Is the future of our congregations tied to the fate of the family? Professor W. Bradford Wilcox of the University of Virginia is sure that this is so, and his research and analysis is impossible to ignore. In his essay, "As the Family Goes," published in First Things, Wilcox argues that the future of America's Christian congregations will "rise and fall with the fortunes of the intact, married family."

His analysis is drawn from mountains of statistical research combined with a keen understanding of how both families and congregations actually work. The best predictor of church attendance for young adults is marriage. Wilcox cites Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow's report that decreases in marriage and childbearing among young adults were "by far the strongest predictors" of a decline in religious attendance. As a matter of fact, Wuthnow argues that American churches would now have 6.3 million more young adults attending if marriage and childbearing rates had not fallen so precipitously.

Wilcox suggests what observers of young men already know -- "the link between religious attendance and family life is particularly strong for men." As Wilcox explains:

Currently, men are 57 percent less likely to attend church regularly if they are not married with children, compared to men who are married with children. Women are 41 percent less likely to attend church regularly if they are single and childless. Marriage does more than bind a man to one woman; it also ties a man to a local congregation.


For men, marriage, fatherhood, and churchgoing are a package deal. Men's comparatively fragile faith often depends on wifely encouragement to flower. More important, fatherhood often awakens in men a sense of paternal responsibility that extends to their children's religious and moral welfare. Men are much less likely to identify with and be able to fulfill the responsibilities of fatherhood--including the religious ones--if they are not married to the mother of their children. This is why divorce is much more likely to drive men away from church than it is women.

This makes a great deal of sense and a look at congregational life will tell the story.  Marginalize marriage, depreciate childbearing and fatherhood, and say goodbye to young adult men in church.

In a fascinating analysis, Wilcox suggests that evangelical congregations have done relatively well in attendance and draw considerable numbers of young adult men precisely because those congregations tend to support, honor, and encourage the establishment and health of intact families.

Liberal Protestantism, on the other hand, has swallowed something of a poison pill.  They have embraced trends weakening the family and have encouraged "alternative lifestyles" -- trends that have been disastrous for their own attendance. 

In his words:

After almost half a century of decline . . . those in the churchly mainline--particularly those on the left, politically and theologically--still cannot see their dependence on strong families. Blinded by their desire to be both "with it" and welcoming, they continue to lend vocal support to the family revolution that is draining their congregations.

As an illustration of this trend, he pointed to the "God is Still Speaking" media campaign undertaken by the United Church of Christ [UCC]:

The "Ejector Pew" commercial from this campaign has attracted attention. It depicts a WASP upper-middle-class nuclear family settling comfortably into a church pew as unconventional families--a black single mother, a gay couple, a single man, and so on--are ejected from their pews. The commercial closes with this tag: "The United Church of Christ: No matter who you are or where you are in life's journey, you are welcome here."