Marriage & relationships, part two:
Sunday morning, when official Washington is worshipping at the church of Fox News Sunday or Meet the Press, nearly 1,000 Christians-average age, 28-head to Capitol Hill Baptist Church (CHBC) in Washington, D.C. They are a transient group, drawn to the nation's capital for school, politics, or military postings. Many are single. They have become part of a church that-from the pulpit, in Sunday school classes and small groups, through discipleship and shepherding-teaches singles, "Dating is not an individual endeavor; it's a community affair."
Across the country, in Billings, Montana, Rocky Mountain Community Church (PCA) encourages couples to bring their relationships into the church. Associate pastor Jason Barrie says, "Let's keep the relationship out in the light where you can rightly assess its merits." Couples in love don't always see clearly, so he encourages them to join small groups: "When we're around other folks, then I'm seeing you as you really are." In Billings, dating is also more than an individual endeavor.
Two churches nearly 2,000 miles apart are among those trying to help in confusing times. Young marrieds find themselves unprepared for marriage. Singles are confused and frustrated over how to date or court. Sometimes the debate about "how to" overshadows a more important factor: Community-including family and church-has a vital role to play. It may seem like a no-brainer that churches need to be more involved in this crucial area, but interviews with singles and young marrieds show that many of them would appreciate more.
Four tales from the front lines of confusion:
Kim Collins, 33, works in Manhattan. She never expected to be single at her age. Occasionally family members or friends have set her up, but overall, "I don't think anyone is trying to help." What about the church? "It seems as though there isn't much teaching about the importance of marriage. . . . Those of us who are single aren't being encouraged to marry. It's not a topic of conversation."
Dana Hui and her husband, both students at Covenant Seminary in St. Louis, are first-generation Christians who want to learn from older Christian couples: Hui says, "We were in deep trouble without help because we did not understand how severe some of our problems were." Seminary classes and books have been helpful, "but couples still need a counselor or another older couple to model for them what a godly marriage looks like and how a mature person behaves within a marriage."
Courtney Russell lives in Texas and found that marriage didn't match the idealized expectations she'd picked up from Christian culture. Looking back it seems as though older Christians were so interested in keeping younger ones from having premarital sex that they presented a fantasy intended to be "as good as Hollywood-or as powerful. . . . It reminds me of when you're a kid and they bribe you with candy to behave yourself in the grocery store. . . . It's all about a do and don't list of being a Christian."
Nathan Tircuit, a Reformed University Fellowship campus minister at Mississippi State from 2006 to 2009, says the nearly 300 students who came to his weekly Bible studies were interested in dating and relationships-but they didn't have the biblical big picture. He told them it was like having "pieces from a puzzle, but you have no picture on the cover of the puzzle box to tell you how to put it all together." He spent a semester giving that big picture, starting with the Trinity, the fall, and the church. He taught on biblical manliness and godly womanhood, sacrifice and service, sex and forgiveness. He taught, "Some relationships have reached a point where you needed to either break up or get married." A co-ed later told him that she and her boyfriend left the Bible study that night and broke up in the parking lot.
Let's look at two churches known for helping, starting with CHBC on Capitol Hill. It has so many singles that meeting others isn't a problem. But the church didn't want to be just another station on the Dating Express. It set out to build a culture based on its complementary understanding of gender roles. That means a culture where men initiate and women feel protected.
Deepak Reju, an associate pastor there, says building that kind of culture takes time and requires pastors and elders to "teach, teach, teach, teach, disciple, shepherd." The church offers a combination of formal programs and more relational "ways to build it into the conversation." It regularly offers a Sunday school class called "Friendship, Courtship, Marriage," and another one on discipleship. The church encourages married and single members to seek friendships with each other.
Reju says churches can expect pushback, especially when they teach principles that conflict with widely held cultural assumptions. Ten years ago Reju was a pastoral intern when his church began teaching the dating class as part of its core Sunday school curriculum. He remembers an early class filled with angry professional women who pushed back against the teaching that women should wait for men to initiate. Now 10 years later, "We've taught and the culture has changed." That required consistency and patience.
Even in Christian circles, he notes, guys in their 30s can be shallow, attracted by the pretty 20-year-old rather than the godly 30-year-old. So the church pushes: At least take time to know the girls around you. Hang out. Build brother-and-sister relationships.
Some CHBC teachings challenge not only secular dating philosophies but evangelical ones. For example, the tempo for relationships: Twenty-four church couples married in 2010, and on average the process from courtship to engagement to marriage took about a year, too fast for some parents who prefer the "evangelical gold standard"-one year of dating, then maybe a year-long engagement.
Reju says that after two or three dates, a guy should know whether he's interested or not: "He should fish or cut bait." Once a man and woman decide to pursue a relationship, they need to talk about important stuff, and not save that for after the wedding or engagement. The church teaches couples to look for either flexibility or agreement, and to use wisdom to distinguish the things that matter from the things that don't. He says parents who urge delay don't hear the anguished stories from singles who feel guilty about the level of physical intimacy that characterizes their relationships: "We are trying to save our singles from falling into sexual temptation."
For now CHBC has resisted doing its marriage counseling in a group. Instead the senior pastor and four associate pastors provide 10 hours of counseling to engaged couples, one pastor per couple. Sometimes their wives participate. The hefty time commitment results in close relations between at least one pastor and each newlywed couple, which is valuable if they run into trouble.
