Note: This is the second of a three-part series about Christian marriages.
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.
Thursday: Making Marriage Ministry Work Outside the Classroom
Ted Bichsel is pastor of Smithtown Tabernacle in Long Island, New York.