Pastor to Young Christians: Get Married Early

Other than virginity pledges and purity rings, churches aren't offering many options or, for that matter, any good answers when it comes to relationships and sex, says one pastor.

But there is one thing that churches need to be better at communicating to young people – marriage, says Ted Cunningham, author of Young and in Love: Challenging the Unnecessary Delay of Marriage.

"The purity message was simple – don't, wait, stop. [But] it was never positioned underneath marriage," he said on a Focus on the Family broadcast this week. "Marriage is the hope of purity. We can't tell our kids 'no, don't, stop, wait' for the next 15 years and then if they don't even have a special future pictured for them about marriage, where is the 'don't, wait, stop' leading?"

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Cunningham, who is pastor at Woodland Hills Family Church in Branson, Mo., is an advocate of early marriage. But he sees too many parents as well as churches encouraging young people to wait to get married – until after they've finished college, found a job and essentially gained a foothold in life.

"I just think a lot of parents are so stuck in this 'you've got to get through college, you've got to travel a little bit, you've got to get a job, you've got to save up some money, you've got to learn to be independent,'" the 38-year-old pastor said.

But that's not a biblical way of living, he believes.

"Personally, I just believe that independence has become a socially acceptable term for selfishness," he said. "'You need more time to live for yourself' and that's not the Gospel. Our life in Christ is 'deny yourself.'"

Cunningham's book was released in 2011. It came a year after a Time/Pew survey found that 39 percent of Americans felt marriage was obsolete. Cunningham believes that percentage has crept up to 41 percent today and he's concerned.

His message to consider pursuing marriage earlier isn't the most popular, he recognized. But he views it as a biblical message and one that could be more effective than the "purity" message many churches teach.

"I was taught that sex is dirty, nasty ... and you should save it for the one you love," he said on the FOTF broadcast, demonstrating how such a message might not be taken seriously.

"Kids are doing the opposite with the traditional ... biblical message we're giving them," the author noted. "They're not delaying sex, getting married and enjoying sex. They're doing just the opposite. They're having sex and delaying marriage."

What Cunningham is advocating for is parents helping their children so that they leave home as adults rather than waiting for them to become adults after they leave (i.e. for college); and for churches to promote marriage rather than just purity.

In earlier generations, the milestones of adulthood – leaving home, finishing school, getting a job, getting married and starting a family – were completed in a short period of time. But today, the milestones have been placed on "this 10- to 15-year stretched out track that I call prolonged adolescence," said Cunningham.

"It's just too much privilege, not enough responsibility, 'let's just wait, learn, have enough money in the bank...'"

Additionally, instead of suppressing their children's feelings if they confess to liking someone, the pastor encourages parents to dream with them and talk more about the vision of marriage.

In the church, meanwhile, Cunningham wants Christians to coach young men to pursue relationships and elevate the marriage talk.

He clarified that he's not advocating for all young people to get married. There's a certain level of maturity, life responsibility and one's walk with Jesus that should be considered when assessing someone's preparedness for marriage.

Cunningham wed his wife when he was still in college and he has been married for 15 years since. He believes the early 20s are a good age for getting married.

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