Friday, October 08, 2021

Too Hot to Handle: How I Didn’t Meet Your Mother

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Rod Dreher says nobody meets their spouses at church anymore.

Catholic, Protestant, whatever: some Christian folks are making the case you’ll have better luck finding a spouse in a bar or restaurant, through friends or online than you are going to have finding a man or woman in your own local church worth partnering up with for life. And Dreher agrees.

That’s quite a claim, IC. Where did you meet your wife?

Immanuel Can: At church, first. But we didn’t get interested in each other until we started working together, serving the Lord at a university. My experience may or may not be indicative, though.

Parsing the Data

Tom: Right. And Bernie met his wife at church, my sister met her husband there, and a number of Christian friends did the same. My parents met each other in church. In most cases it was different churches, similar beliefs. But those examples are from other generations, and I think Dreher’s point — and the point being made by the fellow he quotes — is that it doesn’t happen anymore.

Further, data gathered by sociologist Michael Rosenfeld from Stanford seems to support that claim. It shows a 70-year-plus pattern of decline in in-church matchmaking starting in 1940 and absolutely falling off the cliff by 2009, such that something in the range of only 3% of current married couples met in church.

Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean that Christians are no longer marrying Christians, does it? Although it might mean that …

IC: Not necessarily, no. But it would be surprising if the named means of meeting involved the same proportion of Christian potential mates as the church has, so it’s quite possible that follows.

What Are We Measuring Exactly?

I have to wonder what the article means by “church”, though. Is it the Catholic “church” that is being referenced or evangelical ones, Tom? I ask because the author clearly self-identifies as Catholic.

Tom: Oh, Dreher is Catholic, yes. But the bulk of the points made in the article are quotes from a blogger named Free Northerner, and the data he uses to support his claims comes from the aforementioned Stanford survey of 4,002 American adults, 3,009 of whom had a spouse or romantic partner. The study was “nationally representative”, which suggests it was not restricted to churchgoers at all, let alone a specific type of churchgoer. In fact, Rosenfeld concedes his study “oversamples self-identified gay, lesbian, and bisexual adults”, which may suggest one possible reason for the plunging percentage of married couples who met their partner in church.

IC: Yes, well, that would definitely make the findings questionable. It may be, though, that numbers are still falling off in the case of evangelicals ... we just cannot be certain from their data.

Churches Getting Proactive

What did you think of the suggestions to the effect that the church needs to “step up” and become more proactive about getting people hitched?

Tom: You’re talking about Free Northerner’s six suggestions, of which Dreher quotes one? Well, I’d like to see more Christians marrying Christians, obviously, provided the marriages last. But we live in a very individualistic age. Parents and churches can encourage in-church unions all they want, but unless they have an unusually close and influential relationship with their late-teens, that may not accomplish much. My own tastes in girls and my mother’s, for example, were widely divergent when I was that age. Was she right? Well, perhaps closer to right than I was. But if it had been Mom’s choice or staying single, I think I might have opted for the latter. And I doubt I’d have been open to suggestions from elders about who I should partner up with at that age.

But Free Northerner’s ideas about churches running regular, casual events for their young adults so they can get to know each other and pair off sound fine to me, provided they exist in a culture in which it’s clearly taught that pre-marital sex and fooling around are not part of “getting to know each other”. That’s not the easiest balancing act these days.

IC: Yes, I didn’t find his suggestions in any way offensive, but I did wonder if he hasn’t made a common mistake — that of thinking that problems Christians experience are all the responsibility of the church to “fix”. For example, the individualism you mention is a general social trend, not the product of a specifically church-originated fault; and the church really does not have the means to reverse it, even if it were their duty to try.

Programming and Institutional Correction

I find myself wondering if the marriage situation isn’t a bit the same; something the church has to respond to, that it can speak about, and that maybe it can even try to mitigate a bit, but not a thing it can overcome with a new program of better-arranged marriage-making. Or am I being cynical about that?

Tom: No, I don’t think so. Very few problems in church life are dealt with most effectively through programs and initiatives.

Still, I think it’s useful for parents and church leaders to notice trends like this and start talking about them. Part of the problem is that we’ve reversed a historical norm: it used to be that a majority of young people married in their late teens and early twenties, and then went out into the world together. Today, both young men and women leave their homes and local churches for university or work, and often live away from their families and original churches for a decade or more before marriage — and here’s the important part: for one reason or another they never commit to another local church while they’re on their own. They drift in and out of places with little guidance and accountability. Thus it would not surprise me to find the statistics support the claim that they are pairing up with unsaved partners, or else meeting a Christian partner somewhere other than church.