Across the country, Rocky Mountain Community Church-Billings has one senior pastor, one associate, and 400 attendees on average. It has also made teaching and discipling young couples a priority. For Jason Barrie it is a personal passion: He has been married for 17 years and is writing a premarital counseling book. His church has a strong discipleship culture. Singles are often in the homes of married couples and an expectation exists that people will invest in the lives of others. Small groups are intergenerational, not "dating factories." The church says it is "good to connect, but do it in the context of real ministry. If you're running towards Christ, that's where you want to find a man."
Barrie uses a story from his own life to show how these mentoring relationships help. When he and his wife had been married about two years, they were eating a meal with his mentor and wife. During the meal, the older folks talked casually about conflicts in their marriage. The Barries exchanged shocked glances. Seeing their expressions, the mentor "pushed a little bit and asked a few questions" before saying, "It sure seems like you are sweeping a lot of things under the carpet." Looking back, Barrie says, "These weren't huge catastrophic things, but mini-moments when we chose to pretend that everything was OK." It took an older couple who knew the Barries well to teach them, "Conflict is inevitable, so how will you deal with it?"
Barrie says churches have to create a culture acknowledging "that all of us are people in need of change. . . . It requires humility among leaders." He admits it is hard: "I want to be the pastor who has it all together, who has the expertise. . . . But they don't need a perfect pastor. They need a Savior who is perfect." At the Billings church, couples in premarital or pre-engagement counseling talk with older couples about what they are learning and ask questions. More experienced couples help break through the fairy-tale haze: "We're in a relationship. We don't have conflict."
Barrie is excited when he sees in counseling evidence of conflict. A moment happens when one person reveals disappointment in the other. That provides an opportunity to ask, "Where are you going to turn? Where is God in this relationship?" Sometimes it's the last straw and reveals that one of the pair has turned the relationship into an idol. They may choose to part ways: "There's still a choice." Other times the couples move ahead, better aware of each other's faults, and willing to trust God to work through them.
Members of both churches have learned that even when singles don't recognize the need, marriages will be stronger if the church does a better job teaching and discipling. If the church won't, young people will get their signals from each other or the culture. The result will be a mishmash of random ideas and opinions gathered from friends, parents, and the media-some of them consciously held and some of them as ubiquitous, and thus unnoticeable, as the air.
Both churches are making their materials available: CHBC's dating and discipleship materials are online. Churches can download and tweak to fit their cultures. Jason Barrie is writing a curriculum that will emphasize a "gospel-centered" approach-right relations between people come from right relations with God. New materials are important because many marriage books now in bookstores are skills-oriented, promising a silver bullet-better communication, better sex, or better conflict resolution-to fix what's broken
Transforming both society and church patterns for relationships is hard: To be effective in mentoring, older married couples need to open up about difficulties and challenges. Sometimes cultural pressures keep that from happening. High-school student Will Stout from Fort Payne, Ala., has found it hard for adults to be transparent: "What happens in your household is your business. . . . Be friendly, invite people in . . . but don't be frank. Just say, 'I'm doing good.'" Nathan Tircuit, now a pastor outside of Memphis, notes that putting on a happy face amid struggle and pain hurts the troubled family-by the time anyone hears about it the situation is irreconcilable-but is particularly devastating to younger couples.
Brittany Lewis, homeschooling mother of three in McKinney, Texas, is discouraged by the amount of infidelity "plaguing the church" and wonders if it is because "we put on our Sunday best, but then we don't allow anyone to see what is really going on at home. . . . If pastors and older Christian couples are unfaithful, what hope is there for the rest of us? We currently feel really discouraged and, honestly, fearful. Who will teach us and challenge us?"
Kids who grow up in strong marriage-affirming and discipling churches are less likely to be blindsided by messy realities or influenced by Disney fantasies. Carol Vinitiera grew up in a church in Pennsylvania where her father is a pastor. He taught marriage classes and mentored couples. She saw her parents work through issues. Now she's taking that solid foundation and applying it to her own budding relationship: "Our goal is to glorify God through our marriage." She's known her boyfriend since the fifth grade, although they didn't start a relationship until two years ago. Now they are praying and talking through harder topics: "What does it mean to have him lead me? Can I submit to my fiancé, believing in faith that God will make him the man He wants him to be, and that in submitting to him I am submitting to Christ?"
New college graduate Emily Miller met her fiancé when he was student president and she served in student government. They were friends and colleagues first, giving each a chance to observe the other in many settings: "I knew I respected him a lot. . . . He had good sense." Miller says much of the dating literature "leads to idealism about what a Christian relationship really is. It can create unnecessary hesitation when you meet a guy who doesn't think in the same terms." Instead, she says it is important to learn to love and follow Christ, and get parental input. There isn't a formula: "If you do this, God will do this. If you do this, you will be happy." She is happy that her fiancé "encouraged me to be a better version of myself."
The lesson that 40 hours of interviewing drove home to me is that we are sinful human beings who live in a culture that is hostile to lifelong marriage. It isn't surprising that marriage is in trouble, especially when a rosy, Disney-esque fantasy beckons. Christians desperately need the church to be involved. Jason Barrie in Montana says if preachers and Bible study teachers aren't speaking in a way that acknowledges the challenges of human relationships and the reality of suffering, they are leaving the field wide open to Oprah and Dr. Phil.
Solid biblical teaching and discipleship is not something that can be farmed out to weekend retreats. A discipleship culture, like slow food, takes time. Barrie says the benefits are priceless: "Churches where people are real about the Christian life, and the ultimate message is being preached: Sinners saved by grace."
Read Marriage and Relationships, Part 1.