Nothing is more important in modern church life than teaching couples how to improve their marriages–the problem is it’s so hard to do.
I’ve tried everything. I’ve preached on marriage more times than I can remember. And while people were in general kind and grateful for the sermons, I’m not sure any hit their target. When a sermon tells wives to submit and husbands to be patient, well, it doesn’t always work. In fact, it may actually be counter-productive because a hostile spouse dragged to church against their will rarely gets fixed by being told to do more or less or better. On the other hand, their more hopeful counterpart often ends up disappointed because the preacher didn’t say what they thought their spouse needed to hear. Don’t get me wrong—I’m all in favor of preaching. I’m just not sure if it’s the best way of getting through to couples where they really live.
Christian marriage conferences are another way churches try to help couples—and they’re legion. It seems like every Christian conference center hosts at least one a quarter. Pam and I have been to several and sometimes taken groups with us. We’ve enjoyed every one and have seen a few couples helped by them. The thing of it is, though, that conferences are artificial by design. You and your spouse leave your kids with somebody and get away by yourselves for a few days to a scenic location where everything is done for you. All you have to do as attend meetings, talk, hold hands and eat. Not a bad gig except when the conference is over you’re right back in the middle of what was causing you problems to begin with.
Then there are the books. I don’t even know where to begin with Christian books on marriage. Every Christian author has apparently written one or two and judging by the crowded lists on Amazon, there’s an unlimited market for advice. Here’s a true story: I’ve recommended for over twenty years a book I read early in my marriage called “Rekindled” by Pat Thomas, the General Manager of the NBA’s Orlando Magic. It’s the powerful and moving account of how Pat (a well known Christian) and his wife came to the point of losing their marriage in the mid-80s until he dedicated himself to “rekindling” their love for one another. The book details the story of his sacrificial service to his wife until her heart turned back towards him. Thomas’s transparency and authenticity profoundly moved me and I’ve used his example to try and encourage other husbands. But just this week I learned something I had missed. It turns out that Pat and his wife actually divorced ten years after the book was written. I guess I better find another author.
So after all my frustrations in trying to help couples in a church context, we’re doing something this month that actually seems to be connecting. I can’t take any credit for it. In fact, our staff just sort of stumbled into it, but as the month has played out, this approach to encouraging our marriages is turning into one of the more effective ministries I’ve seen. In fact, I love it more and more with each passing week. We call it “Marriage for a Lifetime.”
The concept is simple. We divided marriage into five “seasons”—newlyweds, the young children years, the teen years, empty nest and retirement, and enlisted couples from our church representative of each season. Then on the five successive Wednesday nights of May, we spent the 45 minutes of our mid-week service interviewing each of the couples. Pam and I led the interviews, with the four of us just sitting on the stage, talking about their marriages.
We framed each session around the peculiar challenges of the respective season of marriage. For the newlyweds, the challenge was building intimacy. The early childhood years, on the other hand, dealt with learning effective communication skills. For the marriage with teen-agers, we looked at how husbands and wives submit to one another. The empty nest time of marriage addressed the peculiar time of life when husbands and wives have to reconnect with one another without the pressures of rearing children. Finally, the senior adult marriage has to contend with retirement and health issues.
One more layer of Marriage for a Lifetime was using five core Bible passages on marriage to frame each session. I simply read the evening’s passage and made a couple of comments before Pam and I began the interview.
I didn’t know what to expect when we jumped into this. What we quickly discovered is how much our folks loved it. The real-life stories of couples they go to church with have been an encouragement to our congregation far greater than anything I’ve seen before. Each of the five couples has brought unique insight and personality but they’ve also brought a transparency that has allowed us all to see that while no marriage is perfect, every marriage can reflect something of God’s holiness. That’s a big deal, and something that no sermon, conference or book can communicate nearly as well as someone you know, sitting in front of you and pouring out their heart.
But along the way something else is happening, too. The weight of experience and love these couples share with one another has added up so that week by week we’re learning that people today—despite all the secular forces working against Christian marriage—can really build marriages that last a lifetime.