Can the Church Save Marriage?
For Rachel, the educational phase of her life was about freedom and independence, not obligations. She met many men in her 20s, but none of them were ready for a serious relationship. It doesn't blame them. "Men are right to be confused about what the hell women want," she said, "and are not sure how to deal with women."
After Rachel moved to Austin, she met her husband on the OkCupid dating site, "because I'm cheap," she said with a laugh, "and it was free." Their marriage preceded their conversion, but the two events felt like a package deal. Before becoming a Christian, sex was less important, living together was justifiable, and marriage was a piece of paper published by the state. No longer. After believing and joining a southern Baptist church, she now believes that marriage is a covenant before God and a sacred relationship.
Even more than marriage, the arrival of children matured the love between Rachel and her husband. Starting a family felt natural and intuitive. But she is convinced that her husband and many men like him see work, marriage and family as something more practical and functional. "I think men should be the providers," said Rachel. "They know that they are designed to do just that."
Although Rachel has landed on her feet, fewer and fewer men like her husband choose marriage and family. According to a 2018 Census Bureau survey, only 35 percent of 25- to 34-year-old men were married, a steep and rapid drop of 50 percent in 2005.
These numbers indicate a clear and frightening path: marriage is becoming less common. Fast.
Getting married is something that people have been doing for thousands of years, if not for love, for economic reasons. Some challenges in tying the knot are old and mathematical – for example, more women are interested in marriage than men. Others are new and ideological, including the new norm for short-term relationships and a preference for "keeping your options open".
Another new barrier is the pandemic. Months after our shared experience with COVID-19, many weddings are delayed and many burgeoning relationships are put on hold.
Long before social distancing affected marriage, I became curious to see how the marital impulse developed, especially within the church. As a sociologist, I wanted to know: Which forces are pushing Christians out of marriage? What scenarios promote marriage? Are American Christians unique in their experience of these forces? Finally, are Christians elsewhere better able to resist the cultural voices that advise them to be selfish and skeptical of marriage?
Unfortunately, the type of marriage I was thinking of is no longer popular in the scientific field. The late ethicist Don Browning said that for many academics, marriage is now seen as "the M-word," almost in the same category as other curse words. Add Christianity to the mix and you get the holy grail of out-of-date pairings among my colleagues.
Still, I insisted. Over the course of a year, my global research team and I spoke to nearly 200 church young adult Christians in seven countries: Mexico, Spain, Poland, Russia, Lebanon, Nigeria, and the United States. (The topics cited in this story are identified by pseudonyms to protect their identity.) Some of the respondents, such as Rachel, were recently married or engaged, but most of them were unmarried. Their average age was 27 years.
The findings from my research were more than clear. Skepticism about marriage is spreading far beyond the West. It was detectable from Mexico City to Moscow, from Beirut to Lagos. When I studied the data and put the pieces of the puzzle together, it became clear that something was going on with marriage among the world's young adult Christians. In a time of new options, more choices, greater temptations, higher expectations, persistent fear and endemic insecurity, nothing about the process of marriage can be taken for granted. Although I risk sounding alarming, I cannot emphasize this point enough: the institution of marriage is heavily burdened.
Ander, a 25-year-old committed doctor in training in Spain, is getting married. One might think that he of all people, a doctor who marries another doctor after dating for six years, would show trust. Not quite. I asked him what he was afraid of.
"Not being free," he said. "Tied to someone. Compromised. Things you don't know, things you don't know. Maybe we're fine now, but not later. "After asking him how exactly that could happen, he said," There are differences in a couple. The other person is different than you thought. "I asked if six years of dating weren't long enough to get to know someone He replied: "I feel like I don't know her very well."
Ander said he had only modest Christian resources to deal with his concerns, even though his belief was strong and he was rooted in a supportive community of believers. He is hardly alone when it comes to expressing uncertainty and the associated fears, not to mention the usual pre-marital restlessness. But he realizes that these concerns have taken on a life of their own. "This fear is now pathological and somehow prevents us from doing something good," he said.
Ander is just one of many Christian men who are part of the downward trend in marriage trends. According to the World Values Survey, regular church visitors in the seven countries I've studied actually have a better chance of being married – at almost any age. However, the forecasts varied from country to country.
For example, 76 percent of Polish women who go to church weekly are expected to be married by the age of 30 and 88 percent by the age of 35. This is about 10 percentage points more than women of the same age in the United States and Spain.
However, the marriage gap between churchgoers and everyone else is particularly striking. In the United States, 72 percent of men who go to church weekly are expected to be married by the age of 35, compared to only 50 percent of American men who do not attend church regularly.
