THE BLOG
09/20/2016 08:04 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Saying 'I do' can reduce religious ties, but parenthood boosts rate of return for couples AND singles

Religious communities seeking to win back millennials may have to wait a little longer.

Even as young adults increasingly put off marriage, the traditional assumption that saying "I do" at the altar can help pump new vibrancy into congregational life no longer appears valid, new research indicates.

Newly married individuals reported fewer close friends and weaker social ties within their congregations, according to a study of two waves of the Portraits of American Life Study.

The evidence supports developing research indicating marriage is more likely in younger generations to be a "greedy institution." Attention tends to shift to the newlywed's spouse and away from other relationships, said researcher Benjamin Gurrentz of Pennsylvania State University.

What does bring young adults back to religious congregations is having children.

And it is not just married couples with children that are filling pews.

Single parents matter

Being married and a parent remains strongly associated with returning to an active religious life, according to a separate study following some 11,500 young people from adolescence to young adulthood.

Among young people who attended weekly as adolescents but were not active in emerging adulthood, married parents were more than three times as likely as singles without children to return to weekly attendance, the study found.

But what somewhat surprised researchers was that single parents, despite the risk of disapproval, had similarly high rates of return relative to singles without children.

"Single parents do seem to be coming back," lead researcher Jeremy Uecker of Baylor University said. "When they were religious as teen-agers ... they find their way back as young adults."

The Baylor study analyzed data from waves one, three and four of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health. Wave 1 was conducted in 1994 and 1995 among youth in grades 7-12. Wave 4 was collected in 2007 and 2008. The study looked at respondents who were ages 25 to 31 in the fourth wave. The results were reported in the latest issue of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.

In his study, Penn State's Gurrentz found that the transition to marriage actually reduced religious ties. But being married and a parent was a significant predictor of having more close relationships in their religious communities.

"It is children, not marriage per se, that actually integrates married respondents into religious communities," he noted.

One other surprise: There was no "marriage penalty" limiting social support for single parents.

Gurrentz analyzed data from 1,314 respondents who participated in both the 2006 and 2012 waves of the Portraits of American Life Study. He presented his findings last month at the annual meeting of the Association for the Sociology of Religion in Seattle.

The findings from both studies suggest that religious communities have much to offer many parents in diverse family situations.

Married parents may get an extra boost of social approval from the pulpit and the pew. But single parents also welcome congregational support and inspiration. That includes having time to themselves on Sunday mornings while others care for their youngsters and feeling they are cared for by a larger community in the stressful task of raising children.

"There appear to be at least two pathways to religious return via family formation--a single-parent path, perhaps especially spurred by practical and cultural reasons, and the 'traditional' married (with children) path," researchers in the Baylor study said.

If only more congregations would take notice.

Challenges ahead

There are significant signs of dissatisfaction with organized religion among young adults, reflected both in lower service attendance and a rise in the number of millennials claiming no religious affiliation.

In the face of these trends, many religious leaders have held out hope eventually this generation of young adults would return when they married and had children.

Uecker said it may take another 10 years for a clear answer as to whether young adults will return to religion in numbers similar to earlier generations.

But there are effective actions congregations can consider in the meantime, researchers noted.

The best way to retain young adults is not to lose them in the first place. The longer they are away, the harder it may be for them to break back in as they get used to being away and fill the gap with substitutes to organized religion, Uecker noted.

Young adults are not only delaying marriage. They also are much more likely to have children without being married. By some estimates, two of every five children today are born outside marriage.

So congregations may want to consider expanding their outreach.

Actions such as developing more effective ministries to singles, helping newly married childless couples form friendships in their synagogue, mosque or church and showing greater sensitivity to single parents and cohabiting parents all may help increase the odds of attracting and retaining young adults, researchers noted.

In the Baylor study, although the rate of return among couples living together outside of marriage was low, cohabiting parents were much more likely than cohabiting individuals without children to reconnect with congregations.

"There needs to be some creative thinking about ministry" to people in nontraditional family situations, Uecker said.

Forget a longer wait.

Religious communities that focus their hopes and ministries on married couples with children to the exclusion of singles, newlyweds and individuals in nontraditional relationships may find themselves in the worst possible position.

Left behind.

Image from National Archives and Records Administration, PD US Government

Image by Catholic Diocese of Saginaw, via Flickr [CC BY-ND 2.0]

David Briggs writes the Ahead of the Trend column for the Association of Religion Data Archives.