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Marriage on the Rocks?

Fewer Americans than ever are getting married these days, according to a new report from the Pew Research Center. And that begs two important questions: Why? And how does this trend potentially influence faithful Christians who care deeply about marriage?

Let’s start with (just a few) fairly startling statistics. Pew reports that just 51% of all adults ages 18 and older were married as of 2010. For the sake of historical perspective, that figure was 72% in 1960. And that percentage has actually dropped a significant 5% in just one year, from 2009 to 2010. Marriage is in decline across all age groups, but it’s most noticeable among young adults. Today, just 20% of 18- to 29-year-olds are married—compared to 59% in 1960. The median age for first marriage among women has risen to 26.5 years and 28.7 for men.

While Pew’s researchers are cautious when it comes to identifying causes for the drop in marriage rates, they have noted several contributing factors: “Public attitudes about the institution of marriage are mixed,” the report says. “Nearly four-in-ten Americans say marriage is becoming obsolete, according to a Pew Research survey in 2010.” Elsewhere, the study’s authors theorize that the growing acceptance of cohabitation as an alternative to marriage is a potential factor as well. “Other adult living arrangements—including cohabitation, single-person households and single parenthood—have all grown more prevalent in the recent decades,” they write.

So what are we to make of this trend, and how might it affect us?

I think it’s safe to say that what was once an agreed-upon social norm and an aspirational ideal is no longer the case for many in our culture. And while that may not immediately seem to impact those of us who do still value marriage (whether we’re already married or hope to be so someday), I think it does in several ways.

First, I think it potentially makes things harder for Christian singles who are committed to sexual purity until their wedding day. Increasingly, our culture is rejecting the biblical link between marriage and sex, as evidenced by the number of cohabiting couples who don’t apparently see any necessary connection between the two.

Lest we think this is a problem mainly among those outside the faith, the evidence suggests otherwise. A recent Relevant magazine article titled “(Almost) Everyone’s Doing It” reported that 80% of unmarried evangelical adults ages 18 to 29 say they’ve had sex. Clearly, then, society’s mores are influencing those of us in that demographic, whether we want to admit it or not.

I think the trend away from marriage could also influence those of us who are already married as well. In a culture that doesn’t value marriage, it becomes easier to just walk away when things get hard. After all, our culture seems to be saying, marriage doesn’t really matter that much. What matters is your happiness. Married, unmarried, cohabiting, alone, what matters most, it seems, is individual fulfillment, not strong marital unions, not families.

If all that seems pretty despairing, I wonder if there is a potential upside here. Increasingly, marriage is becoming a countercultural statement in and of itself. Just getting married and staying together illustrates and reinforces some core aspects of our Christian convictions: that life is not about me alone, that God has created us for committed, loving and sacrificial relationships with each other.

As our culture grows increasingly confused about the purpose and place of marriage, faithfully fulfilling our matrimonial vows offers an important way to live in response to Jesus’ gospel message, to be salt and light in a world that, sadly, continues to jettison God’s intended design for this important institution.

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About the Author

Adam Holz
Adam Holz

Adam R. Holz has served as an editor and writer for Plugged In for 20 years. He also spent a decade working for The Navigators, mostly as associate editor for Discipleship Journal. Adam is the author of the NavPress Bible Study “Beating Busyness.” Adam and his wife, Jennifer, have three children and enjoy watching movies, playing board games and playing music together.

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