It turns out that a wedding is no longer the first step into adulthood that it once was. Instead it has become, too often, the last step or mark of adulthood -- delayed and postponed if entered at all. Some remarkable statistics show that married couples now make up less than half of all households. Compare that to when I group up, in the 1950s, when married couples made up 78 percent of all households. Could it be that this has something to do with the precipitous decline of churches?
Marriage is key to the Church. That is not a choice made by choices but the shape of religion and its impact upon the life of Christians and their homes. It would be nearly impossible to read the Bible and come away from it thinking that God or the Judeo-Christian tradition was indifferent to marriage and family. Indeed, we have always realized that the strength of our churches is tied to the strength of our families and the strength of the families has been the focus of what happens in the Church. This does not mean that singles have no place there, it means that in Church as well as in the world, the single estate was not a chosen state for life but a transitional one toward the ultimate goal of a spouse and a home. It is this that has changed as well as the delayed entrance into marriage.
Marriage is no longer one of the first steps of adulthood. Children born to mother and father who are also husband and wife to each other is no longer one of the first destinations of those who marry. The landscape has changed. All of this for churches that tend to still reflect the priority of marriage over the single life and who are still fairly wedded to the idea that singleness is not a destination but a pass through estate on the way to the real destination of spouse, family, children, and home.
The fight for same sex marriage has been a fight to enter the same estate as heterosexuals. When the Supreme Court decision (Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015) legalized gay marriage across the nation, it was found that within two years of that decision, some 61 percent of same-sex couples who had been cohabiting got married (at least according to a set of surveys by Gallup). Being able to marry and choosing to marry are two different things yet it shows that among many in the gay and lesbian community marriage remains a destination. It is certainly a delayed one, for the age of first marriage among this group is not all that much different from different-sex couples.
According to the Census Bureau, the median age of first marriage (the age at which half of all marriages occur) was 27.4 for women and 29.5 for men in 2017. That’s higher than at any time since the Census began keeping records in 1890. Say in 1950 a young couple usually got married first, then moved in together, then started their adult roles as workers or homemakers, and then had children, today it is more typical that they begin their careers, live together with one or more partners, and delay their marriage until other things have fallen into place for them -- the caveat being that fewer and fewer are seeing children as essential and more and more of them are choosing one child if they choose to have children at all.
Compare this to Norway where the median age at first marriage is an astounding 39 for men and 38 for women, according to a recent estimate—six to eight years higher than the median age at first childbirth. Sweden is not far behind with 17% of first marriages happening when the couple has already had two children. Both of these are coming from regions in which the birth rate is very low. Yet the message is clear: a wedding is the final brick put in place to finally complete the building of the family and not, as had been typical, one of the first.
America is long past the time when a husband and wife united in labor and raised children to help work the family farm. Today, marriage still seems to operate best when parents pool their incomes and invest in their children. That said, the focus on the children has changed. Both gay and straight people first live together in cohabiting relationships, delay marriage, and , when they finally do choose marriage, end up choosing it less frequently than their parents’ generation did.
It is no wonder that the statistics are changing for churches. We have fewer married people, fewer children to baptize, catechize and confirm, and fewer younger folks in the pews. It may not be that we are doing a terrible job at reaching people as much as the people we are reaching are heading in different directions. It is surely a moral divergence we must face but it is also a practical problem. The number of young families having children is shrinking and we are all competing for a piece of the same pie.
Happy Mother's Day!