Messages of Hope

Meaning making – who can you trust?

Published / by Sandy

Mothers’ Day flowers are a symbol that recognises those who have mothered and nurtured others, and provided encouragement and affirmation. Such actions and attitudes have an incredibly important part to play in building trust, purpose, identity and meaning-making.


This article seems timely, addressing factors behind the statistics that religion is losing ground as more people drop out of church. And it’s not what you think! 

Some will attempt to spin declining numbers attending church as a victory for atheists, implying that people are “seeing the light” and the light is exposing the lie that religion really is. That may be a part of it, but other research sheds light on other factors that account for the flight from religion. In particular, research by Elizabeth Marquardt and other research by Ken Pargament shows that divorce and the resulting inability to idealize caregivers is behind a great deal of the move to unbelief.

In order to feel at home in a religious community, two things need to happen. First, kids need to feel like they have a spiritual home, but children of divorce struggle to do this. As Marquardt explains it, children of divorce rarely end up going to church consistently, or going to the same church from week to week. This means that, rather than being able to use religion as a resource for constructing a coherent story for the meaning and purpose of their lives as many children from intact church-going families do, children of divorce have to go it alone. They can’t trust their parents or their infrequently visited and divergent church communities to help them make sense of their lives. Marquardt summarizes her data by saying, “When it came to the big questions in life – Who am I? Where do I belong? What is right and wrong? Is there a God? – those from divorced families more often felt like they had to struggle for the answers alone.” People raised in this environment struggle to let anyone else offer feedback or guidance. They learn that they can’t trust the sources they are supposed to be able to trust for guidance and formation. For these individuals church becomes just one more bunch of hypocritical grown-ups who can’t get their own crap together trying to tell other people how to live their lives.

Ken Pargament similarly argues that the source of spiritual ambivalence is not a victory of reason over religion, but rather the result of the too-early failure of the ability of children to idealize parental figures. All children come to realize that their parents are imperfect at some point – that’s a normal and healthy part of growing up – but if this happens too early, the people who are primarily responsible for helping children make meaning out of their lives lose their credibility. When parents behave like children themselves, or get caught up in divorce drama, or post-divorce dating relationships, children often feel that they are left to sort things out for themselves. Children of divorce come to believe that they are the only ones who are qualified to find meaning, purpose and direction in their lives and they come to distrust any external source that wants to help them in this role (i.e., churches).

In light of this research, what role might churches have in building trust and ‘meaning making’?