Marriage can’t be the common denominator anymore

Church programming is largely based on segmentation. In other words, most churches build their programming based on some assumptions about:

  • Age
  • Gender
  • Marital status

There is a general assumption in church programming that when a person hits their 20s that most will head towards marriage and having kids. And for most of human history it’s been that way, so it’s not discriminatory to base programming on that assumption at all. It’s been a safe bet. (Just like it’s a safe bet that if you have a lot of young married couples you should invest in your nursery, etc.)

But here’s the problem.

For a wide variety of reasons fewer adults are choosing to get married. To really grasp this I’d encourage you to read Derek Thompson’s, “The Death (and life) of Marriage in America” featured in The Atlantic last week. As he says, the reason fewer people are getting married is complicated. But the basis of this discussion is that as the wage gap between men and women continues to shrink, fewer women need marriage for economic stability. I’d never thought of the washing machine as a reason for a lower marriage rate, but he makes an interesting argument!

[Sidebar: From a Christian perspective we’d likely want to introduce sexual morality into that. But if we’re honest we know that few people, even in the church, are waiting until marriage for sex. That’s an influence on marriage but not the fulcrum we often see it as. When I do pre-marital counseling, most often, the couple is either sexually active or obviously lying to me about their sexual activity.]

So what’s the problem with building church programming around the assumption of marriage?

You’re eliminating 48% of the population of people over 18 automatically. They aren’t married. And with the age of first-time marriage rapidly moving towards 30 it’s safe to say that nearly half of the adults in this country aren’t walking around in a huge hurry to get married. We can lament about that all we want, but it’s the world we actually live in!

Yet, if you listen to both the words coming from the mouths of leaders and the metastory  of assumption that every adult is either married or wants to be married, you can see why the 48% of people who aren’t married might think, “Church isn’t for me.”

Hang out with Christian adults who are single and you’ll quickly notice that they see the favortism in the church towards married people.

Even if you think that there should be a marriage assumption, can you see how this is a messaging problem for the church to wrestle with? Can you see how empowering the marriage assumption could be a wedge for a huge percentage of the population and what they think about God? (The church is living evidence of Christ, right?)


What does your church do that drives you nuts on this issue?

What, if any, success have you had in helping your church deal with the statistical realities of the country we live in? Have you been able to adapt?





7 responses to “Marriage can’t be the common denominator anymore”

  1. Dan Avatar

    Adam, there’s a church in Manhattan I read about recently that deals with this very effectively… they’re promoting marriage well to an audience that consists largely of 20- and 30-something single professionals. If I come across the article… I’ll send it your way. Sounded like they’d achieved a very healthy balance.

    1. Adam McLane Avatar

      I’d love to see that. But let’s not forget… for a growing segment of the population… they don’t want to get married. It’s not a “should we” thing, it’s coming at it from a missional perspective of “since this is true….  what do we need to do?”

      1. Dan Avatar

        Adam, I’ve been ruminating on this and would like to sound this off you.

        Just because many don’t want to get married, doesn’t mean they don’t want friends with benefits. The bible is pretty clear most people do not have the “gift of singleness.”

        The Atlantic article sums up the reason for singleness is people don’t see value in marriage. I would submit the reason they don’t see the value in marriage is marriages (inside the church or out) generally do not look very attractive. Reason number two is most don’t get love. Selfless covenantal love (in marriage to spouse and Christ, or in singleness to Christ alone) is so much deeper and pleasing than a love that is dependent on feelings.

        So it comes back to love. What does Jesus mean when he says to love your neighbor? What does that love look like? Who is your neighbor?

        Answer and live these questions out and I think ministry to singles will improve drastically.

  2. Jennifer Avatar

    I don’t think it stops with marriage, either.  See also: married people without children (or not likely to have children and/or not considering adopting children).  According to church programming/attitudes, we are in a VERY small minority, though I doubt that is true.  And in some places, I would guess that group gets marginalized right out of churches.

    1. Adam McLane Avatar

      Agreed, as someone who didn’t grow up in a “traditional nuclear family” I got called everything from “a spiritual orphan” to “I hope you aren’t a wolf in sheep’s clothing.” Nice… 

      1. Jenspin Avatar

        Yikes!  :-
        We LOVED having our single friends over to our house and even vacationed with a bunch of them!  We didn’t look at them so much as “singles”, rather, as “friends”; they pointed out to us that we were one of very few married couples in the church that ever gave them the time of day.  That’s really sad.  

  3. Emily Youngblood Avatar
    Emily Youngblood

    Hey Adam, just had Greg Boyd preach about being single and the church last Sunday. Here is his script. Very interesting.

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