In church we hear a lot about marriage. The institution is celebrated, at times it's even venerated and possibly idolised. But is church actually helping us to get hitched?
At a recent symposium from Engage, a coalition of relationship-related Christian groups that aims to "make Christian marriage possible", it was argued that church is currently more likely to prevent marriage than encourage it. The representatives started to think about what we might do to address this.
Why is church a barrier? Annabel Clarke, a chartered psychologist and one of the founders of Engage, said that two of the biggest barriers are the gender imbalance and the lack of teaching on relationships, dating, and relevant social trends within the church.
Firstly, the gender imbalance: there are two women to every man in the average protestant church (though research funded by Christian Vision for Men and soon to be published suggests that the overall picture may not be so clear, due to more single men being in other denominations, or due to regional variations). Of roughly 7.6m single people who regularly attend church, only 2.6m are men.
Secondly, the teaching: when was the last time you heard a sermon about dating and relationships? If you did, did it go beyond the affirmation that 'sex is for marriage', into practical tips for how to find a partner and stay chaste until the big day? Did it discuss the practical skills needed for healthy relationships? Have you ever heard a sermon encouraging and affirming single people? Do the sermons assume marriage with kids to be the default, with all the sermon illustrations given about a traditional family unit?
As Clarke said, the issue "affects a third of the church, but it is ignored". This leads to a lot of pain, and there are many other consequences. There is a kind of spiritual fatherlessness due to the lack of men in church: the situation reveals a massive need for evangelism and discipleship for men. Worryingly, the CVM research will suggest that the older a single person gets, the less welcome they feel in church. Yet singleness is increasing in society – so we may be shutting the door to a lot of people.
So what can we do about it? There were a range of possibilities discussed at the Engage symposium. Churches can take steps to make single people feel at home. Research from Christian Connection suggests that single people value social activities and help with trying to find a partner – if that's what they are looking for. The new singlechristians.co.uk website will seek to gather resources for singles and churches to improve the situation, and has leaflets that can be given to church leaders to help them to do so.
We can start educating our young people about healthy relationships – Romance Academy is able to help. But adults also need good teaching. Nicky and Sila Lee at Relationship Central are developing a course to help adults navigate the dating process to supplement their existing training on marriage. Until that's ready, Annabel recommended the book, 'How to get a date worth keeping' by Henry Cloud, who also has material on Youtube or cloudtownsend.com. Another useful website is Relationship Dilemma and Andre Adefope and Rachel Gardner's book Dating Dilemma.
CVM runs events to try to reach men with the gospel, and offers suggestions here. They also produce resources to help churches think about why there is a gender imbalance.
In short, there is potential for churches to begin to address the needs of such a large part of the population – whether they're happy single or they want to get married. But if church is going to encourage marriage rather than be a barrier, it seems that there's a lot of work to do.
This article will also be published on the Christian Connection blog.