i. Premarital counseling
In my hometown, many congregations of many denominations have gotten together and agreed to refuse to do a “church” wedding unless the couple agrees to pre-marital counseling. Excellent! The churches have agreed on a standard six-lesson course, and we’ve been very pleased with the instruction and results.
In my congregation, our ministers have occasionally persuaded couples not to marry, telling them they too immature or incompatible. Excellent! There’s no better time to end a bad marriage than before it happens. It’s not very romantic, and some preachers don’t have the courage to do this, but it can be the most compassionate possible thing to do.
Obviously, couples can easily avoid the counseling by going to the courthouse and having a civil ceremony or by going out of town, but the vast majority of couples elect to do the counseling, and it’s a very good thing. Moreover, as more and more communities adopt this policy, couples begin to expect to be counseled. It’s been an easy transition for our young people.
Also, the extensive counseling helps to tie couples to the church, building relationships with the preacher, elders, or older couples who do the teaching. Many people want to use the building because it’s pretty. Now some discover the beauty of Jesus while they’re in the building.
ii. Marriage training
But a six-week counseling course is not nearly enough. Engaged couples have this golden glow that often keeps them from seeing the hard work and commitment a good marriage requires. A congregation must teach classes on marriage over and over again.
There are now excellent video series as well as countless books that provide very scriptural, wise counsel on how to maintain and strengthen a marriage. Young couples especially need to hear this teaching repeatedly. The classes should be taught by older couples whose lives evidence the success of the instruction.
We often ask a few older couples to sit in on classes for newlyweds to serve as “resource couples” to help the teacher bring the lessons home. Often, the most valuable teaching takes place in the hallway or on the phone after class when a struggling couple talks through concerns with an older couple.
There’s just no substitute for older men and women coaching younger men and women. The Tuesday ladies class, small groups, a men’s ministry, and many other settings should all be “safe places” where a young wife or husband can ask for help on building a marriage, in confidence and without fear of embarrassment.
Today’s society has left many if not most young men and women to grow up in broken homes and in dysfunctional families. At least half those growing up today have never experienced a nuclear family first hand. Our young couples can be astonishingly clueless about how to live as husband and wife. There is no lesson too basic or too obvious to teach.
iii. Parenting training
Closely related to marriage training is parenting training. Children can be hard on a marriage, and this is especially so when the parents disagree about how to raise the children — or are just inept at it. Many a marriage has failed because of strains caused by pregnancy and child rearing. Some of us forget (repress, really) the incredibly physical and emotional strain of having a baby in the house.
Again, half or more of our families grew up in broken homes, and many have never seen excellent parenting first hand. What was obvious to my parents’ generation has been entirely forgotten by many of those recently married.
We need for our young couples to learn how to parent from older couples as well as books and videos. And the lessons have to be frequently repeated.
iv. Financial training
Another major strain on marriages is money. It is the biggest problem many of our couples face. Again, with so many people coming up in broken homes, they just haven’t been taught how to handle money, especially how to do so as a couple. Moreover, society constantly bombards us all with enticements to borrow and spend.
Our congregation is blessed in that a number of our members who are accountants have put together a counseling service whereby couples may, for no cost, have an expert work with them one on one to budget and responsibly handle money. And the elders have had to make many referrals to these Godly advisers.
One of these accountants is teaching a Wednesday night course on financial management. His class has outgrown our largest classroom and has had to move to a 300-seat auditorium — and all this is by word of mouth!
The fact is that many young people coming out of college today have grown up without parents-or woefully insufficient parenting. And it’s become the church’s job to bear one another’s burdens by teaching lessons that were once passed down from generation to generation in the home. It’s a burden but also an opportunity. If the churches take on this task, they’ll be richly rewarded by the lifelong loyalty of grateful couples.
v. Support structures
The healthy congregation must have instruction intertwined with mechanisms that facilitate the forming of relationships with, well, surrogate parents. Young couples have to feel free to ask for help on the most basic and most intimate matters. This means they need to know older couples well enough to feel free to ask questions, and older couples have to make themselves available to be known and asked.
Some churches have trained couples as marriage coaches and made their names available to the congregation. Excellent! We need marriage, parenting, and financial coaches. What greater gift to give than a strong and lasting marriage?
vi. Permission giving
In part, this requires that the ministers and elders create a culture within the congregation where this can happen. The church needs to be told that the older members are glad to be called at home or invited to lunch or visited to offer loving counsel. We older members have to give express permission to ask for help. After all, we live in a world where people are supposed to mind their own business.
But we need to teach our young couples to give permission, too. They should be willing to be corrected, lovingly, by an older couple when they are acting badly. If a husband speaks rudely about his wife in front of others, a older member should feel free to pull him aside and explain how very wrong that is. If a mother refuses to discipline her children, she should be glad to have an older woman gently instruct her better.
It’s entirely contrary to our culture to invade someone else’s “space” and tell them how to raise their kids or treat their spouses. But in the Kingdom of Heaven, things are different. We are family-more so than our physical families, and our older members should be privileged to pass along lessons to our younger brothers and sisters.
Of course, some of our older members will give perfectly awful advice, and some will be too nosey. This has always been true, and always will be. We nonetheless need to ask our young members for permission to teach them, and apologize in advance for those times when we judge too quickly or speak on incomplete information. If we love each other, we’ll work through all that.