The current cover story for Christianity Today is nothing short of alarming. I did a double take when I read this statistic in the article by sociologist Mark Regnerus: “According to a Census Bureau survey taken in 2018, only 35 percent of 25- to 34-year-old men were married, a precipitous and rapid plunge from 50 percent in 2005.” Fifteen percentage points lost in a little over a decade!
What does it mean for America that in half a generation, the total percentage of men in their prime participating in marriage went from half — already an alarmingly low rate — to close to only a third? From 1 in 2 to 1 in 3 married? If we were a nation that was genuinely concerned with our collective future, this statistic would headline every major publication, every conference, and every town hall until this trend was reversed.
It is not an overstatement to say that if this trajectory holds, our society will collapse. Marriage is the cornerstone of the family, and the family is the foundation of society. Our society is currently experiencing violent cultural and social tremors, and we have weakened the very familial fabric that helps keep it all together, that helps absorb the shock waves. If it feels like our culture is coming apart at the seams, that’s because it is — and we as a culture have been actively cheering on those who are ripping out the stitching.
Marriage as an institution is imploding. But how is it faring in the community that has the greatest reason to uphold it? The Bible commands the church, after all: “Let marriage be held in honor among all” (Heb. 13:4); and the gospel depends on such: “This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it [marriage] refers to Christ and the church” (Eph. 5:32). How is the church doing with respect to marriage? According to Regnerus’s research, marriage rates within the church are following the same trend lines as those outside the church:
“How do American evangelicals fare? In a nationally representative survey collected in 2014 for the Austin Institute (where I’m a research fellow), 56 percent of self-identified evangelicals between ages 20 and 39 told us they were currently married. That number is well above the 42 percent reported by the rest of the same-age population. A repeated inquiry four years later yielded an obvious dip. In late 2018, 51 percent of evangelicals 20 to 39 were married, compared to 40 percent of that total population. The number is still higher, but it’s falling faster.”
In other words, evangelicals had a head start in 2014, but we are rapidly losing the gains and falling behind. Demographic demise is imminent, and evangelicalism isn’t helping to stop it. If anything, it is falling in line behind the pattern set by America’s broader culture.
As Regnerus also makes clear, these trends are not isolated to America or the West. Globalization has made it possible for America’s exports to include not only Ford and Apple, but a self-absorbed individualism that puts off marriage indefinitely in search of personal fulfillment:
“Skepticism about marriage is spreading well beyond the West. It was detectable from Mexico City to Moscow, Beirut to Lagos. As I studied the data and put the puzzle pieces together, it became obvious that among the globe’s young adult Christians, something is afoot with marriage.”
At one point in the article, Regnerus asks, can the church save marriage? I think this is a useful question, but with the American church experiencing such steep decline in numbers, it may be time to ask, can marriage save the church? Of course, a marriage has already saved the church — Christ is coming for his bride, after all — but I predict marriage and family will increasingly become a more and more important vehicle for Christian discipleship as the world around us continues to secularize. Regnerus puts it well:
“As a researcher, studying the demise of marriage has been like watching an invasive fungus slowly destroy a stately old oak tree. Despite all this bad news, though, there is reason for hope. The oak will not perish. In fact, marriage will increasingly become ‘a Christian thing,’ which means the church will bear increasing responsibility for an institution with an uncertain future.”
The church would do well to stop apologizing for honoring marriage and esteeming the family. These are not inherently idolatrous, and in a world that continues to denigrate and sideline marriage and the family, it is increasingly irresponsible to use “idolatry” to describe these sacred institutions. Instead, our message should be the opposite of the world’s, and with the Bible we should preach the blessings of marriage and family: “He who finds a wife finds a good thing and obtains favor from the Lord.” (Prov. 18:22); and “Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the children of one’s youth. Blessed is the man who fills his quiver with them!” (Psalm 127:3–5a).
The church has an uphill battle ahead of her. Society’s expectations for marriage are at once too high — looking to marriage for complete personal fulfillment, compatibility, and harmony — and too low — failing to see benefits to material and psychological well-being and blessing.
The church has a superior message: Marriage is way better than you think, but it won’t solve all your problems; only Jesus can do that. But do you want to be counter-cultural? The vast majority of single Christians should not take their cues from the world, which is increasingly delaying marriage and often forswearing it altogether, and get married and have kids. Settle down with someone who is following Christ and start a family. Read Kevin DeYoung’s excellent article on having children.
And let’s all commit to truly holding marriage in honor (Heb. 13:4), to God’s glory and for our good.
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