A Lighthouse of Love
Creating a Pro-Marriage Culture
by Susan and Dale Mathis
Marci dreamed of this day. At 28, she was finally going to be the bride of her childhood fantasies. She had worked hard to make this day perfect — finding the right venue, the right dress and hairstyle, bridal party, food, photographer, and flowers. She even looked forward to walking down the same aisle she walked as a child when she became a Christian.
But as she counted the days until that big day, Marci realized that the differences and disagreements between Chad and her were becoming commonplace, so they simply avoided talking about their future together. Though they had met with the pastor who would do their ceremony, much of the conversation revolved around the details of the wedding — not the years that would follow. They only had a vague idea of what a Christian marriage might look like, and they were unaware of all the challenges that marriage would bring. Hardly a day went by that they did not struggle in their relationship as their wedding day drew closer, but they did not know what to do.
As Marci and Chad addressed their wedding invitations, they realized that, though they had talked about the wedding a lot, they had not planned much of their life together past their honeymoon. They needed help, but where would they start?
CAST A VISION
What kind of marriage vision could you give Marci and Chad? Marriage is the legal, social, and spiritual contract between a man and woman. But a Christ-centered marriage is so much more. It is even more than a covenant agreement made before God to live together, serve one another, and remain faithful to each other.
A Christ-centered marriage is His plan to make a couple all He intends them to be. This vision of marriage can provide an atmosphere of accountability, safety, and grace in which couples strive to leave their selfish tendencies behind and become more like Him. We need to provide a higher vision of marriage for not only couples like Marci and Chad, but also our entire church.
Today’s culture places little value on marriage. The media — movies, television shows, and pop music — along with the prevailing attitude on college campuses and society in general, convey the idea that marriage is temporary — even irrelevant.
Unfortunately many Christian couples “test the waters” with premarital sex or live together before they marry. Some even divorce after marriage. As we counsel couples, Dale and I have discovered that sex before marriage, cohabitation, and divorce are nearly as rampant with Christian couples as it is in the secular world, so we must face this reality and give couples a vision for a better way.
We need to remind the singles in our churches that sex before marriage and cohabitation is not just a sin — it is false intimacy. It distorts our view of the other person, and it hinders the development of a deep, emotional, trusting, and intimate relationship necessary for a successful lifetime of marriage.
In our culture, everything seems disposable — even relationships. Everything seems like it is based on what makes us feel good or is convenient for us personally. But we must articulate — and model — that God’s plan is so much bigger than that. Just as He has never left us or forsaken us, even in our worst sinful state, so He wants us to know and enjoy the permanence of an intimate relationship with our mate.
Today’s culture also views marriage as a place to make us happy. Couples think they can create their own rules and way of life — however it suits their desires. We need to instill in them that selfishness will make a poor marriage and that marriage requires teamwork, sharing, sacrifice, and growing together every day.
Yet, a choice like this goes against our culture of individualism. Every day our culture challenges couples to make difficult, unselfish decisions. If couples can learn this early on, it will keep them from undermining their relationship along the way.
We must create a church culture that gives couples a higher vision of marriage and shows them that commitment is more than just signing a contract. In our noncommittal world, we need to impart the truth that covenant promises such as marriage are unconditional. And though we might think our church family knows all this, many do not.
To create such a church culture, we must be authentic in our own marriages. But how do we teach couples to have godly, open relationships?
The popularity of reality TV and YouTube is teaching reality, but they have corrupted the way we see reality and openness. We see couples duking it out, yelling at one another, divorcing, breaking up the family, and moving on with apparent happiness and freedom. Couples fight for their rights, rail at each other, and mock marriage.
Christian couples are also falling into the “let it all hang out” trend by devaluing marriage with snarky comments and bad attitudes. We hear sermons that make marriage out to be dull duty rather than a privilege and blessing. Though we want to be authentic and real with others, what message does this send to those who are looking toward marriage — or are in a crisis marriage?
Authenticity works best when people share their faults, failures, and God’s redemption in close relationship with others. Personal connections are most effective because they show rather than tell. Rhetoric, whether positive or negative, does little to provide practical resources or helpful tools.
The Bible is clear about the relational failures of Bible characters such as Adam and Eve, Moses, Abraham, Isaac, David, and others. Their stories portray the consequences of sin and selfishness on marriages and show how far man has strayed from God’s plan for marriage. We can learn much from the lives of others — those in the Bible and others we know — who have blown it but also saw that God can lead them where He originally meant them to be.
But at its best, marriage is living out God’s redemptive plan and becoming more like Him every day. When couples catch this vision, marriage becomes about more than meeting our individual needs. It’s about seeing our mate grow through the love, grace, and forgiveness we freely give him or her, while that person also allows us to grow, even through our mistakes. Marriage becomes more about giving, helping, serving, trusting, forgiving, caring, learning, and living through the ups and downs of life than about our own desires. This is what our couples need to see.
Modeling Christian marriage is an important component in accomplishing this vision. It provides a stark alternative to the often temporary, fly-by-night relationships the world offers.
