Sunday, November 19, 2006

Are Christians Just As Likely to Divorce as Non-Christians?

It's often reported that Christians are just as likely to divorce as non-Christians. This necessarily speaks poorly of the ability of the American church to call believers to sanctified lives if the statistics are accurate. But as I noted a year ago, flawed methodological assumptions, such as how one defines a Christian, can result in inaccurate studies:

This is a theological definition. But evangelicals, in the sense that Gallup and Barna are using, are a social cohort -- a group of individuals with common and discrete characteristics. I preface with this distinction because I think that an evangelical, in the sociological sense, is someone who is strongly culturally tied to a church.

So how do Gallup and Barna identify evangelicals? Gallup defines it as someone who has had a 'born again' experience. Theologically, I agree. But if that self-identified person does not show up to church at least once a week, I do not think that he could be defined sociologically as an evangelical or, better put, a member of the evangelical culture. Gallup says that 41% of Americans self-identify as evangelical. Maybe so, but 41% of Americans aren't showing up to church on a weekly basis. Barna defined the Christians within their sample as those who have "accepted Jesus Christ as their savior"...and that's it, no other identifiers. So Gallup and Barna are theologically correct in their definition, but not sociologically correct.

We can debate, theologically speaking, what makes a Christian, but if one is engaging in sociological analysis then one must use sociological terms. And in this sense, someone who responds to a phone survey by saying "Yes, I'm a Christian" isn't necessarily a Christian.

So sociologist Brad Wilcox measured divorce against church attendance:

This idea that Christians are just as likely to divorce as secular folks is not correct if we factor church attendance into our thinking. Churchgoing evangelical Protestants, churchgoing Catholics, and churchgoing mainline Protestants are all significantly less likely to divorce.


I estimate between 35 and 50 percent less likely than Americans who attend church just nominally, just once or twice a year, or who don't attend church at all. It is true that people who say they've had a born-again experience are about as likely to divorce as people who are completely secular. But if you look at this through the lens of church attendance, you see a very different story.

Certainly there is excessive divorce in the American church today, among other signs of broken relationships and sin. But the Chicken Little attitudes of many critics are unmerited.

Hat tip: David Wayne


John Meunier said...

Great link and post. I had not seen this article before.

I have never looked at the methodology before. I am surprised that such studies have not used church attendance in the past. That is such a commonly used survey question that nearly every major sociological data series has it.

Lorna said...

interesting :)

however one would also have to ask why these born again Christians aren't attending church ... is it because their marriage is falling apart and they aren't able to admit it in their church family - where perfection is the ideal - or is that they are caught up in adultery / other sin and therefore cannot face their church leadership and other members.

Gerry said...

Hi John.

Thanks for this great link and for your great, thoughtful exposition of the issue of non-Christian vs. Christian divorce.

Barna describes those who report that they "have accepted Jesus as Lord and Savior and believe they will go to heaven when they die" as "Born Again," at

I ran out of time looking for it on the Barna site, but Barna defines "Evangelical Christian" as a "Born Again" who also fits 7 other criteria. I think one of them was regular church attendance. Also a belief in the truth of the Bible.

Barna does not go by whether interviewees CALL themselves "Born Again" or "Evangelical," but classifies them according to how they answer a list of questions.

Barna says about 50% of Americans are "Born Again". But only 9% are "Evangelical"

I expect that the Christians in the study would fall in Barna's category of "Born Agains" rather than his "Evangelicals."

The secular pollsters, however, do not have such fine-tuned definitions of evangelicals and might simply have asked interviewees to define themselves.

Still, it is an alarming piece of news.


codepoke said...

The numbers will be skewed on church attendance. I highly suspect that divorcing couples tend to quit going to church as part of the process of moving toward divorce.

In my case, my ex left Christianity 3 years before she left me. I suspect that most Christian divorces involve a non-believer at some point.