This is the kind of non-Governmental Action we need in America to rebuild our Lives, our Families, our Communities and our Social Fabric!
by Seth Kaplan, The City Journal, February 9, 2024
In late October, I, a religious Jew, flew to Denver to meet a group of Catholic and Protestant leaders gathered to strategize on how to build strong marriages in an era of family breakdown and religious disaffiliation. Such confabs aren’t new, though this one resembled a Silicon Valley entrepreneurs’ conference more than a discussion among Christian leaders.
At the center of the event, dubbed the Communio Investors Roundtable, was J.P. De Gance, a Catholic and former executive vice president at the Philanthropy Roundtable. “Like many kids out of college, I wanted to improve the country, so I came to D.C. to work in public policy,” he says. But after years toiling in the capital, he realized that “what truly ails our nation requires work that goes far beyond politics.” This realization, and his experience caring for his nieces and nephews after his sister’s marriage collapsed, helped De Gance shift his vocation from public-policy advocacy to social entrepreneurship, applying the principles of start-ups to boost marriage outcomes.
De Gance understands what abundant social-science research affirms: strong marriages support health and happiness. Solid marriages also buttress strong families and communities—and their opposites exert a corresponding negative influence. “We know that crime is higher in communities with fewer married fathers,” the University of Virginia’s Brad Wilcox has observed. “We know that parents are less involved in schools, we know that the ability is lower to support kids.” Areas with more one-parent families tend to have lower rates of upward mobility. “Even if your own parents are married,” economist Raj Chetty notes, “if you grow up in an area where a lot of kids are being raised by single parents, you are less likely to climb the income ladder.” While there are exceptions, extensive data show that children raised in two-parent households, even when their parents are not legally married, do better emotionally, physically, academically, and economically over their lifetimes.
Communio, which De Gance launched in 2017, offers churches a framework and resources to increase engagement and promote marriage in their communities. Its use of data analytics strengthens its value proposition. Communio’s predictive models analyze social and behavioral patterns in areas around churches to suggest which residents are likely to marry, get divorced, or become single parents, and whether individuals living in these places might react favorably to invitations from a church to participate in marriage programs.
The organization then works with each church to hone its direct-mail, door-to-door contact, digital-advertising, and social-media outreach by determining what—if any—invitation would be most attractive to potential recipients. They may, for example, extend an invitation to couples with young kids: a date night with free childcare. Others may receive invitations to activities such as salsa lessons, trivia contests, or stand-up comedy.
De Gance describes these entry-point events as “90 percent popcorn, 10 percent spinach.” Communio’s next step is to help churches host smaller events more focused on relationship-building, targeting either married couples or singles. These events serve as gateways for couples to participate in classes on topics like effective communication and conflict resolution that can improve their marriages. These repeated contact points also serve the churches’ core missions of sharing a religious message with individuals who would seldom (or never) go to church.
Communio’s early results are promising. In Duval County, Florida, one of its first three test areas and home to Jacksonville, Communio partners report that 60,000 people participated in their marriage-enrichment programs between 2016 and 2018. During that time, divorce rates in Duval County fell by 24 percent, a drop-off considerably steeper than those found in other parts of the state over the same period (though, of course, it is hard to establish causality).
In 2022, Communio launched a new strategy that focuses on the most influential churches in the nation’s 40 largest metropolitan areas, where 60 percent of the American population lives. The organization has also partnered with Hampton University, one of the country’s leading historically black universities, to apply its family-ministry model in black congregations and communities.
Whether Communio can replicate its early successes nationwide is unclear. But given the urgency of creating and sustaining strong marriages, we can only hope that this and other innovative social enterprises can make a difference.