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Couples in community

"Couples in community" Continued...

Issue: "Tour d'America," June 18, 2011

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.

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