April 7, 2009
The Wrong Boogeyman (Part 2)
Should we be advocating earlier marriage to boost church attendance?
How do we account for the dramatic doubling of the number of secular Americans over the last 18 years? And what are we to do about the exodus of young people from the church? These are important questions, and uncovering the causes may prove critical as we seek to develop a remedy. Al Mohler discusses these issues in his March 19 blog post based on an article in The Wall Street Journal by W. Bradford Wilcox which Mohler wholeheartedly endorses.
In part one, I discussed Wilcox's belief that increased dependency on government programs for education, healthcare, and retirement is fueling secularism and keeping people from the doors of the church. But Wilcox and Mohler don't see the government as the only culprit for the church's decline - they also point to single adults. Wilcox writes:
The most powerful force driving religious participation down is the nation's recent retreat from marriage?. Nothing brings women and especially men into the pews like marriage and parenthood, as they seek out the religious, moral and social support provided by a congregation upon starting a family of their own. But because growing numbers of young adults are now postponing or avoiding marriage and childbearing, they are also much less likely to end up in church on any given Sunday.
Mohler affirms this perspective in his blog post:
Adulthood is meant for adult responsibilities, and for the vast majority of young people that will mean marriage and parenthood. The extension of adolescence into the twenties (maybe now even the thirties) is highly correlated with the rise of secularism and with lower rates of church attendance.
First, let me outline where I agree with Mohler and Wilcox.
(1) There is no question that the average age of marriage in the U.S. has risen significantly in the last thirty years - from 22 in 1980 to about 28 today. More people are single and remain so for longer than ever before. (2) I also agree that our consumer culture has fostered the prolonging of adolescence and the delayed onset of adulthood. (This is brilliantly documented in Benjamin Barber's book Consumed, and less brilliantly discussed in chapter 6 of my book, The Divine Commodity.) This may be a factor leading to prolonged singleness, although it's certainly not the only factor given the large number of people who are not single by choice.
(3) I also agree that most churches are structured around the assumption of the Western nuclear family. Therefore, married couples with children are the most likely to engage the church, and single adults (or other non-nuclear family households) are less likely to connect with a congregation. Therefore, I agree that singleness is very likely a reason church attendance is declining.
It appears that Mohler and I agree on the diagnosis, but we part ways on the treatment.
In another blog post from January 24, 2005, Mohler discusses the delay of marriage as a symptom of a self-absorbed culture, but then he advocates marriage as the prescribed solution. He writes:
The experiences of marriage and raising children are important parts of learning the adult experience and finding one's way into the deep responsibilities and incalculable rewards of genuine adulthood.
From reading Mohler's numerous posts about singleness and delayed marriage, he appears to be saying that if immature, selfish, and lazy young adults (and many of us are) would just get married and have kids they'd be forced to "grow up." Unfortunately, my experience has proven the opposite. I've seen too many young families torn apart (both Christian and non) because a husband or wife proved to lack the maturity required for a stable marriage. Simply walking the aisle, saying the vows, and sharing a bed and bank account did not magically bring maturity. If marriage really is the prescribed avenue for maturity, as some have been promoting, then shouldn't the church be advocating more teen marriages?
The problem is confusing a symptom for a cause. Delaying marriage (for some) is a symptom of a culture that has made us immature and self-absorbed. But pushing these immature adults into marriage is only masking a symptom and may result in an even more devastating problem - a sharp increase in the divorce rate and more broken families. In my opinion encouraging immature young adults to marry does not honor the sanctity of marriage, but erodes it.
Addressing the real causes of immaturity and selfishness in our culture requires more than pushing young people down the aisle and into maternity wards. It means prophetically speaking about the consumer values that have formed us to think that the satisfaction of personal desire and immediate gratification are of paramount importance. And those are issues which transcend any political party's platform.
The second point of disagreement involves the church's missional strategy. Mohler and Wilcox suggest that the church should be advocating traditional, and early, marriage as a way of boosting church attendance. Wilcox even says that churches "would have about six million more regularly attending young adults if today's young men and women started families at the rate they did three decades ago."
But when did marriage become a prerequisite of the Christian life? Didn't the Apostle Paul proclaim the blessings of singleness and command believers to remain in the condition in which Christ first called them, whether single, married, circumcised, uncircumcised, or a slave? (See 1 Cor 7.) Paul seems to dismiss marital status as critical to mission and discipleship. While I believe in the blessing of marriage, and God has certainly used marriage in my life as an instrument of growth, I'm not ready to prescribe it as essential to the American church's mission.
I don't believe our core problem is the increasing number of single adults, but rather a church built upon the gospel of marriage and family rather than the gospel of Christ. If a church is too focused on the family, it risks alienating more than half of the households in the U.S. that are not traditional nuclear families. At some point we must adjust to the reality of our mission field rather than denounce it for not meeting our ideals.
Those who see singleness as an obstacle to the church's mission find themselves in a classic Constantinian trap. They see the culture becoming increasingly post-Christian, and they fear the church cannot survive or its mission advance in the new environment, therefore they strive to reverse the perceived causes. Rather than calling the church to adjust its strategy to the new realities of its mission field, they expect the mission field to adjust to the church's old methods of mission. It seems the real boogeyman isn't to be found in our secular culture- he's comfortably at home in the church itself.