By Meredith Flynn
Is marriage becoming irrelevant? This question led a Gallup report finding a growing number of Americans believe the institution of marriage isn’t very important for couples who plan to spend their lives together or who have children together.
The research, released in late 2020, found 29% of people say it’s very important for couples with children together to be legally married, down from 49% in 2006. And 38% of Americans say it’s very important for couples to marry if they plan to live together the rest of their lives, down from 54% in 2006.
More surprisingly, churchgoers’ views on marriage are also changing. In 2006, 65% of weekly church attendees said it’s very important that couples with children together legally marry. That share fell to 45% in 2020. Currently, 67% of weekly churchgoers say marriage is very important for couples who want to spend their lives together, down from 82% in 2006.67% of weekly churchgoers say marriage is very important for couples who want to spend their lives together, down from 82% in 2006, according to Gallup. Click To Tweet
“They’re swimming in a cultural ocean that’s a lot less marriage-friendly than it used to be,” said Brad Wilcox, a professor of sociology at the University of Virginia and director of the National Marriage Project. He said the erosion of public support for marriage unfolding in the general population extends to churchgoers who spend an hour-and-a-half any given week in church and the rest of their time swimming against the tide.
Despite the changing views on the importance of marriage, Gallup found most people who have never been married want to be someday. As culture dynamics continue to shift, churches are tasked with elevating a biblical ethic of marriage and sexuality, while calling married and single people alike to a deeper, more faithful walk with Jesus.
A call to reverence
If fewer Americans view marriage as important, does marriage need saving? There’s actually a more important matter to address first, said Gary Thomas, bestselling author of Sacred Marriage and several other books on marriage and family.
“The first step is to get back to reverence for God,” Thomas said. “That’s what I think is undercutting marriage. People don’t reverence God as Creator [or reverence] what he’s called us to.”
“God invented marriage. He calls most of us to it.” Thomas said. “But when you remove God from the equation, you get further away from what He created us to do, and His wishes for us.”“God invented marriage and calls most of us to it. But when you remove God from the equation, you get further away from what He created us to do, and His wishes for us.” — @garyLthomas Click To Tweet
In the New Testament, the apostle Paul called Christians to please God and to live lives worthy of the calling we’ve received (Ephesians 4:1). That’s the best life for everyone—married or single. But Thomas said we often chase after what we think will make us happier, safer, more fulfilled, or less bothered.
Brad Wilcox noted a similar concept—expressive individualism—that, since the 1970s, has resulted in people orienting their lives around what makes them feel happy and fulfilled, rather than prioritizing their obligations to a spouse or family. “Workism,” the belief that work will supply ultimate meaning and happiness, is another competing cultural force. Still, he said, marriage is a better predictor of happiness than income, employment, or education, especially as other dividing factors like economic inequality and political polarization grow.“The paradox about marriage today in America is that it’s more uncommon yet potentially more valuable." — @BradWilcoxIFS Click To Tweet
“The paradox about marriage today in America is that it’s more uncommon yet potentially more valuable,” Wilcox said. “Marriage and family are one of the few institutions that allow people to forge strong social ties with others in ways that are good for them and obviously good for their kids.”
A call to discipleship
If the church’s role in elevating marriage seems at odds with equally vital ministry to single adults, Thomas said it may be because we’ve created an either-or that doesn’t need to exist. “We’ve made this bifurcation: be single for God or married for yourself. No,” Thomas said. “We’re called to be married for God, and we’re called to be single for God.”
What we should elevate, he said, is Matthew 6:33: “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be provided for you” (CSB).
“If you’ll seek first the kingdom of God with someone as a husband or wife, do that,” Thomas said. “If you can be more effective seeking first the kingdom of God as a single, do that.”“If you’ll seek first the kingdom of God with someone as a husband or wife, do that. If you can be more effective seeking first the kingdom of God as a single, do that.” — @garyLthomas Click To Tweet
Matt Purdom has spent the last nine years working with young adults at Brentwood Baptist Church in Nashville, Tenn. The church’s ministry to 18- to 35-year-olds includes a mid-week worship service and small groups. Their audience is largely single, Purdom said, and their primary theological need is to find their identity in Christ.
“That is the most important aspect of our ministry—getting them to understand who they are in Christ, and who they are not,” Purdom said.
Part of that process is helping young adults replace their current worldview with a biblical one, including their beliefs about sex and marriage. Earlier research from Gallup found a majority of Americans now believe that sex between an unmarried man and woman and having a baby outside of marriage are morally acceptable.
Relationships are heavy on the hearts of the young adults he works with, Purdom said, but his focus is on them becoming disciples and then inviting them to embrace Jesus’s commission to make more disciples.The call to personal holiness and finding fulfillment in Christ first may well be the keys to returning to God’s design for marriage. Click To Tweet
“It’s all about relational equity. It takes a vast amount of time with them,” Purdom said. Don’t just tell them to read the Bible; do it with them.” The obstacles are many—sexual sin, pornography, justifying bad habits, and a generally warped sense of marriage. But very few people have walked away from the discipleship process, Purdom said.
That call to personal holiness and finding fulfillment in Christ first may well be the keys to returning to God’s design for marriage.
“John Wesley said, ‘I don’t know anybody who’s truly happy who’s not pursuing holiness.’ And I believe that’s true,” Thomas said. “If you want a life of joy, obedience is the path to walk.”
Meredith is a freelance writer in Springfield, Illinois.