How are American evangelicals doing? In a nationally representative survey conducted in 2014 for the Austin Institute (where I am a research fellow), 56 percent of self-identified evangelicals between the ages of 20 and 39 said they were currently married. This number is well above the 42 percent that the rest of the population of the same age indicates. A repeated investigation four years later showed an obvious decrease. At the end of 2018, 51 percent of the 20 to 39 evangelicals were married, compared to 40 percent of the total population. The number is still higher, but is falling faster.
In the meantime, the proportion of evangelicals who said they lived together rose from 3.9 percent to 6.7 percent over the same period. Support for living together increased from 16 percent of this population in 2014 to 27 percent by the end of 2018. Very few of the evangelicals surveyed believe that marriage is "outdated", but a growing minority of them now see an alternative way to to get there.
Official church records also point to an obvious decline over time. A look at the Church Statistical Yearbook, a Catholic publication, shows that Catholic marriages in the United States have dropped 59 percent since 1965, when there were 9 weddings per 10 funerals. By 2017, this ratio had decreased for every 10 to 3.7. If you don't maintain a Protestant hipster church with an average age under 40, you may be burying more than getting married.
Why? An understated factor is the endemic uncertainty that others and others like him exhibit.
In theory, committing should reduce such doubts – especially when it comes to finance. After all, two can achieve more than one together (Ecc. 4: 9–12). But most men and women no longer perceive marriage as that. In no country have I heard a uniform description of marriage as a means of combating or reducing material, social or psychological uncertainties.
In fact, I heard the opposite on many of my interview topics, including Victor, a 29-year-old Orthodox Christian in Moscow. The concept he is attracted to – having a wife and children – raises questions in his head. What would he do if his wife became unstable or difficult? What if he struggled to feed his family? And what about the challenge of living in a tiny apartment? "It's very problematic," he told me, "to start a family in the conditions of a modern metropolis."
The story of how this uncertainty pandemic came about is not an easy story about sexual revolutions, gig economies or inferior men. Instead, what people expect from marriage has changed fundamentally, although what marriage offers has not.
Even in the minds of most Christians, marriage is seen today as the keystone for a successful young adult life, not as a fundamental indicator of adulthood. This is confirmed by the nomenclature. A keystone is the finishing touch to a structure. It is a moment in time. However, a foundation is what a building rests on. It is absolutely hard-wearing. In the basic vision, it was common, expected and difficult to be newly married and poor, but often only temporarily. In the keystone standard, it is a sign that you are not marriage material when you are poor.
As Russell Moore complains in The Storm-Tossed Family, marriage is increasingly a "vehicle of self-actualization" rather than a scene of self-sacrifice.
Chloe, a 27-year-old interview topic from Michigan, explains this mentality. "You have your 20s to focus on you," she said, "and then you try to help others." This common approach among peers is poor preparation for marriage. Self-sacrifice is learned behavior, not a gift for your 30th birthday.
The creeping marital mission is not only reserved for the wealthy West. Ndidi, a 28-year-old unmarried Pentecostal woman from Lagos, was aware of the conditions under which she would marry. "If I have everything I want," she said. "If I can achieve everything I want to achieve for myself. Then I will get married. "
Another 24-year-old unmarried woman from Lagos agreed. "Oh please!" she said laughing. "I can't marry and suffer."
Most of the young Christians we interviewed expressed high expectations of marriage and low tolerance for victims. To be honest, they didn't want to give too much of themselves. They might have resisted speaking of soul mates, but they secretly yearned for one.
In contrast, couples who have been able to thwart such high standards may see the future more clearly.
A Polish family in my study is an example. Pawel (24) and Marta (29) are a recently married couple living in Kraków. Marta is a full-time mother of her one-year-old daughter, while Pawel is studying philosophy at a nearby university.
The Kraków couple went against the current in several ways. A modest wedding saved the two of them money, but they frayed social ties. Marta comes from a small town where weddings are a big deal. "It was a small scandal," Pawel admitted, "because we didn't have a big reception." But she and Pawel were convinced that the good of marriage means much more than satisfying friends and neighbors.
When I asked them if they thought the marriage had changed, Marta was dull. "Yes. It is now about marriage consolation, to seek consolation (more) than 20 to 30 years ago," she said. "When I think of my family and my parents, they didn't have (much) money or ( owned) a home. "
She and Pawel followed this tradition and saw marriage as a cornerstone. Their life together is hardly easy, but it reflects the trust in their creator that many of their colleagues elude.
