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.
FRUITFUL MARRIAGE MINISTRY
There is nothing wrong with having a marriage class, seminar or retreat. We have them all. But a healthy marriage ministry will focus on strengthening marriages, not just fixing marriage problems.
I began to teach a weekly "couples class." The title alone immediately attracted singles and the divorced. We found that the classic marriage class is designed to fix the problem marriages. I wanted more than that. So we send struggling marriages to the marriage class in hopes that they will get better, graduate and then get back to work for the church.
The very title "marriage class," along with the predictable subject matter, often defines "healthy marriages" according to a series of dos and don'ts, steps and conditions and understanding one another's differences. After that, there is just getting through life with a new set of tools.
I changed the traditional "marriage class" Sunday school curriculum title to "couples class." The next goal was to stretch beyond a standard behavioral focus. Roles, communication, conflict resolution, parenting 101 and the like, although part of the class, no longer were taught as a means to an end. The new focus was to identify and teach the steps in understanding and setting a vision for covenant marriage. Little by little, the class unfolded.
The foundation for a marriage vision is established upon our salvation in Christ. This seems so obvious, but to build a biblical vision of marriage beyond the behavioral changes, Christ has to be the center of both husband and wife if they are to grow in a Christ-centered vision. By knowing who we are as His chosen people, we realize that both our individual callings and our callings as couples are unique, determined and desired by God.
The classes grew each week as couples realized that this was a class for growth and envisioning, and not just repair. The sessions touched each of the traditional subjects with a new principle of growing a godly vision for one's home and marriage. Communication basics now grew out of learning how a husband and wife see a vision differently. Discussions on security and significance grew from building a team effort for serving and honoring the Lord.
A study through the fruit of the Spirit allowed endless lessons on growing one's marriage through resolving conflict, changing attitudes and learning to respect one another. The biblical principles for marriage were no longer limited to passages such as Ephesians chapter 5. I found marriage-envisioning principles everywhere. Nehemiah's prayer in Nehemiah 1:5-10 set a new understanding of covenant in a marriage.
Each lesson was taught in light of the vision the Lord was growing in each couple. The goal of simply being happy was not big enough. One by one, each couple realized that all the individual growth they could experience was equally limited until it was seen through the vision of the marriage relationship.
Couples began to move as one into the ministries of the church. One couple has successfully relocated into full-time missions work. Others have grown in a vision to reach out to their neighbors. Still others have begun to help as volunteers with other Christian organizations.
As couples grow in their marriages, their prayer life increases and the interest is no longer on survival or simply growing. The couples' energy levels have been transformed into understanding and carrying out the vision for their families.
Husbands now have a goal, a tangible direction in which to direct their families. Wives see the bigger picture as they come alongside their husbands. Together, they learn about their unique callings. The fact is that our marriage ministry has grown well beyond the confines of a class. The growth is flowing over into many areas.
Now couples are praying together at the altar when prayer needs are shared. Husbands are encouraged by our leadership to pray in agreement with the pastoral staff as their wives come up for prayer. Couples now want tools to realize the vision before them. The traditional seminars and behavioral teachings are now passed through the "vision filter" so couples can better realize the greater calling and purpose for their marriages and for their families.
After four years of setting this vision for couples--and with the senior pastor setting it into the leadership marriages--the ministries of the church, the outreaches and the missions are all experiencing good "couples" fruit. Our vision for marriages is no longer limited to the crisis marriages. We now see the potential of envisioned marriages growing for the Lord as each one takes its place in His kingdom.
Here are some simple but effective steps you can take to strengthen your church's ministry to marriages without increasing your staff or budget.
**Remember that a married individual is not alone--he or she is part of a couple.
In our effort to accomplish so many things in our churches, we often overlook the fact that a married individual needs to volunteer in light of his or her marriage, not in spite of it.
**Learn the names of the spouses and children of your leadership.
The more we as pastors show an interest in the marriages and families of our leaders, the more they will see their service in light of their families as well.
