In this hard-but-hopeful space that we currently inhabit, the raw materials for reviving marriage are there for the taking. “It’s too late to repair everything,” a friend and colleague of mine wisely reminds me. “But it’s not too late to repair something.”
Since the secularization of the West feeds on and sustains the flight from marriage, the life of faith is key. But if the church becomes marriage’s primary defender in the West, how exactly do we protect and encourage it for those inside and outside our sanctuaries?
While I occasionally heard about pastoral efforts to encourage more marriages in congregations, I heard no consistent sources of success. Faith-based groups, however, were a different story. Our interviewees (especially in the US) reported widespread use of dating sites, with a preference for Christian ones, but human rather than algorithmic matchmakers were far more appreciated. (Real matchmakers “know” more people.) In terms of satisfaction with an efficient process by which interviewees met, fell in love, and married, vibrant subcommunities fared best.
Congregations are often too big. Small groups feel too small and their dynamics too fragile. Midsize organizations, to borrow from Goldilocks, are just right. They attract young adults because of their distinctively Christian and sometimes countercultural nature. As the age of marriage rises, these midsized, post-college groups become more important for marital fortunes.
Pawe and Marta, the married couple from Krakow, said two Catholic societies aided their marriage both before and after the wedding. One was a youth organization at the nearby Dominican order where they met, and the other was the Neocatechumenal Way, a movement of church-based communities of up to 50 people that was mentioned by interviewees in Poland, Lebanon, and Spain. Stateside, we heard about college organizations like InterVarsity and the Baptist Student Ministry.
In other words, meeting a mate seemed more likely to occur—or be on its way soon—when our interviewees focused on holiness before loneliness. That may sound simple and unoriginal, but remember C. S. Lewis’s remark: “Aim at heaven, and you’ll get earth ‘thrown in.’ ” Of course, not everyone who aims high finds marriage waiting in the wings. (Sex-ratio disparities remain a persistent challenge.) Nonetheless, orienting yourself first toward faith and discipleship seems to offer more fruitful ground for marriage to take root.
The seeds of matrimony sprout, too, through personal modeling and storytelling. As one Russian interviewee remarked, bad examples serve as “a sort of vaccine against marriage.” By contrast, good examples inspire the next generation.
This tool has limits, of course. We can’t re-brand or repackage marriage with the right narrative and expect to find our efforts successful. Getting married and starting a family are traditional moves, no matter how you frame them. But reinforcing that tradition through public practice is within reach for many of us.
Tomas, a 34-year-old school counselor from Guadalajara who is getting married in two months, brought this message home. “How parents live their marriage will make a strong impression,” he said. “And I imagine that if the relationship is sweet, if there is really love, I think that generates enthusiasm in a young person to say, ‘I want something like my parents have.’ ”
Finally, we have to avoid the pitfall of idolizing or over-idealizing marriage. If we borrow Lewis’s “aim at heaven” concept and bend it toward marriage, it reminds us of the foundational nature of matrimony and warns us against the out-of-this-world material and psychological expectations about marriage that have gone stratospheric today. Marriage is an earthly arrangement, one that our Lord noted will not be found in the post-resurrection kingdom of God (Matt. 22:30). It’s a tool for material flourishing and a vehicle for spiritual progress that provides daily (if not hourly) opportunities to exhibit sacrificial, incarnational love.
By now, the West is living off the fumes of countless sacrifices that husbands and wives, mothers and fathers have been making for many decades. We know that those committed marriages are key to a healthy society. But we’ve lost sight of the fact that marriage is in many ways a corporeal (and spiritual) act of mercy not just to our own spouse and children but to the world beyond our household. The West’s successes have been built upon this family social structure, and dismantling it will leave us far more vulnerable and psychologically unmoored than we realize.
From my vantage point, then, it’s past time for the church to re-demonstrate to the world what marriage is. We have on our side a timeless and transcendent motivation for matrimony. The task is not a glamorous one. But it just might work.