Every bishop, priest, and pastor should read “Endgame” for the sake of the Church and the country. Much evangelization assumes things taught in families that don’t exist. This book shows the way to family—and renewed faith.

Endgame: The Church’s Strategic Move to Save Faith and Family in America, by John Van Epp and J. P. De Gance (276 pages, PGAMA, 2021)

We talk a great deal about a “crisis of the family” but do not appreciate how much this bulwark of freedom and civilization has fallen. In their new book, Endgame, Protestant pastor and therapist John Van Epp and Catholic non-profit founder J. P. De Gance lay out the dire statistical data. In the U. S., marriage rates have fallen by 61% over the past fifty years. For the last years available, the American Catholic Church has recorded almost three times as many funerals as they have marriages. Divorce rates, premarital sex rates, and cohabitation rates (which actually predict future divorces) for Christians in general are almost as high as the general population. What has happened is a triple decoupling: sex is decoupled from marriage, romantic relationships from marriage, and parenting from marriage. The end result is that 40% of American children arrive without married parents, the vast majority of whom end up with single parents by age twelve. Those children, as decades of empirical research show, are vastly more likely to suffer from physical, emotional, psychological, and economic ills.

We might well talk about catastrophe as crisis, societal but also spiritual. Van Epp and De Gance take Chesterton, John Paul II, and Mary Eberstadt’s understanding as basic: the crises of faith and family are intimately connected and the causation runs both ways. Coming from a broken family is the biggest predictor of whether children will worship God as an adult. No relationship with a visible earthly father? It is vastly more likely that there will be no relationship with the invisible eternal Father. The way of the family is the way of society and the Church.

The authors’ ambiguous title, however, is Chestertonian in its free will emphasis. The destruction (endgame) of American and Christian life is imminent. We could, however, see a family and religious revival. Endgame provides an endgame strategy to avoid the full catastrophe.

Christians—Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox (though the last are not treated)—profess care about marriage culture. No doubt they actually do. But their teaching, education and outreach on marriage is primarily preparation for engaged couples and programs for troubled marriages. Clearly such programs are necessary and good. Given the challenges presented by so many people growing up outside of an intact marriage—not to mention technological and social challenges to marriage formation and maintenance—more is needed.

The authors call for a targeted outreach to all singles (whether dating, divorced, or cohabiting) starting in adolescence, engaged couples, and all married couples, whether the last think they’re in trouble or not. Reaching singles is important. The ability to form healthy relationships requires both virtues and relationship skills that are in short supply in our modern world—virtues that can be taught using material Van Epp has developed over decades of therapy, research, and teaching. He knows, too, that such skills and virtues aren’t always there in marriages. As for married couples, anyone studying the contemporary divorce scene knows women initiate 70% of divorces. In many cases, men didn’t know there was anything wrong. Waiting for a marriage crisis may be too late.

Some will blanch both at the idea that the Church should spend its capital on teaching relationship skills (we should focus on Scripture, liturgy, theology!) and that married people ought all to be involved in such training. To the first, the authors quite sensibly argue that if people have not been taught how to have relationships in the first place, true evangelization and formation of Christians needs to begin with a basic or pre-evangelization that teaches those who are open to God about the God who exists in relationship—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—and the basic virtues and skills needed to live this out in ordinary life. Deeper knowledge of Christian faith is essential, yet we have to give people milk before we give them meat. The authors don’t mention him, but Jordan Peterson’s teaching of basic truths has led many to common sense—and turned them toward God.

To the second objection, I feel it. I abhor educational sessions on marriage. But so too I am one of those the authors describe as believing at a gut level that my attendance at such sessions implies my marriage is troubled or I am a failure. That is pride—not the good kind. We might need reminders more than instruction, as Dr. Johnson observed. We need them in relationships in the same way we need basic sermons on the faith. When those who need instruction see that learning is not admission of failure, they will come.

The authors speak from experience. Van Epp’s courses on virtues and skills have been adapted successfully around the country. And De Gance’s group Communio, founded a decade ago as the Culture of Freedom Initiative, worked diligently to get Protestant and Catholic churches in several cities, including Jacksonville, Florida (one of the worst places for marriage statistically), to start such programs in 2016. The three-year program’s outcome in Jacksonville was a 24% drop in divorce for the whole city. So too church attendance increased. Learning the role of bride and bridegroom helps understand the divine Bridegroom and his Bride.

Every bishop, priest, and pastor should read Endgame for the sake of the Church and the country. Much evangelization assumes things taught in families that don’t exist. This book shows the way to family—and renewed faith.

This review originally appeared in the March/April 2022 issue of Gilbert and appears here with permission.

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