Note: This is the first of a three-part series about Christian marriages.
An alarming number of Christian marriages end in divorce. What can the church do to reverse this trend?
I had just started my new position as an associate pastor back in 1983. There I was at a barbecue for the adult Christian singles. The majority of those attending were divorced. With each hurting conversation and each prayer of restoration, my burden grew for these singles.
Later that year, I sat in a small support group for divorced men and women, hoping to find how to best minister to them. One of the singles, perhaps sensing my dilemma, blurted out: "The best way you can minister to the divorced is to minister to marriages." It was then that I realized that the greatest ministry I could have to the divorced single was to build strong marriages.
Many of us in ministry have seen marriage ministry as developing a series of events, banquets and seminars filled with behavioral challenges to "fix" marriages. In the 1950s, ministering to a married couple or to the family meant simply opening the doors on a Sunday. Add a bean supper and a church picnic, and you were set. That worked back then. But that is no longer the case.
In the new millennium and beyond, many church leaders are realizing that a dual-income, working couple is far less available for and interested in the covered-dish dinners of the past. The need level goes beyond the annual church picnic. Information and its application for first-generation Christians only scratch the surface of a truly effective marriage ministry.
CATCHING A VISION
With the latest Barna study indicating a 50 percent divorce rate for those outside the church as well as those inside the church, the ministry for Christian marriages needs to stretch beyond methods alone.
This generation of Christian marriages needs a heartfelt vision--a vision to teach couples how to live out their marriage covenant every day. The vision must respond to the same Barna study that reported only 1 out of every 1,150 marriages of born-again Christian couples who have regular prayer together ends in divorce.
God put Adam in the garden with vision for him that included the bone of his bone and the flesh of his flesh, Eve. He declared that the two should no longer be two but one. Jesus said, " 'What God has joined together let not man separate'" (Matt. 19:6, NKJV). Yet what I call the "separating dynamic" is found in much of the normal structure of our churches.
When building a marriage ministry, the questions should not be about the location or the event. The questions should be: Do we have a vision for marriage in our church? Do we know what the Lord wants the marriages and the families of our church to look like over the course of the next year? In five years?
I know that may sound presumptuous. Is it any more presumptuous than assuming that we need a Sunday school marriage class, a Valentine's dinner or a family night simply because families and marriages exist in our churches?
We have goals for church growth. We have extensive stewardship plans. Outreach opportunities abound, and the ministry to children and youth seem up-front in many churches today.
Do we have a similar vision for each marriage? Do we have a biblical vision that reflects the growth and maturing of each marriage as couples begin to reflect the Lord's heart? Do we realize the truth in the saying, "As the marriages go, so goes the church?"
We want to see couples become stable and fruitful--but is that enough? I found that our vision for marriage was too small, too limited and even too self-serving. The determining question remains: Are we equipping couples to seek out the vision the Lord has for their marriages? Or are we simply raising up people with no deference to their marital state to simply take care of the "work of the kingdom?"
I have found that the desire of the Lord's heart is to shine through the married lives of His people. We are called in our oneness to reflect His glory. We are those earthen vessels to an unsaved world. In fact, the greatest opportunity for every healthy marriage to be used by the Lord is their ability to walk through the trials, the communication problems, the financial crises, the teen-ager problems and the rest of what life has for them.
A marriage ministry is not birthed out of helping problem marriages. A ministry to marriages should be based on a vision for each couple to hear the Lord's voice and then to see where the Lord is calling them into obedience.
Wednesday: Fruitful Marriage Ministry
Ted Bichsel is pastor of Smithtown Tabernacle in Long Island, N.Y.