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The Marriage-And-Family Script

A necessary port of call on the pilgrimage through liquid modernity (MNStudio/Shutterstock)

Aaron Renn is out with a new edition of his must-read e-mail newsletter, The Masculinist, which concerns problems related to men in the Christian church. Subscribe to it (it’s free) and read the archives here. 

In the new issue, he has further reflections on the idea of singleness. N.B., Renn is an Evangelical Christian who lives in New York City and works for a think tank. That’s where he’s coming from. He writes:

After last month’s Masc #21, a pastor wrote to me asking how the church should respond to the “demographic crisis” it faces, namely the significant imbalance of female to male attendees in church. That makes it impossible for all Christian women to find Christian husbands and in this person’s view incentivizes some poor male behaviors such an unwillingness to commit.

This is a very fair question. At the macro level, the demographic crisis is real.  It’s a problem. The most critical component of any solution is getting more men into church. That’s one of the things I would like to help accomplish with this newsletter. As I detailed in Masc #3, the church has long been actively hostile to men, so it’s no surprise men are staying away. And as my series on attraction is showing (stay tuned for the final installment, probably next month), the church is also giving men false information about relationships. Given the primal nature of our relations with the opposite sex, once Christian men discover that they’ve been fed falsehoods on this topic – which given the ever-increasing number of places you can find basic truth on the subject, including even from Jordan Peterson, will happen for a significant number of people at some point – this will severely discredit the faith for them.

At the micro-level, my focus in that piece was on big city churches. In those, there are vast numbers of singles, few of which appear to be aggressively seeking marriage. In other environments, such as some smaller city or suburban churches, the demographic problem can rear its head. There are places where the majority of people in church are married, and the singles can feel left out in the cold. Some of these singles, men and women, are less attractive, are socially awkward, etc. which adds complications. (I mentioned before a story about an Orthodox Jewish woman in Brooklyn who served as a matchmaker for awkward singles in that community, and how we really don’t have much like that going on).

So in some places I do think there is a legitimate demographic problem.  So what do you do about it?


At the church level, we have to bring in more men. At the individual level we have to recognize the odds and act accordingly. Last month I told guys that they need to be aware that every year that goes by the supply of high quality marriage prospects goes down.  I do think men need to step up and pursue marriage and commit, and think they should give serious thought to doing it sooner rather than later.  For women, it’s even worse. It’s a game of musical chairs where several folks may not get a seat. The stone cold reality is that this environment is a big incentive to move fast to secure your place.

The problem is that the contemporary life scripts being sold by society explicitly discourage acting fast, and pooh-pooh the consequences of failing to land the plane to marriage and children. These scripts tell young women to pursue education, career, romantic excitement/sex, and personal cultivation first (e.g., travelling the world), then find a nice guy to settle down with later. I’ll mention again this passage from Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s New York Times #1 best selling book Lean In: “When looking for a life partner, my advice to women is date [translation: have sex with] all of them: the bad boys, the cool boys, the commitment-phobic boys, the crazy boys. But do not marry them. The things that make the bad boys sexy do not make them good husbands. When it comes time to settle down, find someone who wants an equal partner.” In other words, spend time playing the field, then after having your fun, look for a real marriage candidate.

Renn talks about more details in this life script, including the idea that your life will be happier and more vivid if you don’t have children. More:

Some people who follow these scripts often don’t discover the reality until it’s too late. It reminds me of Proverbs 7 about the man seeking the adulteress that says he was “a young man lacking sense” who “hastens to the snare” because “he does not know it will cost him his life.” Only in this case it applies to women as well.

Back to our church demographics question. I wonder how many of these singles have been aggressively looking for marriage since say college? Some probably had, but from what I see around me plenty didn’t and instead were following this cultural life script.

