There was good news from the United States on family stability last week: new figures show that the overall divorce rate has reached a 40-year low. The rate varies considerably among the states, but the general rate has fallen from a peak of 22.8 per 1000 married women in 1980, to 15.7 in 2018. And a faith-based marriage campaign in Jacksonville, Florida, suggests that religious communities can help drive the rate down further and quicker.

Divorces in many Western countries have been declining for some time, and some of the decline is owing to fewer people getting married. Cohabiting couples are more likely to break up, but people who do marry are now more likely to be older, college educated and have better jobs — things that reduce the risk of divorce. And among these couples at least, there seems to have been a culture shift against divorce itself.

Still, there were more than 787,000 divorces in the United States in 2017 and that represents a lot of family disruption, which is especially bad for children. “When it comes to children, as Princeton sociologist Sara McLanahan and Brookings economist Isabel Sawhill have observed, ‘most scholars now agree that children raised by two biological parents in a stable marriage do better than children in other family forms.’”

That quote is from a new report by the Institute for Family Studies (IFS) that suggests we don’t have to leave family stability to the ebbs and flows of social mores. The report describes a marriage campaign based in Jacksonville that coincided with a marked decline in divorce there. From 2016 to 2018 the divorce rate in Duval County fell by more than 20 percent, a significantly bigger decline than across the US as a whole and in similar counties.

IFS can’t say for certain that the programme caused the greater family stability, but it seems very likely. And the reason would be that, unlike a number of public efforts to strengthen marriage in the US, this private initiative involved the churches in the area.

It began with JP De Gance, a Virginia family man who, in 2014, was working for the Philanthropy Roundtable, a network of philanthropists and foundations interested in strengthening America's civil society, rather than simply applying band-aids. With this in mind he came up with the Culture of Freedom Initiative – and funding – to boost marriage and family stability and religious observance in three urban areas. For various reasons it ran in just one area, Duval County.

Starting in 2016, and in partnership with Live the Life, a Florida nonprofit, the Jacksonville Baptist Association and the local Catholic Diocese, COFI worked with 93 churches and other local nonprofits to serve the county with a range of marriage and relationship education programs, public events, and a sustained public campaign on behalf of strong marriages and families in the Jacksonville area.

The campaign drew on the social and religious capital of committed church communities, and also made extensive use of digital marketing.

“De Gance and his team developed a predictive model to help identify individuals most likely to divorce in the area. Churches then determined what activities were most useful within their sphere of influence—say, a 5-mile radius—and they then micro-targeted those individuals for direct mail, online advertising or social media outreach,” reports Newsweek.

COFI and its partners sponsored over 28 million digital ads that communicated the “marriage matters” message and also pointed to its services and programmes. The ads included billboards, secular and religious radio spots, and a dedicated website for the campaign.

Between 2016 and 2018, they served more than 11,000 adults in the area per year, report W Bradford Wilcox and Alysse ElHage of IFS, writing in Christianity Today. They cite one of the couples in floundering marriages whom the campaign helped.

Tommy Davis says he was “99 percent out of his marriage” when a counsellor with Live the Life, COFI’s main non-profit partner, convinced him and his wife Sondra to attend an intensive marriage enrichment event called Hope Weekend. “That Hope Weekend didn’t just save our marriage,” Sondra says. “It changed our lives.”

“We wanted to ‘normalize’ the idea that people should invest in their marriage at any and every stage of their relationship,” Live the Life chairman Dennis Stoica explains in the IFS report. “So we continually told couples that it’s never too late to take part in a marriage enrichment programme.”

Stoica formerly directed the California Marriage Initiative, where he saw faith-based groups “neutered” because of church-state concerns. With COFI he saw religious communities free to provide couples with a beautiful vision about what marriage can and should be, support couples through programs and relationships, and teach and encourage healthy marriage skills.

In fact, 4 out of 5 participants were connected in some way to an area church, while 1 in 10 were invited by a church member. De Gance says churches were “the heroes of Jacksonville,” but it took a special initiative to mobilise their capacity for saving marriages, it seems.

He told Newsweek: “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.”

In Jacksonville, however, the work of the last three years continues through churches and non-profit groups like Live the Life. COFI, now called Communio is taking the model used there to pioneer new marriage initiatives in states like Montana and Texas. Eventually it could spread across America.

* More from JP De Gance in this Q&A with IFS

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet