Years ago, my college group attended a weekend retreat (at a hot springs!) without knowing the topic. The speaker hadn’t announced it beforehand. Later, we discovered that that was because the speaker himself didn’t know his subject until he got underway; God only revealed it to him then. That subject was marriage. And it didn’t take long to see why God in his wisdom had waited for the reveal: at the end of the retreat, numerous attendees, as they shook the speaker’s hand in gratitude for solid teachings, admitted that if they’d known the topic beforehand, they wouldn’t have come.
At a different young adults’ group I briefly attended, the pastor offered a choice of topics for the next series: one of Paul’s epistles, or relationships. Paul’s epistle won. By a landslide.
And a friend recently asked, “Can we quit making the first question we ask someone after we haven’t seen them for a long time, ‘Soooo, do you have a guy’?”
Why do so many millennials land anywhere from disinterested to fiercely opposed to marriage?
The answers, I suspect, reach double digits. I myself never numbered among the matrimonially disinterested, but over time, I’ve come to appreciate fellow millennials’ increasing desire for singleness. It stems from not a few understandable stalks. And as I said last week, blunt criticism of singleness, from even respectable evangelical figures, will never be as effective as understanding and encouragement.
One stalk, I think, could be described as a lack of affirmation.
Many singles would like to marry, but they’d also like to have a life first.
That isn’t automatically fear or selfishness, for many of these “lives” involve sacrificial mission work or church service (more than some marrieds). It’s simply an instinct that though marriage is important, we are not made for marriage.
Some young Christians are fortunate enough to grow up seeing our world for what it is – a titanic clash of realms, darkness and injustice being overcome by God’s kingdom. This missional Christianity attracts young people. Whether it’s inner-city workers, soldiers overseas, or protesters on our campuses, one thing written deep on a young person’s heart is a desire for a cause. And God’s grace does indeed offer, among many other things, a great cause for us. A great purpose.
Then these millennials, who know this life best as a war or race, encounter those within the church* who seem to see nothing but a romance novel. Thousands plunge daily into hell while nobody is talking to young people about anything besides God writing love stories. It ranges from mild teasing (which, admittedly, could just be graciously rolled with) to what they perceive as a mold being imposed. Where is our mission? these young people find themselves asking. Where is our cause?
The collision of these two philosophies often results in millennials struggling instinctively to break out of the mold – by resisting marriage. It’s a kind of youthful pushback.
Admittedly, if I may be bold, not every such pushback is trustworthy. I’m still young. I know myself well enough to know that what feels like imprisonment can really be freedom (e.g. God doesn’t just let us sleep around, and that is the opposite of bondage). It’s always worthwhile to search for kernels of truth in the bread of tradition.
But I’ve found that millennials also have a kernel of truth going: we are made for things besides marriage as well. Some perceive the truth of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 7: it is easier to tackle these things without the weight of a marriage.
Okay. But why do they get so sensitive about it? Millennials aren’t just irritated – it’s something more like wounded.
My guess is a deep irony: the blind herding of millennials towards marriage can actually bring loneliness. Not the loneliness of singleness, but loneliness within the body of Christ.
We all have a longing to be seen. To have our true selves spotted and affirmed, our passions, our gifts, our truest identities. Those who see these things, even when we do not, are those we cling hardest to. Is it not so? As a youth leader and classroom teacher, I’ve developed an awe for the power my words have when talking to students. Just asking them about their day can be an enormous witness of love.
The opposite happens when millennials sense that others only see them for their marital status.
When all young people hear is of relationships and marriage, they feel that nobody is bothering to get to know them. The inadvertent, unspoken message is, “you really don’t have anything to offer except your marital status.” There’s so much more to these hearts, and it is missed. You lose a millennial when you do that. You lose anybody when you do that. Add in the fact that many millennials already face a crisis of love and identity in general, and we’ve got a case of throwing gasoline on a flame. We play right into their crisis by tacking their validation to something they can’t just snap their fingers and change (as I wrote last week).
Is it really any wonder that young people find themselves tempted to get testy towards marriage over all this?
Again, I’m not defending a diminishing of the institution of marriage. But as my parents taught me, “You’re responsible for what you can control.” We, as the church, can attend better to the messages we send. Even those who fervently desire marriage are frustrated that no other part of them is ever affirmed (like I said last week, we’re a complicated bunch).
Get to know young people. Find out their talents, their life stories, what makes them mad and bad and glad. Hook these things up to kingdom ventures. Equip them. Relationships are important, but don’t let it be 60% of what they’re asked about. Make sure they feel loved for who they are today – for today is all they have.
Matrimony is important, but our value in Christ goes beyond that. Our value lies firstly in God’s sacrificial love for us, in our status as his image bearer. That stands whether or not we ever marry (or whether our marriages are successful) and should be our greatest message to young people today.
* I am grateful to say that my own church stands gloriously exempt from these criticisms.
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