Does the church follow culture, or does culture follow the church?

The late James Q. Wilson, former professor of government at Harvard University, once said, “It is not money, but the family that is the foundation of public life. As it has become weaker, every structure built on that foundation has become weaker.”

Those words came to mind as I reviewed some sobering and disturbing statistics from Pew Research and others on the views of Christians when it comes to marriage and cohabitation especially young Christians. As our society has de-buckled itself from the institution of marriage, with catastrophic results, it seems now that the church is doing the same thing — choosing to conform to the culture rather than transforming it. 

As a result, the church’s voice in our culture becomes weaker — to the point of irrelevance — and our children are paying the price. This is evident in these statistics, especially when it comes to today’s young adults.

Two years ago, Pew reported that 58 percent of White evangelicals said cohabitation was acceptable as long as the couple eventually plans to marry. Alarming as that statistic is, it is more sobering among young evangelicals.

Nine years ago, a General Social Survey reported that more than 40 percent of evangelicals between the ages of 20-29 thought cohabitation was acceptableeven if they had no plans to marry. Now, a new survey from David Ayers at the Institute of Family Studies finds that nearly half of evangelical Protestants between the ages of 15-22 who are not presently cohabitating or married believe they will likely cohabit with member of the opposite sex sometime in the future.

The study also found that 65 percent of evangelicals between the ages of 23-44 who had already cohabitated plan on doing so again. This will not only impact the church’s witness when it comes marriage and family, but also accelerate the continued fragmentation of the family unit — the stabilizing factor in all civilizations — regardless of faith.

Why has this happened? In the rush to be seen as “culturally relevant,” “tolerant,” and “nonjudgmental,” many Christians and churches have pushed aside the biblical teachings regarding marriage and family. While it is commendable for churches to try to reach the unchurched, many have chosen to avoid so-called “hot topics” — especially when it comes to human sexuality – leaving a vacuum that our culture is eager to fill.

A generation of young believers is learning more about sex and marriage from popular culture rather than from their churches. When the world, and not the church, is the main educator on these issues, these are the results.

Jim Daly, the president of Focus on the Family, has written, “It is up to us to show a fraying culture that marriage is so much more than ‘just a piece of paper’ or an association of any two or more persons who profess to love each other. It is a sacred union of a man and a woman that confers myriad benefits on the spouses, their children, and society at large — benefits that cannot be replicated by any other relationship. I would go so far as to say a society cannot flourish, or even long survive, without stable marriages at its core.”

When the church no longer treats marriage any differently than the culture — blindly accepting cohabitation as the “new normal” – it has lost its way and its voice on so much more — especially with rising generations of young Christians and people of faith. Children still look to adults and institutions for guidance, and when those adults and institutions silently concede their rightful leadership, our children will do the same.

It is time for us who believe in the sanctity of marriage to no longer sit on the sidelines while our children learn about marriage from the Kardashians or watching “The Bachelor.” Instead, we must be emphasizing the beauty and sanctity of marriage, why it is spiritually, emotionally, and physically beneficial to not cohabit with someone of the opposite sex, and why waiting will be ultimately to their benefit in each of those areas. 

With this vision of marriage prioritized in our churches, we can once again not only have stable families but also a church that possesses the moral authority to be a clear and convincing voice re-establishing a flourishing society and the dignity of love.

• Timothy S. Goeglein is vice president, external and government relations, at Focus on the Family.

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