With divorce rates rocketing across the country, it can be easy to lose a bit of hope in the God-ordained bond of marriage.
Indeed, just last week, Faithwire reported on the enormous increase in spousal separation among over-50’s — something colloquially known as “gray divorce.”
But hidden away within the doom and gloom of increasingly common relationship breakdown, there are some wonderful success stories being discovered. One such example comes from Jacksonville, Florida, where divorce rates plummetted a staggering 28% in just two years.
How? Well, the incredible results were announced after a two-year test program facilitated by a group called the “Philanthropy Roundtable,” which describes itself as “America’s largest network of donors committed to protecting philanthropic freedom, upholding donor intent, and strengthening our free society.”
The project itself, entitled the “Culture of Freedom Initiative,” was the brainchild of J.P. De Gance, a former executive vice president in the organization — he is now the CEO of Communio, a nonprofit tasked with expanding the wildly successful across a number of cities in America.
A committed Christian, De Gance told the Salem Media Group’s Vice President of Content, Lee Habeeb, that he felt a clear-cut calling from God to go and do his bit to help mend the many broken marriages and families across the nation.
“Like many kids out of college, I wanted to improve the country, so I came to D.C. to work in public policy,” De Gance told Habeeb in the article published at Newsweek.
But soon after arriving at his new post, a personal crisis hit his family. De Gance’s sister was struggling with some personal problems, and asked him if he would take in her four children — bear in mind, De Gance already had three young children of his own. He was hesitant at first, but his wife soon came to a simple conclusion.
“She said God put these kids in our life for a reason, and it was our calling to step up,” he noted. With so many young ones to look after, and an overwhelmingly demanding family lief, De Gance said that his church began to step in and help.
“We had a great church family,” De Gance said. “Friends who were further along in their marriage with older kids took us under their wings. We sought out advice, friends gave us furniture and clothes, and they welcomed our nieces and nephews into clubs and activities in the parish.”
And it was this incredible community of faith, and the practical help that it provided, which would inform his work in the restoration of marriage in Jacksonville.
“God used this personal journey to open my heart and mind to making a major vocational change,” he explained.
Church central to program’s success
The project, which was the largest privately-funded marriage strengthening program ever undertaken on a city level, relied heavily on the input of Christian ministries. The church, De Gance said, was the key to its success.
“We raised more than $20 million in risk capital to run pilot projects from 2016 to 2018 in three different metro areas, with churches at the center of the solution,” De Gance explained.
Church, he said, could offer something unique — love and care. Step-by-step programs may be useful, but without love and affection at the heart, they are all but futile.
“Love and mission allow churches to tap into a network of volunteers and existing staff to run and deliver programs,” De Gance explained.
Getting people into church in the first place, however, was an arduous task in itself. So, the team deployed some marketing strategy. Utilizing a predictive model to determine exactly who were the most likely couples to divorce, the team micro-targeted those individuals via direct mail, online advertising or social media outreach, offering them suitable and attractive activities within a 5-mile radius.
“Targeted couples had a high propensity both to get divorced and to accept an invitation to attend an event at a church, even though they were not members,” commented Seth Kaplan, a lecturer at Johns Hopkins University, on De Gance’s work.
As a result of the marketing push, churches in the area experienced a massive uptick in attendance — between 25 to 30 percent.
“Given that attending church regularly significantly increases the chance that someone will get and stay married, such figures are likely to have a positive impact on other indicators over time,” Kaplan added.
But though marketing techniques were instrumental in the program’s success, they weren’t everything. “Live the Life,” a Florida marriage ministry, helped enormously by providing excellent content and courses to help married couples get back on track — and, clearly, they worked!
“The Power of Us” course, which is designed to help engaged and married couples improve their communication skills, became a fixture of the program and saved many from traveling the route of separation and divorce.
“Donors worked through 93 churches and local civic organizations to move 35,000 through four-hour or longer programming in the city during that same period. Programs fell into marriage preparation, marriage wellness, or faith development. The initiative used predictive modeling to make more than 15 million digital impressions targeting those with a higher propensity for divorce,” the Philanthropy Roundtable wrote in a statement on the divorce figures.
“Based on our church’s experiences over the last two years, it is evident that the efforts of the Culture of Freedom Initiative have had a substantial effect on the current drop in divorces in Duval County,” said Pastor Wayne Lanier of Celebration Church, which is the largest church in Jacksonville.
“The results of this test program should be big national news,” Habeeb concluded. We agree!