Cover Story
Lee Love/Genesis

Christian boy meets Christian girl

Christians are not like the world when it comes to dating and courtship. But ­in-depth interviews reveal a lot of confusion and anxiety among God's young men and women when it comes to forming relationships and finding a spouse

Issue: "Dating and courtship confusion," June 4, 2011

'How do you meet guys?'

I ask a class of students in a figure drawing class at Parsons The New School for Design near Manhattan's Union Square. "In your classes?" The students, would-be artists and fashion designers who come from all over the world, laugh. In a school where nearly 80 percent of the students are female and many men are gay, their prospects are few. So they meet random men in Union Square or at Max Brenner's chocolate emporium. They start talking. They exchange phone numbers, a crucial step in what comes next, "digital flirting." They "text and text for weeks," liberated by the sense of remove that texting allows: "You're talking, but not really."

Many Christian students also prefer texting to face-to-face talking. But in 40 hours of comparing the boy-meets-girl ideas of secular students at Parsons and serious Christian ones in Alabama, Texas, New York City, and Virginia, I found a huge difference between the two groups. That difference is both comforting and confusing.

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The classroom at Parsons has large windows along one wall to let in natural light. Easels around the room's perimeter allow the students various perspectives on the model who poses on a raised platform in the center. During a break from drawing, the students gather around the platform to answer questions about dating and marriage. The students come from all over-California, Costa Rica, Colombia, South Africa, Turkey, Russia, Bhutan, New York.

They embody the stereotype of a younger generation that sees nothing wrong with "hooking up" or cohabiting before marriage. Skeptical about the possibility of lifelong love, they readily list downsides to marriage. A few admit that they would like to marry-for friendship, to ward off loneliness, and for support-but even they see marriage as constricting, depriving them of freedom and the ability to focus on their careers.

Moving to New York expanded their opportunities: two Latina students, one from Colombia and the other from Costa Rica, both said they'd be married if they had stayed home. A 19-year-old from South Africa said, "I don't believe in marriage at all. . . . If your family is attached to the ritual and ceremony you'll want to do it," but otherwise "we don't think it's necessary." Her family agrees. Her dad has lived with his girlfriend for 16 years.

In general these students don't associate marriage with either childbearing or sex. It is one avenue among many to personal happiness, period. They see no right destination and no right way to get there. Anything that's mutually acceptable goes.

The serious Christian students-with homeschool, Christian school, or public school backgrounds-are different. They have a high view of marriage. Many of them, even high-schoolers in Fort Payne, Ala., talk about marriage theologically. They don't believe in divorce or premarital sex. But that's about all they agree on, because the path to marriage seems fraught with difficulty. High-school boys say, "Guys don't even know how to pursue in a manly or godly way"-and graduate students don't feel any more knowledgeable.

Some Christian students tell broken-hearted stories that seem timeless. Benjamin Barber, a junior at Patrick Henry College (PHC), said he was naïve when he arrived at the school. He grew up with only brothers and didn't have much experience with girls: "I thought boys and girls could be friends." But it didn't take long for him to develop an attachment to a girl that turned out badly: "I got hurt. You need to be careful and conscious or that will happen."

After a while he got up the courage to ask a second girl out. Things went OK, yet he concluded, "We both love Jesus but we want different things." Now he is skittish and doesn't know how "he'll jump back in." He's been wondering about that for the past year and a half: "I don't make decisions I know will hurt."

Other Christian students tell fearful stories shaped by the past several decades of rampant divorce. The parents of Joshua Encinias, a student at The Kings College (TKC), divorced when he was 13: "It made me clam up . . . to believe that nothing matters. I was so strong-willed and angry." After the divorce, Encinias failed 9th and 10th grades. He weighed 400 pounds by the time he was 19.

God worked, and Encinias changed his ways and lost 200 pounds. At community college he won accolades and earned the grades that won him college admission. As he was deciding to move to New York, his parents got back together, remarrying a year ago. Now he says he's "biding his time," worried that he might be prone to making wrong choices because his parents did.

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