One of the most consistent themes that emerges in counseling young couples, especially in the critical first five years, is the dramatic difference between the time and money that was invested in their wedding compared to the time and money that was invested in preparing for the rest of their lives together as husband and wife. The average cost of a wedding in the United States is somewhere around $25,000. Engaged couples and their parents will typically spend hours lining up venues, making decisions about florists, photographers, websites, and invitations, and pondering the details of a ceremony that typically lasts about 25 minutes. Yet only a very small fraction of their (or their parents’) time and money is typically invested in preparing for the next 40+ years that they will, by God’s mercy, spend together as husband and wife.
Sometime between the end of the honeymoon and the end of the first year of marriage, the hard work of becoming “one flesh” with another sinful human being will begin. Newlyweds begin to realize that they married a sinner and often wonder what they have gotten themselves into. Unmet expectations of marriage or of one’s spouse frequently sets in, with the inevitable fruit of resentment, bitterness and anger. Once intoxicated with each other, husbands and wives become toxic for each other — and intimacy at all levels falters. A marriage that lacks true spiritual intimacy between both partners and the Lord will fail to achieve true intimacy in any other respect. Conversely, a strong Christian marriage illustrates the gospel and lives out its implications through a depth of intimacy that unbelievers cannot fathom.
What these couples need is not a few sessions to plan out the wedding with a little talk on communication, sex and conflict resolution thrown in. Rather, they need to be shown and taught that marriage is not about them, but about God. They need to be shown that marriage is a picture of God and the gospel. They need to be reminded that they are part of the bride of Christ, if they are believers. And that means that God is joyfully and covenantally bound in a very hard marriage to an unfaithful spouse. This God who has loved us, saved us, redeemed us, forgiven us, justified us, and adopted us has also called us to go and do likewise. Marriage is a laboratory for learning to get more of Christ by practicing Christ-likeness (humility, sacrifice, love, forgiveness, patience, kindness, etc.) in the context of a relationship with another person. My experience in counseling couples is that most of them have seldom, if ever, seen this kind of relationship lived out prior to saying, “I do.”
The church should encourage couples to enter environments where they can experience the messiness of marriage lived out in God-glorifying ways in the daily grind, where their hearts can be exposed and their expectations aligned with the Lord’s. I suggest three important gospel environments as incubators for the development of Christ-centered marriages: a multi-generational group environment, a mentoring environment, and a counseling environment.
A Multi-Generational Group Environment. A primary need of engaged couples is to establish critical lines of support as they build on their relationship with the Lord and each other. They need gospel community with other Christian couples and families at multiple stages of life. Multi-generational home groups, ministry teams, Sunday school classes, or other small-group settings provide an environment for relationships to form between engaged or pre-engaged couples and couples who are more seasoned in marriage. Such groups can and should be a safe place to be encouraged and challenged, to speak the truth in love and to have the truth lovingly spoken back, and to invite others into our lives and be invited into theirs.
A group environment is an ideal place to begin to practice the one-anothers that should define grace-giving relationships. Gospel-centered community in a multi-generational context should be the centerpiece of the church’s ministry to couples preparing for marriage, and should be used to promote, facilitate, and provide accountability for the mentoring and counseling aspects of the ministry. For example, in my church, we encourage everyone to be involved in one of several hundred HomeGroups that meet weekly in members’ homes. Usually, when a couple in our church becomes engaged or seriously begins talking about marriage, they are already involved in a HomeGroup (either together or separately). But if they aren’t, this is the first environment we are going to point them toward where they can know others and be known by others. We will then ask their HomeGroup leaders to help them find a premarital mentor couple through the church and to help us discern if there are issues present that might require even more intensive premarital counseling with a biblical counselor.
A Mentoring Environment. While I recommend that every Christian couple preparing for marriage be involved in a gospel-centered community such as a small group, a Sunday School class or a Bible study fellowship, I also believe that every couple needs more intensive discipleship in learning to apply the gospel to their relationship. I suggest that churches raise up and equip mentor couples to walk alongside engaged or pre-engaged couples using a resource such as John Henderson’s excellent book, Catching Foxes. Couples should meet regularly (I usually suggest weekly) in informal settings like the mentor couple’s home or a coffee shop with their mentor couple for at least 10-12 weeks prior to the wedding and talk frankly and in-depth about subjects such as the meaning of marriage, the sacredness of the marriage covenant, the complementary roles of men and women, conflict and how to resolve it biblically, sex, money, and expectations.
Our church uses the Catching Foxes format of twelve sessions prior to the wedding, with three follow-up sessions at various intervals up to a year after the wedding. Sometimes the mentor couple is also the engaged couple’s HomeGroup leaders, but more often than not they aren’t. Either way, the mentor couple is a mature couple that has been vetted and trained by church leadership for this specific ministry. A couple serving in this role must be trusted by church leadership to help an engaged or pre-engaged couple prepare well for marriage — including sometimes making the determination of whether the couple is ready for marriage. In many cases, premarital mentoring is sufficient preparation for marriage. But in many other cases, either the multi-gen group environment or the mentoring environment will bring out the need for a further marriage preparation environment — a season of more intensive counseling with a trained biblical counselor.
A Biblical Counseling Environment. Often, in the course of walking with a couple in a group environment or a mentoring environment, more significant heart issues or important factors such as previous marriages, children from previous relationships, cohabitation, serious illness, addiction, or other issues of sin and suffering are revealed. In these cases, it is often wise to recommend that the couple meet with a trained biblical counselor for a season in addition to their group and premarital mentors. I recommend that churches have access to a referral base of vetted and trusted biblical counselors (such as ABC’s Biblical Counseling Network) to whom they can refer couples when their premarital mentors are in over their heads. In some cases, the counselor will just fill the same function as the premarital mentor — going through a resource such as Catching Foxes with the couple while also working to address the more significant areas of sin and suffering that have been presented. In other cases, the counselor will work alongside the premarital mentor couple (with their clients’ written consent) to address these issues. Sometimes couples will choose to meet with a trained biblical counselor instead of a premarital mentor couple simply because they value the added experience that a trained biblical counselor possesses.
Family ministry in the church begins where the family begins – when two young adults commit to each other before God to become one flesh. Young couples need the support, encouragement and training that only the church can provide during this major life transition. By providing them a group environment, a mentoring environment, and access to a biblical counseling environment when necessary or advisable, the church honors the sacred covenant of marriage and strengthens families for the advance of the gospel of Christ.