fathers have the opportunity to become authoritative figures who provide both love and guidance, leading to positive parenting outcomes that benefit society as a whole.
Indeed, the collapse of fatherhood in the home (as experienced through marriage) is associated with increases in Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE). The more ACEs a child experiences, the greater the likelihood that child will live in poverty, suffer depression, commit a violent crime, or struggle in his life as an adult. A child who experiences married fatherhood throughout his childhood will, on average, experience far fewer ACEs than one who does not.
Married fathers are, of course, not guaranteed to become successful parents. However, because married fathers are nearly always resident fathers, they are much more likely to become the balanced father that raises thriving children.
FATHERS AND FAITH
The relationship between marriage and fatherhood extends beyond the immediate family to disciple-making. Research indicates that a close bond with the father is pivotal in internalizing religious traditions, beliefs, and practices. Adults who grew up with married parents are more likely to become fertile soil for the seeds of faith to flourish (Matthew 13:8). Fathers have a golden opportunity to instill faith with deep roots in their children, contributing to spiritual formation and church growth.
This link between marriage and fatherhood is not limited to positive outcomes in social mobility, education, and overall flourishing—it is also strongly linked to faith. Indeed, a growing body of research on religion shows that a child’s relationship with his or her father is critical for faith practice. A four-decade, longitudinal study following 350 families and over 3,000 people across multiple generations published by Oxford University Press seeking to understand reasons for effective religious transmission found:
“…That, for religious transmissions, having a close bond with one’s father matters even more than a close relationship with the mother. Clearly the quality of the child’s relationship with his or her father is important for the internalization of the parent’s religious tradition, beliefs, and practices.”
RESTORING HEALTHY MARRIAGES AND FATHERHOOD
The decline in married fathers has potentially devastating consequences for both society and the Church. Churches must give priority to restoring healthy marriages within families, churches, and society at large. The data from the study should serve as a wake-up call for church leaders who need to focus on relationship and marriage ministries. Together churches can help restore biblical marriage and fatherhood as bedrocks for a flourishing society.
Christianity is the world religion where God reveals himself eternally as Father and where scripture analogizes God’s love for humanity and the Church through the marital embrace. We continually see God pursuing His People as a spouse who runs after his bride.
The Bible begins and ends with a marriage, and heaven is itself revealed as the eschatological wedding feast.
The Old Testament is replete with spousal descriptions of God’s love for his people—from the Song of Solomon, Isaiah, the Psalms, the powerful story of Hosea and in many, many other places.
In the New Testament, the Church is called Christ’s Bride and his love is described in spousal language. For the Christian, God becomes Our Father, and the central message of the gospel is that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
Our survey findings suggest that fewer people seem to attend church or accept God as their heavenly Father when they have not experienced a resident father. That is to say, those who avoid church are statistically more likely to have an estranged, difficult, or absent relationship with their father than those who do attend church. Those who lack married parents are many times more likely to lack a healthy father in the home, and they tend not to pass through the church’s doors as adults.
Christians of all traditions must find ways to restore healthy marriages to our families, to our churches, and throughout society more broadly if the gospel can hold and again gain ground in America and across the rest of the West.
A LEGACY FOR FUTURE GENERATIONS
The quality of marriages individuals have as adults is significantly influenced by their family of origin. Addressing wounds or patterns that arise from differences in families of origin becomes crucial in effectively preparing for marriage. Churches can play a vital role by offering skills-based marriage ministries that guide couples in practicing healthy relationship patterns and strengthening their marriages. The Church can help lay a foundation for healthy and successful marriages and families by equipping individuals with the necessary tools.
Overall, 82 percent of married men and 81 percent of married women in church on Sunday reported that they grew up in a home where the parents remained continuously married (that is, at least through age 18).
Those married people who grew up without continuously married parents were 34 percent more likely to report struggling in their marriage. Married men without continuously married parents were 48 percent more likely to do so.
Loneliness has reached epidemic proportions and affects over half of all Americans. The study highlights a significant gap in loneliness between married, cohabiting, and single churchgoers. Marriage provides a solution to the epidemic. By cultivating a culture among believers that values healthy marriages and promotes the support of fathers, the Church can combat loneliness and contribute to the overall flourishing of the community.
Being considered lonely has been found to shorten lifespans having the same public health effect as smoking 15 cigarettes per day.
The loneliness data for those who have never married reinforces the truth found in Genesis 2:18 that, “It is not good for man to be alone.”
Our survey found that, at 22 percent being considered lonely, Sunday churchgoers are less likely than the average American to report being lonely. Yet, there is a substantial gap between married, cohabiting, and single Sunday churchgoers in feelings of loneliness.
THE NEED FOR FATHERS
The decline of married fatherhood has had a profound impact on the decline of Christianity in society. Churches must adopt new strategies and approaches to restore biblical marriage and promote the vital role fathers play in all areas of society. By widely implementing relationship skills ministries that teach practical skills for forming healthy, Christ-centered relationships, the Church can cultivate healthy families, seek greater connectedness, and reverse the faith decline in our culture. By recognizing the significant role fathers play and calling them to embrace their responsibilities, we can build a strong faith foundation for future generations.
Pastors must grapple with the fact that men are a significant minority in all churches and across both single and married populations. Christian marriage requires both sexes. Our survey found 60 percent of married respondents and 59 percent of all single, never-married respondents were women. The gender gap between single divorced church goers is 77 percent women to 23 percent men. Overall, women make up 62 percent of all Sunday church attendees.
The findings of this study make it clear that Christian families and churches must propose and preach the cornerstone model for marriage. The reality remains that even in our modern age, marriage remains an essential ingredient to achieving greater success, avoiding loneliness, and more quickly flourishing as an adult. For those who profess Christ, Christian marriage also remains a vital part of the walk of a Christian disciple.
While solutions for the lack of marriageability of men are numerous and complex, in a given church, ministry must make a deliberate effort to close the gender gap by attracting, engaging, and forming men – both married and single. For married men, formation is most effective in the context of helping them live out their Christian marriage.
THE SILENCE OF ADAM
The silence of Adam in the Garden of Eden proved to be a pivotal moment in human history for men. There Adam had the opportunity to intervene and respond to the serpent’s lies but chose to do nothing. Ever since then, the silence of Adam has echoed throughout generations in every man who has wrestled with the tendency to abdicate his God-given responsibility as a man, husband, and father. His silence and the silence of his offspring continue to plague men everywhere when men refuse to stand up and speak up to lies within our culture that lead us further and further from God. It is a sobering reminder that there are devastating consequences when men refuse to embrace and act on what God has called them to be as men of courage who protect and lead their families in ways that model biblical marriage and fatherhood.
THE LION OF JUDAH
In Revelation, Jesus Christ is pictured as the Lion of Judah (Revelation 5:5). This is not the meek-and-mild Jesus adorned in pastels we know from Sunday school. The Apostle John sees Jesus differently as a powerful and victorious lion. His mighty roar resounds in the silence and calls men to embrace their God-given role in marriage and family. Jesus is our ultimate model for marriage and fatherhood. In love, He laid down His life for His beloved Bride, the Church. Today he calls men to love their wives and children like He loves His Bride and the sons and daughters of God.
The data and biblical evidence are clear. The flourishing of society and the growth of the Church depend on fathers who make a different choice to speak into the silence. They depend on fathers who follow Jesus the Lion of Judah and are inspired by His example to be the difference-makers in society by leading their families in such a way that it leaves a legacy of faith that will be felt for generations to come.
Chris Loux — Communications Director, CityChurch Network