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Couples in community

Relationships | In the midst of dating confusion and fairy-tale delusions, some churches are pointing to a better way

Issue: "Tour d'America," June 18, 2011

Marriage & relationships, part two:

Sunday morning, when official Washington is worshipping at the church of Fox News Sunday or Meet the Press, nearly 1,000 Christians-average age, 28-head to Capitol Hill Baptist Church (CHBC) in Washington, D.C. They are a transient group, drawn to the nation's capital for school, politics, or military postings. Many are single. They have become part of a church that-from the pulpit, in Sunday school classes and small groups, through discipleship and shepherding-teaches singles, "Dating is not an individual endeavor; it's a community affair."

Across the country, in Billings, Montana, Rocky Mountain Community Church (PCA) encourages couples to bring their relationships into the church. Associate pastor Jason Barrie says, "Let's keep the relationship out in the light where you can rightly assess its merits." Couples in love don't always see clearly, so he encourages them to join small groups: "When we're around other folks, then I'm seeing you as you really are." In Billings, dating is also more than an individual endeavor.

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Two churches nearly 2,000 miles apart are among those trying to help in confusing times. Young marrieds find themselves unprepared for marriage. Singles are confused and frustrated over how to date or court. Sometimes the debate about "how to" overshadows a more important factor: Community-including family and church-has a vital role to play. It may seem like a no-brainer that churches need to be more involved in this crucial area, but interviews with singles and young marrieds show that many of them would appreciate more.

Four tales from the front lines of confusion:

Kim Collins, 33, works in Manhattan. She never expected to be single at her age. Occasionally family members or friends have set her up, but overall, "I don't think anyone is trying to help." What about the church? "It seems as though there isn't much teaching about the importance of marriage. . . . Those of us who are single aren't being encouraged to marry. It's not a topic of conversation."

Dana Hui and her husband, both students at Covenant Seminary in St. Louis, are first-generation Christians who want to learn from older Christian couples: Hui says, "We were in deep trouble without help because we did not understand how severe some of our problems were." Seminary classes and books have been helpful, "but couples still need a counselor or another older couple to model for them what a godly marriage looks like and how a mature person behaves within a marriage."

Courtney Russell lives in Texas and found that marriage didn't match the idealized expectations she'd picked up from Christian culture. Looking back it seems as though older Christians were so interested in keeping younger ones from having premarital sex that they presented a fantasy intended to be "as good as Hollywood-or as powerful. . . . It reminds me of when you're a kid and they bribe you with candy to behave yourself in the grocery store. . . . It's all about a do and don't list of being a Christian."

Nathan Tircuit, a Reformed University Fellowship campus minister at Mississippi State from 2006 to 2009, says the nearly 300 students who came to his weekly Bible studies were interested in dating and relationships-but they didn't have the biblical big picture. He told them it was like having "pieces from a puzzle, but you have no picture on the cover of the puzzle box to tell you how to put it all together." He spent a semester giving that big picture, starting with the Trinity, the fall, and the church. He taught on biblical manliness and godly womanhood, sacrifice and service, sex and forgiveness. He taught, "Some relationships have reached a point where you needed to either break up or get married." A co-ed later told him that she and her boyfriend left the Bible study that night and broke up in the parking lot.

Let's look at two churches known for helping, starting with CHBC on Capitol Hill. It has so many singles that meeting others isn't a problem. But the church didn't want to be just another station on the Dating Express. It set out to build a culture based on its complementary understanding of gender roles. That means a culture where men initiate and women feel protected.

Deepak Reju, an associate pastor there, says building that kind of culture takes time and requires pastors and elders to "teach, teach, teach, teach, disciple, shepherd." The church offers a combination of formal programs and more relational "ways to build it into the conversation." It regularly offers a Sunday school class called "Friendship, Courtship, Marriage," and another one on discipleship. The church encourages married and single members to seek friendships with each other.


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