Religious “nones” are on the rise in America. But these nones aren’t religious at all.

Survey after survey shows a staggering decline in faith practice in the United States. America’s “nones” – the nomenclature used by survey researchers to describe those who report no religious affiliation – are the largest and fastest growing “religious” group in the country.

They’ve grown from an already alarming 22.2% in 2008 to 29.5% in 2018. They were just 3% in 1970. It’s even bleaker for America’s youth: approximately 4 in 10 of those under 30 report no religion.

In a rush to stop the bleeding, the Church in America has focused on “youth ministry” over the last three decades. According to a recent Barna survey commissioned by Communio, 94 percent of churches reported having an ongoing youth ministry and 77 percent of churches report paying someone to run that ministry.

The youth ministry strategy is not working.

A Millennial whose parents remain married is 78 percent more likely to attend church regularly than a Millennial whose parents are either divorced or never married.  In fact, a Millennial is nearly just as likely to go to church every week as a Baby Boomer, if we know that they both come from married homes.

That’s a key finding from a Communio-commissioned study known as the American Political and Social Behavior Study (APSB) run by a sociology professor from UT-Austin. It surveyed nearly 6,000 people between 18-65 years old in late 2018 on a wide range of social and cultural norms including those related to family of origin, current marital relationship, and religious practice.

It showed that there was no significant difference in church attendance across the last three generations if they all come from intact, married homes.

So what is it about marriage?

Simply put, Christian parents have traditionally been the “first evangelizers” of the Gospel to their children. Marital love is a child’s first introduction to the ultimate reality of the love of Christ (the bridegroom) for his Church (the bride). It’s a big reason why 73 percent of all churchgoers who sit in the pews on Sunday grew up in a constantly married home, according to this same survey.

To put it another way, faith is falling because the family is in free fall.  Catholic University of America’s MARRI center estimates that 56 percent of all children will reach their 17thbirthday without a married mom and dad.

Paul Vitz, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at New York University, has written extensively about the role of married parents, in particular the role of fathers, in the development of a child’s faith life. In his book, Faith of the Fatherless, he provides a biographical survey of influential atheists from the past four centuries and provides a consistent explanation for their “intense atheism.”

He calls it the “defective father hypothesis.” It states: “Disappointment in one’s earthly father, whether through death, absence, or mistreatment, frequently leads to a rejection of God.”

In a recent interview, Professor Vitz elaborates on this point:

Being a dysfunctional father, that is, not being present, not being supportive, being abusive or unworthy of respect, all of these things tend to make children back away from the notion of God as father on a psychological level and thus never get through to the religious belief in God.

You can see now the uphill battle faced by a typical Christian youth pastor, with his 2 to 3 hours a week of influence on a child.

So with the direct relationship between the strength of married life and active church participation, churches overwhelmingly focus on this vital area of ministry, right?

Unfortunately,no.

That same Barna study that showed churches are heavily investing in youth ministry are almost entirely absent when it comes to marriage and relationship ministry.

Eighty percent of evangelical churches, 82 percent of Catholic parishes, and 94 percent of Mainline churches report spending zero percent of their budgets on marriage ministry. Just 28 percent of the churches surveyed had a substantive marriage ministry.

Similarly, churches vastly underserve young adult singles and the “seriously dating.” Just 8 percent of all churches offer ministry around developing healthy dating and relationship norms.  Left to their own defenses, our kids are often scooped up by the “hook-up culture” in college and increasingly swayed by entertainment and pop culture away from marriage.

The good news is that if churches strategically fill the marriage and relationship ministry gap, they can both strengthen families and spark a dynamic renewal within their congregations and community.

Communio worked with local partners in Jacksonville, Florida to equip more than 50 churches to build ongoing marriage ministries and support those ministries with 21stcentury digital tools of microtargeted outreach. The result was more than 58,000 completed courses in marriage and faith development and a 24 percent drop in the divorce rate from 2016-2018.