The Washington Post writer gets it correct in this respect: people make choices. This is a free country and people can do anything they want. I fully support the right of both women and men in contemporary America to make their own. But are they making informed choices? Are church leaders handing out realtalk on life, marriage, and kids, or just a baptized version of the secular life script? Are pastors and those in spiritual leadership warning the people under their care about the possible future consequences of these scripts? When people do follow those scripts and the bad consequences come, are they willing to deliver bitter truths to people who don’t want to hear them, or will they instead only call on others to change to mitigate those consequences?

I’m not sure where you can find the entire new issue of The Masculinist, but again, the archives are here. 

This makes me think. We hear a lot about how unfriendly churches are to singles, how they feel that the message they get is that they are somehow second-class citizens in a gathering geared towards families. Many of us recognize that churches need to do a better job of caring for singles, and that singleness can be a state of holiness to which some Christians are called. I wonder, though, in light of Renn’s writing, if there’s not greater wisdom in churches being communities that prod their members toward marriage — this, in contradiction to the broader cultural script.

The New York Times wrote last month:

The millennial generation’s breezy approach to sexual intimacy helped give rise to apps like Tinder and made phrases like “hooking up” and “friends with benefits” part of the lexicon.

But when it comes to serious lifelong relationships, new research suggests, millennials proceed with caution.

Helen Fisher, an anthropologist who studies romance and a consultant to the dating site Match.com, has come up with the phrase “fast sex, slow love” to describe the juxtaposition of casual sexual liaisons and long-simmering committed relationships.

Young adults are not only marrying and having children later in life than previous generations, but taking more time to get to know each other before they tie the knot. Indeed, some spend the better part of a decade as friends or romantic partners before marrying, according to new research by eHarmony, another online dating site.


Julianne Simson, 24, and her boyfriend, Ian Donnelly, 25, are typical. They have been dating since they were in high school and have lived together in New York City since graduating from college, but are in no rush to get married.

Ms. Simson said she feels “too young” to be married. “I’m still figuring out so many things,” she said. “I’ll get married when my life is more in order.”

Here’s the thing: that’s not how real life works. If you’re like most people, you will never feel that your life is in sufficient order to get married, or have kids. I didn’t marry until I was 29, though I had been seeking marriage since not long after college. I was “ready to marry” in the sense that I was sick of being single, and wanted to get started on building a family, but did I somehow feel that I was “ready” for marriage in the same sense that one is “ready” for a long vacation (e.g., everything packed, passport updated, etc)? Of course not! It’s scary to take that leap of faith into marriage. Similarly when we had our first child.

You can only learn about marriage and child-raising by doing them. True, you can read books, you can follow a cultural script, you can benefit from the wisdom of elders; these are helpful. But there’s nothing like hands-on experience. You will make plenty of mistakes. You will look back and think, “I wish we had done that” and “how stupid we were to have done this.” That’s part of the journey. It always has been.

The Millennials have this thing — so did a lot of us Gen Xers — of wanting safety and assurance before committing. This is not their fault, necessarily. In a culture that gives us wide-open choices, and doesn’t nudge anyone toward making any particular choice, the pressure on one to make the right choice can feel overwhelming. We are formed from a young age by the broader culture to leave outs for ourself if the going gets rough. That, said Zygmunt Bauman, is the core characteristic of living in liquid modernity: living to keep your options open at all times. This is living life as a tourist, not a pilgrim.

Christianity has to proclaim to its people that life is a pilgrimage, not a vacation. A pilgrimage is a collective undertaking, one that has a particular destination, and that stops at meaningful points along the way. For most Christians, that will include marriage and family. But we live in an anti-familist culture — that is, one whose habits and values work against forming stable marriages and families. This is one area in which the church can’t afford to be anything other than countercultural.

My friend Mollie Hemingway, who writes for The Federalist, is a happily married mom. She works hard to introduce her single friends to each other, and to encourage them to seek marriage. She’s right to do that. When I was in DC recently, someone told me that the culture of the city is such that it’s easy to find yourself in your 40s, still living in a group house, and living pretty much like you did when you were in your 20s and first came to town. Is it really the case that DC people — the most educated and ambitious elites in the country — don’t yet have their lives “together” enough to get married? Please.



about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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