Our ministry to the divorced among us

Divorced members in our congregations face great challenges. How can pastors and congregations minister to them?

Ron Edmondson, M.A., is the head of Mustard Seed Ministry, Nashville, Tennessee, United States.

Not one person from church has ever called me in three years.” Those were the painful words from a former church member I encountered at a store recently. I had heard of the man’s divorce and knew that I had not seen him in a while. But the size of the church would have made it very easy for me to have missed him even if he were there, so much more so with him gone. After berating me and the church for our lack of attention to him following his divorce, he said, “I’ll never set foot in that church again!” He has, I believe, kept his word. In fact, I’m not sure that he ’s setting foot in any church these days.

Divorce, we all know, is a problem. If the statistics are correct, the rate of divorce inside the church is about the same as outside. There are now more people in families who have experienced divorce than there are in families never touched by it. All this tells me one thing: If the church today wants to reach families for Christ, it must learn how to deal with the divorced among us.

There are no easy answers. It is imperative that we continue to teach biblical truths and never allow culture to dictate our teachings. On the other hand, we must live within our culture and reach the people within the context of that culture. In my counseling of those who have experienced divorce, I have learned a few important points that I believe we need to grasp if we want to minister to the needs of the divorced.

Do not stigmatize

Most divorced people feel that they are no longer welcome. Many times this feeling is self-induced; but often it results from attitudes within the church. When churches single out divorced people as a specific category, these people are often left to feel that they are considered strange. Even worse, rather than being ministered to with God’s grace as any other person would be, divorced people tell me they are often made to feel dirty, or unclean. Certainly, as a church, we can, and must, do better.

Minister to both spouses

When a couple divorces, often the church will reach out to one spouse but not the other, based on who was the most active member, on who is the presumed “guilty” party, or who continues to attend church. If a church wants to reach divorced people, it must display love to both parties. Both spouses may not be equally receptive to that love and support, but the intent and offer should be clear. The goal should be to reach people for Christ, not to label them.

Many treat the “guilty” party as the enemy of the church. Redemptive actions may need to be taken because of sin, but that process is far better and more biblical than ignoring the person altogether, which is what many churches tend to do. Every divorce has two sides; unfortunately, however, usually only one side of the story is repeated.

Know what you believe and practice it

The doctrines of the church should be clearly known and carried out consistently. I know one church that allowed deacons to be divorced, for example, but didn’t want them to serve in any “visible” role. Most divorced people realize that a church must interpret Scripture in a certain way, and they can accept that. What people can’t understand is when the interpretations are contradictory and inconsistent.

Teach biblical truth in love

Jesus came, full of grace and truth (see John 1:14). Both grace and truth are necessary for a healthy church that will reach the divorced. The church can’t pretend divorce is acceptable, but it shouldn’t condemn people because of it, either. Most people can accept truth far better if they know that they are still loved and accepted in spite of their mistakes. I know many churches that excommunicate themselves from divorced people, either consciously and purposefully, or unconsciously and by tradition. A person who is “dumped” by a church after a divorce is very unlikely to reunite with another church for several years, if ever. I can’t imagine Jesus ever failing to show love to a divorced person.

Do not ignore the problem

Many churches do not address the issue of divorce. They don’t reach divorced people, nor do they do anything to stop the trend. At some point the church needs to become an agent for cultural change. Churches need to address the issue of divorce, because the church has the answers to the problem. If churches don’t address the problem of divorce, who will?

Help build strong marriages

Churches should provide ample opportunities for couples to grow in marriage. Fellowship, Bible studies, and even sermons should reinforce the healthy home environment. I have never met a divorced person who didn’t want a marriage that worked or who wished divorce on other people. Most people simply don’t know how to have a successful marriage—they should be able to learn in the church. Many divorced people are looking for a church that reveres the institution of marriage, while helping them recover from divorce.

Provide and expect premarital training

When my son turned 16 years old, he had spent about 40 hours in driver’s training. In most churches today he will be blessed if he gets 10 percent of that time in counseling before marriage. Churches need to provide premarital counseling. If the church doesn’t have qualified staff, or staff with time to provide the training, it should offer to pay for couples to receive couseling. Some churches are now offering premarital counseling through mentoring couples who commit to work with the engaged couple and walk through the first year of marriage with the newlyweds, providing an inexpensive but effective way to train couples for marriage.

Build healthy Christians

The best defense against divorce in the church is to build healthy Christians. It is also the best method to minister to those impacted by divorce. Divorce is hard on everyone involved, but recovery is much faster if the person is growing spiritually. Healthy Christians are a strong shield of protection against divorce.

Most churches have a significant number of divorced people. As someone who watches statistics, I have wondered if one reason church attendance is declining is that we aren’t reaching the divorced among us—one of the fastest growing segments of the population in many countries. The church doesn’t have to embrace divorce, but should certainly love those hurt by divorce and should offer solutions to help move the culture away from it. But this will never happen if the subject of divorce is taboo in our churches or if there is no plan on how to address the problem.

Certainly Jesus did not favor divorce. Yet I have no doubt that if Jesus lived in our culture, He would have contacted the man who had been missing from church these past three years.

Shouldn’t we do likewise?

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Ron Edmondson, M.A., is the head of Mustard Seed Ministry, Nashville, Tennessee, United States.

June 2006

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