IIn my research, I saw very few couples who appreciated this more functional, basic, and natural approach to marriage in the next step. This tells me this: Marriage is moving away from its populist roots and is no longer a practice that most adults in the world participate in and benefit from. Instead, it quickly becomes an elitist, voluntary, and consumer-oriented agreement that takes place later in life. The beneficiaries now consolidate their wealth and income through marriage, while the disadvantaged remain without mutual help. But how many of us clearly see that marriage is about social justice? Not so many.
Getting married later, of course, doesn't have to be a problem and can be a strength. The bad news is that a later marriage predicts less marriage. Fewer people, including Christians, will get married in the future.
Above all, many women are waiting in this space of declining or late marriage. Indeed, "I'm tired of waiting" could be the most common complaint I hear in this area. Most churches simply have more women than men interested in marriage. Sociologists often strive to use the economy as an explanation for this trend. Unfortunately, it's not just a numbers game. Those who have more options – men – by definition have more power than those who have less, and that power leads to the ability to ask for anything you want, including sex.
For many Christian women, this dynamic brings them into a familiar double bond: do I sleep early with a promising man or do I say no and risk the likelihood that he will leave me for someone who does it?
Farah, a 25-year-old Lebanese woman who works part-time for the United Nations, did not have to make this decision. However, your wait is not without challenges.
Farah lives with her parents, as does most of the unmarried adult children in Lebanon. Her father, a married priest, takes great care of the marriage and has advised many couples in the apartment that they share together. (It's a small place, so she listens to the conversations.) She feels ready to get married, but there are no suitors on the horizon. However, she is not too concerned. Many pious Lebanese women are waiting. When they get married, they seem to work more, not less, since the cost of living in Beirut exceeds their salaries. Leisure time is overflowing with domestic duties.
"When both spouses work, they come home tired," said Farah. "Even before they have children, the couple do not have time to sit together, so they postpone their discussion time. They usually postpone things to Saturday, so that Saturdays or weekends are overloaded, which can be very stressful."
Farah came to a clear conclusion. "This challenging condition creates a new picture of marriage," she said.
This dynamic is hardly limited to Lebanon. Spouses are increasingly expected to make sacrifices in a variety of areas by supporting each other in their careers, working with equality, listening with understanding, and becoming best friends. Some of these conditions are imposed externally, as with economic burdens, but many others are created and chosen internally. In this context, the search for an ideal partner can result in what the social psychologist Eli Finkel called the "suffocation model" of marriage. Tim Keller, author of The Meaning of Marriage, is also skeptical about this turn. "Simply put," he writes, "people ask far too much about their spouses."
As we wring our hands about escaping marriage, a realization that has been neglected is that fewer and fewer people are interested in participating in the actual marriage. While most people marry – as they should – with affection, if you watch them over time and place, marriage still affects the mutual provision and transfer of resources within a formalized sexual union. That may sound unsexy and old-fashioned, but it's not wrong. For a long time, marriage was dependent on an exchange based on inequalities between spouses: he needs what she has, and vice versa.
Many shy away from this idea. "If the basis of marriage is specialization and exchange," wrote the late UCLA demographer Valerie Oppenheimer, "then marriage appears to be an increasingly anachronistic form of society."
She is right – and falling marriage rates seem to confirm her point of view. But marriage is what it is. Demand too much of it and you will be disappointed. All of our social, cultural and legal efforts have not fundamentally changed the nature of the Union. Marriage does not change. It goes back. In an era of increasing options, technology, gender equality, "cheap" gender, and secularization, fewer people – including less practicing Christians – actually want what marriage is. That is the bottom line.
As a researcher, studying the demise of marriage was like watching an invasive fungus that is slowly destroying a stately old oak tree. Despite all this bad news, there is hope. The oak will not perish. In fact, marriage is increasingly becoming a “Christian thing”, which means that the Church is increasingly responsible for an institution with an uncertain future.
AWhen my research assistants and I spoke to interview subjects around the world, we heard that many of them describe the marriage sacramentally. Some – like Rachel – spoke of a covenant. Others described marriage as a domestic church, a reproductive union, or a God-blessed unit.
Augustine would appreciate these answers. In his book on the good of marriage, he affirmed marriage as the first natural bond in human society. Many of our respondents defined marriage in terms of a version of Augustine's “three goods” – fidelity, children, and a sacred bond.
