by Devon Williams, associate editor, CitizenLink
'Marriage is a gateway into family life, and family life, in turn, is often a gateway into church attendance.'
A dramatic decline in marriage, particularly among young adults, has led to a decline in church attendance over the last three decades, according to a study by Robert Wuthnow, a sociology professor at Princeton University.
Men are 57 percent less likely to regularly attend church if they are not married. Single women are 41 percent less likely to attend church than their married counterparts.
"It exaggerates only a little to say that Americans in their 20s and early 30s divide into two groups of about equal size: those who are married, the majority of whom participate in religion; and those who are not married, the majority of whom do not participate," Wuthnow said at a conference at The Heritage Foundation.
Brad Wilcox, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, said the biggest factor driving the decline in church attendance is delayed marriage.
"Marriage is a gateway into family life, and family life, in turn, is often a gateway into church attendance," he said. "The longer people postpone marriage, the less likely they are to attend church at a given age, and also the less likely they are to attend church down the road."
Wuthnow estimates in his book, After the Baby Boomers: How Twenty- and Thirty-Somethings are Shaping the Future of American Religion, that American churches would have 6.3 million more young adults today if young people started families at the same rate they did 30 years ago.
Wilcox said the Church needs to be more intentional about promoting marriage at an earlier age.
"One thing churches need to do is to really encourage their teenagers and their young adults not to buy into this culture of 'hooking up' and even the culture of dating or just hanging out," he said. "(Churches need) to create a culture of courtship that puts them on a path to marriage, for those who are called to marriage.
"I think connecting young adults to families who have different priorities and different challenges and different joys would help them see the world a little bit differently, and hopefully grow in their faith at the same time."