While working professionally as a psychotherapist over the 25 years or so prior to my current pastoral profession inside the United Methodist Church, I saw a few hundred couples for marital counseling. About half never got past the assessment stage, because it became clear one partner wanted to end the marriage rather than save it. Of those who failed to reach 1st base in their therapy, nearly all ended in divorce. Of those who did divorce, I imagine some mix of emotional relief for some and grief for others. Those mostly grieved perhaps remarried in time, while many who felt mostly relieved may still be single today for all I know.
I bring this up because I am guessing there is a similar response among those leaving a marriage and those leaving a church. Many will land somewhere eventually in another church. Some, especially those more relieved than grieved, may never return.
Sociology of religion experts might have some data on hand suggesting children growing up in an unmarried family and those in an unchurched family bring similar resistance to bear in either marrying or joining a church later on in adulthood. If not, I wish someone would research this. If so, I’d not be surprised by the correlation. Nor would it surprise me if kids growing up inside a badly conflicted marriage and those inside a badly conflicted church might shy away from these respective institutions to a greater extent during their own adulthoods. Others will hop from one failure to the next within both institutions.
In today’s post-modern world, many of our social institutions are in turmoil. At first glance, it may appear many of them are failing as numbers show more folks leaving than entering. On second thought, however, I wonder if these institutions will not simply re-invent, re-brand, or otherwise replace themselves in the coming years. May even be that for churches and marriages alike, more straights leaving through the back door will bring more gays in through the front.
Who knows what our institutions will look like later in this century, but I strongly suspect they’ll still be around. Even our churches!!! Why? Because we humans are both incurably social and incurably religious. We need connection and community, and we need faith in someone beyond ourselves. We need church even when we don’t want it.
As a pastor, I’d love to take church back to the first century just as I’d love for quarreling couples to re-enact their own courtship of attraction when now older and wiser as to the pitfalls they were not earlier prepared to face. If the Church can make its way back to Jesus, remember her first love, I would suggest divorce is not necessary for most church members. But if we fail at that, and many churches will refuse such a revival in relation to the living Word of God in Christ Jesus, then there will inevitably be many divorces to come between churches and members.
But what if we don’t have to fail? Don’t have to divorce? What if we really can re-think Church? Can return to our first love and be Jesus followers again? Can raise children to know Jesus and to know their heavenly Father? As I’ve asked many couples otherwise on the verge of divorce over the years, “wouldn’t this at least be worth a try?”
Half of you will probably say, “no way. I’m tired of trying. I just want out!” And I will understand.