While these three goods are not exclusively Christian, marriage always resigns when these practices are disregarded or undermined. And since Christians, on average, are more committed to these goods than their secular counterparts, it's no surprise that marriage is slowly becoming a “Christian cause,” even if Christianity continues to struggle with its own conjugal recession. The numbers of the World Values Survey for several western nations make this picture pretty clear (see chart above). Even a modest gulf in marriage patterns between more and fewer believers will make a far more significant difference over several decades. For the foreseeable future, marriage will therefore increasingly be associated with the world's most religious citizens – Muslims, Orthodox Jews and conservative Christians.
These survey values contain both advantages and disadvantages. The bad news: Although conservative Christians on the whole are more likely to be married, it means that they have to keep falling if there are signs of decline, as they did. The good news: Christians of all kinds still express significant social support for marriage and a strong desire to solve problems.
In this tough but hopeful room we are currently in, the raw materials are available for the revival of marriage. "It's too late to fix everything," a friend and colleague reminded me wisely. "But it's not too late to fix anything."
As the secularization of the West feeds and supports flight from marriage, life in faith is key. But if the Church in the West becomes the main defender of marriage, how exactly do we protect and promote it for those inside and outside our sanctuaries?
First, we need to study and promote the social conditions that help make marriage possible. This includes the role of skydiving organizations.
While I have occasionally heard of pastoral efforts to encourage more marriages in churches, I have heard no constant sources of success. However, faith groups were a different story. Our respondents (particularly in the United States) reported widespread use of dating sites, with Christian preferred, but human rather than algorithmic matchmakers were much more valued. (Real matchmakers "know" more people.) In terms of satisfaction with an efficient process in which the interviewees met, fell in love and married, lively sub-communities did the best. Congregations are often too big. Small groups feel too small and their dynamics too fragile. Medium-sized companies that they want to borrow from Goldilocks are exactly right. They attract young adults due to their distinctive Christian and sometimes countercultural nature. As marriage ages, these medium-sized groups become more important for marriage after college.
Pawe and Marta, the Krakow couple, said two Catholic societies had supported their marriage both before and after the wedding. One was a youth organization from the nearby Dominican Order where they met, and the other was the Neocatechumenal Way, a church community of up to 50 people mentioned by respondents in Poland, Lebanon, and Spain. In the United States, we heard from college organizations like InterVarsity and the Baptist Student Ministry.
In other words, it seemed more likely to meet a partner – or soon be on the way – if our respondents focused on holiness before loneliness. This may sound simple and unoriginal, but remember CS Lewis' remark: "Aim at heaven and you'll be thrown into the earth." Of course, not everyone who wants to get high will find marriage in the wings. ( Differences in gender relationships remain an ongoing challenge.) However, it seems to be more fruitful to first orient yourself towards faith and discipleship so that marriage can take root.
The seeds of marriage also sprout through personal modeling and storytelling. As a Russian respondent noted, bad examples serve as "a kind of vaccine against marriage". Good examples inspire them
Of course, this tool has limits. We cannot rename or repackage the marriage with the correct narrative and expect our efforts to be successful. Getting married and starting a family are traditional steps, no matter how you do it. However, strengthening this tradition through public practice is within reach for many of us.
Tomas, a 34-year-old school counselor from Guadalajara, who will marry in two months, brought this message home. "How parents live their marriage will make a strong impression," he said. "And I imagine that if the relationship is sweet, if there is really love, I think that it creates enthusiasm in a young person, saying:" I want something like my parents. "
Finally, we have to avoid the danger of idolizing or idealizing marriage. When we borrow Lewis & # 39; Heaven's Goal concept and apply it to marriage, it reminds us of the basic nature of marriage and warns us of out-of-world material and psychological expectations of marriage, which is stratospheric today became. Marriage is an earthly agreement that our Lord will not find in the kingdom of God after the resurrection (Mt 22:30). It is a tool for material prosperity and a means for spiritual progress that offers daily (if not hourly) opportunities to show sacrificing, incarnative love.
The West now lives from the fumes of countless victims that husbands and wives, mothers and fathers have brought for many decades. We know that these committed marriages are the key to a healthy society. But we have lost sight of the fact that marriage is in many ways a physical (and spiritual) act of mercy, not only for our own spouse and children, but also for the world outside of our home. The West's success builds on this social family structure, and if we dismantle it, we will be far more vulnerable and psychologically unstable than we think.
So, from my perspective, it is time for the Church to demonstrate again to the world what marriage is. We have a timeless and transcendent motivation for marriage on our side. The task is not glamorous. But it could just work.
Mark Regnerus is a professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin and co-founder of the Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture. His new book The Future of Christian Marriage (Oxford University Press) will be published on September 1st.
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