Who’s REALLY On the Hook?

IC: So what is the right response here, Tom? If it’s not that the church steps up its dating programs, what’s the next move? Can you suggest anything?

Tom: Well, decisions about marriage are very much a product of individual commitment to Christ, don’t you think? What’s important is that Christians marry Christians. So if the leadership of your church is wringing its hands and saying, “All our twenty-somethings have gone off and married unsaved girls/guys!” that’s, to me, got to be a little bit of a reflection on how they are discipling their kids. Or rather, maybe, not discipling them.

On the other hand, if those kids are marrying their fellow believers across town, does it really matter whether they met them at your church or met them on ChristianMingle? The important thing is that our children make good, spiritual choices about who is an appropriate life partner.

IC: I wondered if you’d say something like that. Yes, I agree. There are things the church cannot change here, such as the number of unsaved potentials a young Christian will meet in school, at work or on the Internet, or the age at which marriage is financially possible to young people these days. But we have to wonder just how deep the reasons we provide are for not being “unequally yoked” — for not linking up with unbelievers.

Tom: Amen.

Neighbors Chatting Over the Fence

IC: If we’ve not made clear enough the difficulties of pairing with someone with a different theology (perhaps because we’ve stopped believing theology matters much), and the utter impossibility of uniting the spiritually dead with the spiritually alive (perhaps because we ourselves are not sufficiently developed in our spiritual lives to recognize the problem as intractable) then we cannot be surprised much if our young people choose unbelieving partners.

It’s like two neighbors leaning on the fence to chat. The one who’s on the north side of the fence and the one who is on the south side may have a solid fence between them; but it doesn’t seem to make any difference to their conversation, because they are spacially only inches apart. A very immature believer may be in a different realm, with an immovable barrier between him and the “very nice” unbeliever; but he may have no consciousness of it, because in many ways, they’re really pretty close. But that fence — that’s a reality that makes all the difference. Whatever the future holds for either of them, it will be in different “fields”. But the “nice” unbeliever cannot be expected to know that, and the immature believer may not feel enough incentives to care about it. But that’s how it’s going to be.

Summing It All Up

Tom: Very true. So maybe to sum up here, I’m not going to get into a flap yet about the decreasing number of couples who met in church, and it sounds like you aren’t either. There seem to be a significant number of factors the Rosenfeld survey can’t really take into account. One, that the “church” it is surveying is huge and, on the whole, quite secularized. So Rosenfeld has no way of measuring what genuine believers are doing. Two, as a result of lessening commitment to any individual local church, and as a result of moving around while growing up, young Christians today are meeting each other all over the place. Three, the Internet is a huge source of connection for like-minded people, including believers. That can be good or bad, depending how we use it.

Have I missed anything?

IC: For me, the key is this: it’s only if a young person’s own spiritual life is deep — including not just a profound respect for the differences theology makes, but a real belief in actual regeneration of the believer and a personal experience of the indwelling Spirit of God — that he or she will see how right God is when he puts it to us this way:

“Do not be bound together with unbelievers; for what partnership have righteousness and lawlessness, or what fellowship has light with darkness? Or what harmony has Christ with Belial, or what has a believer in common with an unbeliever? Or what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; just as God said,

“I will dwell in them and walk among them;
 And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
‘Therefore, come out from their midst and be separate,’ says the Lord.
‘And do not touch what is unclean;
 And I will welcome you.
‘And I will be a father to you,
 And you shall be sons and daughters to me,’
 Says the Lord Almighty.’ ”

1 comment :

  1. It is actually getting worse than that. Nobody needs a spouse anymore. This is an email I recently got from my (happily married, activist daughter).

    My reply:

    Whoever wrote this article shows one of the biggest biases against marriage that I have come across. The data cited is subtly distorted and presented in a way to conform to the writer’s viewpoint which is anti marriage. It’s basically a hit job on marriage very typical of what the progressive element nowadays stands for. It conforms to today's news mileu of ever so subtly distorting and wanting to influence public behavior and opinion.
    Just do a web search on “crime due to dissolution of family life” and “comparative positive effects of religion on family and society” to totally contradict the biases of that writer, something the writer should have included in the article for balance.