When mature Christian couples choose to serve younger couples and model marriage well, they can visibly show God’s plan for great relationships, no matter how imperfect, and they can become a safe place for others to grow together. When we live out our commitment to unconditionally love and serve one another in marriage, the body of Christ can become lighthouses of love that can show the world a better way.
Herein lies a problem. In this fractured society, how can younger couples see this if they only hang out with other young couples? Our culture, Facebook, and mommy-blog phenomenon often glorifies peer-to-peer connection over intergenerational relationships. Instead of looking to those who are older and wiser, many of the younger generation look to each other for advice on marriage and parenting … a sort of blind leading the blind. We must change this trend, and fast.
Hopefully, we know couples who have been married for decades and are happy, despite the challenges they have faced through the years. Our friends just celebrated 55 years together. They love each other dearly, are the closest of companions, and deeply committed to each other. These kinds of couples can disciple younger couples, give them hope, and become incredible mentors for others. They just need us to invite them to intentionally connect with younger couples.
A church-wide marriage ministry can model to couples love relationships that are authentic, and it can demonstrate how commitment brings security and happiness beyond a couple’s wildest dreams. When people have this kind of vision and modeling, marriage can change individuals into the people of character that God intends them to be as they learn to be unselfish, sacrificing, and loving — like Christ modeled for us.
MAKE A PLAN
Just as we teach the foundational principles of the faith precept upon precept, we can no longer assume that our people are assimilating biblical relational principles and know how to do marriage well. Broken or dysfunctional marriages and families fill our churches, so the church has a great opportunity to provide the tools for changing this culture.
To make this a reality, an all-church, pro-marriage plan is essential. A pro-marriage plan starts with casting vision and then creating a church culture that is pro-marriage. This includes teaching couples to live a lifestyle of authenticity and openness, to encourage marriage modeling and mentoring, and to provide tools for couples to serve as part of the ministry. But how?
The youth pastor needs to impart a pro-marriage culture to hormone-driven teens. The singles pastor will need to passionately pass it on to his or her lonely singles. The family minister will need to articulate and model it to young marrieds, parents who are raising children, and even to our empty nesters and seniors. And practically speaking, that plan must start with preparing couples to marry well.
The U.S. Census Bureau and the National Center for Health Statistics say that 43- to-50-percent of marriages will end in divorce, and the statistics for Christian couples are virtually the same. But couples who participate in premarital education report a 30-percent higher level of overall marital satisfaction and better communication.1
Unfortunately, less than 30 percent of churches have any kind of premarital program other than a prewedding chat with the bride and groom. Since over 70 percent of couples marry in the church, we can and should help couples prepare for the rest of their lives, ensuring that those who marry in our churches are informed and ready to be biblically committed to one another.
Yet instead of being proactive, all too often we respond to couples only after they get in trouble. We staff our churches with counselors who wait for the calls of couples who are in crisis rather than imparting wisdom on how to not get into crisis in the first place.
A marriage retreat, weekend workshop, or conference, now and then, is a great extra for your pro-marriage plan. But lectures can never replace the power of doing life together in relationship with others or of providing practical ongoing education that will prepare them to tackle their marriage issues instead of waiting until they are in trouble.
In addition to casting vision, creating a culture of authenticity, and encouraging marriage mentors, every church needs to provide tools that will give couples practical education and lifetime learning. Start with a premarital ministry to lay a firm foundation for the journey ahead.
While there are several premarital resources, Countdown for Couples: Preparing for the Adventure of Marriage and The ReMarriage Adventure: Preparing for a Lifetime of Love & Happiness are both designed to intentionally impart a biblical view of marriage as well as provide practical education for the journey. Both are easy-to-read premarital guides that will give pastors, counselors, small groups, and/or premarital classes an all-encompassing way to prepare couples for the adventure of marriage and/or remarriage. The 12-chapter format means that leaders can divide the premarital ministry into four, six, or 12 sessions with individual couples, small groups, or classes. Interesting sidebars and discussion questions at the end of each chapter make it effortless for pastors, counselors, or laypeople to easily facilitate a premarital ministry with these books.
The PREPARE inventory by Life Innovations, Inc., helps premarital couples identify relationship strengths and growth areas. Add this inventory to the above resources, and your church can have a ready-made premarital program that will lay the groundwork for successful marriages.
For your married couples, dozens of marriage resources are available. Check out myhealthychurch.com, CBD.com, or your local Christian bookstore, and you will find a wealth of topics on marriage. Create a culture where couples are lifetime learners, and provide resources for them to use. Encourage your couples to invest in their marriage through small groups, book studies, and serving as mentors, facilitators, and authentic married couples who change the marriage culture in your church.
It is more critical than ever to lay the foundation for successful, fulfilling, and godly marriages. Make it important, even popular, as a church family to be involved in regular marriage education. Give your people opportunity to both receive and give. As you provide a unified and godly vision for marriage, create a culture of openness and grace, and encourage couples to model and serve as a way of life, your church will give hope for the future and a lifestyle to emulate.
- Jason Williams, “Talk Before Tying the Knot,” Psychology Today, July 1, 2003. Found at http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200308/talk-tying-the-knot. [Accessed 25 June 2013.] Full article only available with subscription to Psychology Today.