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January 3, 2004
Column #1,166

A New Year's Resolution For the Church

     Pollster George Barna reported recently that three-fifths of Americans believe cohabitation is an acceptable behavior. In fact, two-thirds of Catholics see no problem with unmarried couples living together, nor half of all Protestants and even 49 percent of born-again Americans.

     What's more, Barna says "The moral perspectives of Americans are likely to continue to deteriorate. Compared to surveys we conducted just two years ago, significantly more adults are depicting such behaviors as morally acceptable."

     Certainly, the number of couples living together has soared from only 520,000 in 1970 to 5 million today, a ten-fold increase in a generation. That's double the number who marry in a year. Cohabitation, not marriage, is the primary way male-female unions are formed.

     However, Scripture is clear. "Flee fornication," St. Paul wrote (I. Cor 7:18).

     I cited that quote in England, and a very dignified dowager interrupted me to exclaim, "Jesus never said anything about it."

     "Yes he did. Remember the woman at the well, who Jesus said had five husbands 'and the man you now have is not your husband'" (John 4:18).

     The problem, as I see is two-fold: ignorance of cohabitation's consequences by the general public, and a willful avoidance of the issue by America's clergy.

     Sociology backs up Scripture on the evil of cohabitation. Since men and women living together begin with minimal commitment, there's greater unhappiness - more infidelity, more conflict and even violence, more illness and depression.

     Sociologist Pamela Smock estimates that 45 percent of such couples undergo premarital divorce, which can be painful and complicated. A woman at a Christian publishing company told me she lived with a man for six years, and desperately wanted to leave, but felt trapped: "We bought a house together and he doesn't want to sell it."

     Many live together to test their potential for marriage. Big mistake. "Marriages that are preceded by living together have 50 percent higher disruption rates than marriages without premarital cohabitation," according to the National Survey of Families and Households.

     St. Paul sagely wrote, "Test everything. Hold onto the good. Avoid every kind of evil."

     Cohabitation may be perceived as a test, but it is an embracing of evil. A stunning 43 percent of unmarried couples have children, vs 46 percent of married couples.

      Yet have you ever heard a sermon on cohabitation? I bet not. In scores of cities, I've asked pastors if they have preached on it. One hand in 50 goes up. This moral abdication is perhaps the major reason why Barna found Christians have a higher divorce rate than atheists.

     There is an alternative. A third of America's churches now provide a more appropriate way for couples to test their relationships - with a test called a premarital inventory. The man and woman are asked if they agree or disagree separately to 150+ one sentence statements:

     "At times I am concerned about the silent treatment I get from my future spouse.

     "I am concerned that my future spouse sometimes spends money foolishly.

     "I am hoping that after marriage my future spouse will change of his/her behaviors."

     A computerized report is prepared comparing what the man and woman said on each issue. Result: a tenth of couples decide not to marry. Studies show that their scores are equal to those who marry and later divorce. So they are avoiding a bad marriage before it has begun!

     In 1992, my wife and I added another component, having couples in solid marriages administer the inventory. Clergy will normally provide only an hour of feedback. They do not have time to talk through scores of issues that a couple aged 50 can provide. With both genders present, "mentor couples" can actually do a better job than clergy or counselors.

     From 1992-2000, 302 couples were mentored at our home church. Of that number, 21 dropped out part way through, mostly to break up. Another 34 couples met with their mentors six evenings, but decided not to marry.

     Thus, more than 50 couples avoided a likely divorce. But of those who did marry, there have been only seven divorces or separations in a decade. That is a 3 percent failure rate, or a 97 percent success rate.

     That's not just marriage preparation - but marriage insurance.

     What's more, we created an organization called Marriage Savers that has trained 3,000 mentor couples across the country, whose churches often have even lower divorce rates. To learn more, see http://www.marriagesavers.org.

     Why doesn't your church, synagogue or mosque set a goal in 2004 to radically reduce your congregation's divorce rate?

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