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Couples in community

"Couples in community" Continued...

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

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."

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