pastoral leadership

Empty Pews and the Delay of Marriage


Last time we looked at the delay of marriage and its challenge for sexual purity among unmarrieds.  Today I want to look at its impact on church attendance.

Did you notice a demographic missing from your pews this past Sunday morning?  If your church is like most in America you would find very few 20-somethings and early 30-somethings in your church.  There are, of course, many reasons for this.  But one factor rarely mentioned is what is usually called “prolonged adolescence” and the delay of marriage in America.  

Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, recently discussed this phenomenon on his radio program. He quotes an article from The Wall Street Journal by W. Bradford Wilcox who gives the following insight: 

Religious attendance among those 21 to 45 years old is at its lowest level in decades, according to Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow. Only 25% of young adults now attend services regularly, compared with about one-third in the early 1970s.

The most powerful force driving religious participation down is the nation’s recent retreat from marriage, Mr. Wuthnow notes. Nothing brings women and especially men into the pews like marriage and parenthood, as they seek out the religious, moral and social support provided by a congregation upon starting a family of their own. But because growing numbers of young adults are now postponing or avoiding marriage and childbearing, they are also much less likely to end up in church on any given Sunday. Mr. Wuthnow estimates that America’s houses of worship would have about six million more regularly attending young adults if today’s young men and women started families at the rate they did three decades ago.

So, what do you think of this phenomenon?  Does this sadden you?  Do you wish more people would get married and start a family sooner so they would begin participating in the life of the church?   Or, do you feel a degree of frustration with the folks who only seem to make faith a part of their life when they finally “settle down” and want their children to have some Christian instruction and background?  

How have the different stages of your life affected your level of faith commitment and involvement in a local church?  

Dr. Jeremy Berg is the founding and Lead Pastor of MainStreet Covenant Church in Minnetonka Beach, MN, where he has served since 2010. He an Adjunct Professor of Theology at North Central University (Minneapolis) and Professor of Bible & Theology at Solid Rock Discipleship School. Jeremy earned a doctorate in New Testament Context under Dr. Scot McKnight at Northern Seminary. He and his wife, Kjerstin, have three kids, Peter, Isaak and Abigail.

3 comments on “Empty Pews and the Delay of Marriage

  1. Lee Picton

    My dad was an Episcopalian priest, so I went to church regularly as a kid. I had no choice, even though I never believed a word of the ridiculous dogma. I got to college, and except for weddings and funerals, have never attended church again. I am a happily “out” atheist and am rejoicing in the fact that young people are rejecting the nonsense of religion.

    • Jeremy Berg

      I rejoice with you that young people are breaking free from the bondage of the nonsense of “religion.” It is freeing them up to have a true encounter with the Living God revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. I left religion years ago when I became a real follower of the Risen Christ. A great book to check out is “Repenting of Religion” by Greg Boyd. Peace. JB

  2. Hey Jeremy,

    Both things sadden me to an extent. But then again…nothing is new to God.

    The fact that people only attend when they have families shows that often they expect the church to model morality rather than they themselves as parents. But I’m not sure with our generation if that’s even going to happen as much. Even last night I heard a woman who used to attend my church say that they had taken a break from going to church because of having a baby.

    The baby is 2 years old.

    I don’t think the church should encourage marriage for the stability sake of the church, but I do think our independent, autonomous generation that is so fearful of getting tied down or making a wrong decision (we can blame our parents, culture, the church, etc.) will sadly wake up at age 50 and realize some of the downsides to not marrying or delayed marriage.

    Just as getting married very young had negative implications, so will delaying it. And the pendulum will swing. We will probably tell our kids (based off our experience) to get married younger.

    I think for my generation that proclaims to be Christian, its important to not follow religious dogma blindly as Lee mentioned, but to figure out if we actually believe what scripture says about singleness and marriage. Do we believe that our choices will have implications on furthering or hindering our relationship with the Lord and furthering his kingdom?

    But…when we aren’t in church…maybe there is no one asking us these questions…(-: Sometimes I don’t think its a “delayed adolescents” issue, rather more of a “belief” issue.

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