The traditional, nuclear family is under enormous, arguably unprecedented, strain. The past 40 years have witnessed the deconstruction of the institution, culminating in efforts to redefine it out of existence.
An increasingly smaller percentage of Americans live in what, two generations ago, was a typical household consisting of two parents and their children. Not coincidentally, cohabitation is becoming much more common.
Against this familiar backdrop of bad news, there seems to be little we can do to make a difference. But as this month’s Christianity Today cover story points out, there is something that Christians can do, and it will make a difference, if not in the broader culture, at least in the Church-getting married sooner rather than later.
That’s the counsel of Mark Regnerus, a professor of sociology at the University of Texas.
Regnerus, who wrote an acclaimed book about religion and sex in the lives of American teenagers, begins his argument by acknowledging what many Christians won’t: Our best efforts to keep our young people from having sex outside of marriage aren’t working well.
No matter how creative and committed we are, the vast majority of “unmarried, church-going, conservatives Protestants who are currently dating someone are having sex of some sort.” It’s not that things like abstinence-based education aren’t worthwhile-they are. It’s that they aren’t enough. Especially these days, in this over-sexualized culture.
But there’s another less obvious factor that makes Christian norms of purity increasingly difficult: People are waiting longer to get married. In 1970, the median age of first marriage was 21 for women and 23 for men. Today, those numbers have risen to 26 and 28 respectively and show no signs of slowing down. Again, the numbers for Evangelicals aren’t all that different.
The obvious answer is to encourage young believers to marry earlier-not as teenagers, but in their early 20s. Preparing, not to mention convincing, them to marry younger won’t be easy, but it may be necessary as way to promote Christian faithfulness and the institution of marriage itself.
Part of the difficulty, as ethicist David Gushee points out, is that Christians have bought into the idea that marriage must wait until people have completed their education and are established in their careers. What he calls our “lax thinking” about marriage includes the “myth” that every marriage must be economically self-sufficient. Don’t get me wrong- self-sufficiency is admirable. But so is charity on the part of Christian parents who choose to help support their newlywed young people financially.
Marriage “as God intended it” is a “profoundly counter-cultural reality.” It can be a “witness to the Gospel,” but this witness requires more than telling young people “don’t.” It requires encouraging them, by words and deeds, to say “I do.” Sooner rather than later.