**Encourage couples to pray together. Invite spouses to pray with you as you pray.
One effective way to do this is to simply instruct a reluctant spouse how to pray, or in some cases, to invite them to pray in repetition after you. This models the importance of marriage and family prayer.
**Examine your divorce policy. Is it clear, and does it ultimately support marriage over divorce?
This is difficult but critical to ascertain, both for the married and divorced alike. People want to know where you stand.
**Offer a divorce recovery and educational track for those who have gone through divorce.
Perhaps your church can join with other churches and use some of the excellent material that is available, such as DivorceCare, for example.
**Develop a complete premarriage, pre-covenant policy.
The church should lay the foundation long before a marriage takes place. By establishing solid, vision-based marriage preparation, you communicate the high value your church places on marriages.
Consider requiring a couple to complete premarital counseling before even putting the date on the calendar. This will mean reeducating the church in some cases, but it is worth it.
**Encourage couples to serve together on various committees or in certain ministries that will help them to grow in their unified vision.
**Before placing a married person in any type of leadership, meet with the spouse as well. You may find that the very nature of serving may put additional stress on the marriage.
**For one month, listen to the "single" messages and the "marriage" messages you are sending out to the congregation. Do you apply all Scripture to the individual only, or do you make application to the oneness found in a marriage?
**Celebrate anniversaries. Announce them and even give out anniversary certificates. Always be open to the opportunity for the renewal of vows.
**Keep your own marriage growing. The growth in your marriage will spur you on to encourage others to do the same.
The following books can provide you, your leaders and the couples in your church with invaluable insight in strengthening marriage bonds.
**Divorce Proofing Your Marriage: 10 lies that lead to divorce, 10 truths that prevent it by Linda S. Mintle, Ph.D. A licensed clinical social worker, Mintle helps couples have a healthy marriage. She confronts the lies that couples believe about marriage (marriage is a contract, or marriage isn't about the mate's family). The truths deal with such topics as resolving conflicts, understanding covenant, repentance and coping with an affair. This book is an excellent resource for couples, marriage ministries and small groups.
**Intimacy: A 100-Day Guide to Lasting Relationships by Douglas Weiss, Ph.D. Executive director of Heart to Heart Counseling Centers in Colorado Springs, Colorado, Weiss explores finding sexual agreement, consistency in marriage, coping with money matters, dealing with the anger enemy and many other marriage topics. There is a 100-day log for couples as well as exercises for sharing feelings.
**Heal Your Past and Change Your Marriage by Paul and Kristina McGuire. Paul hosts a daily radio talk show in Southern California. The book leads with exploring the marriage covenant, followed by how to fight for your marriage in the Spirit. An excellent guide to taking steps to emotional healing follows, with teaching on sex and romance. This is an excellent resource for couples who want to grow spiritually through pain and hurt.
**Better Sex for You by Helen Pensanti, M.D. Host of the popular Trinity Broadcasting Network show Doctor to Doctor, Pensanti uses humor and frankness to help couples understand and discuss sexual issues in their marriage. This book was written to help couples maintain a long, healthy sexual relationship.
**Lord, I Wish My Husband Would Pray With Me by Larry Keefauver, D.Min. Larry and Judi Keefauver conduct marriage and parenting seminars in churches worldwide based on this popular book, which helps couples pray through and tear down walls of such things as unresolved anger, unfulfilled expectations, unhealed hurts, unkept promises and undignified communication. This is an excellent resource for classes and small groups.
**Can Stepfamilies Be Done Right? by Joann and Seth Webster. This stepmother/stepson team writes a very practical guide for blended families. This superb resource explores discipline, the role of a stepparent, dealing with the past and living through the three cycles of a stepfamily. It is a helpful and practical guide for blended families struggling through the many adjustments of living together.
Ted Bichsel is pastor of Smithtown Tabernacle in Long Island, New York.