By Kent E. Fillinger
When I was young, whenever a boy and girl played together on the school playground, the other kids typically would tease them by singing “The Kissing Song”: “[Boy’s name] and [girl’s name], sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G! First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes baby in the baby carriage!”
The order prescribed in that song is being followed less and less these days.
The purpose of this article is to explore recent data on dating, marriage, and parenting to help church leaders better understand current trends to help shape future teaching and ministry possibilities.
An October 2019 Pew Research Center survey found that nearly half of U.S. adults—and most women—say dating has become more difficult in the last 10 years. For the 15 percent of American adults who are single and looking for a committed relationship or casual dates, most say they are dissatisfied with their dating lives and that it has been difficult to find people to date.
This may help explain why about 50.2 percent, or 124.6 million American adults, are single; in 1950, that number was 22 percent. The average age at which men (35 years old) and women (33) marry has increased for the last few decades as well.
The challenges of finding someone to date may help to explain why 77 percent of single adults who are looking for a relationship said they would consider a relationship with someone of a different religion. Only 9 percent said they “definitely would not” date someone from a different religion.
The same study discovered that most single people—whether they are dating or not—say they don’t feel a lot of pressure to find a partner from their friends, family, or society in general. Only 22 percent say they feel at least some pressure from friends, 31 percent feel pressure from family members, and 37 percent say they feel society is pressuring them.
Feeling pressure to be in a committed relationship is highly dependent on age. Younger singles (ages 18-to-29) feel much more pressure from friends, family, and society. For example, over half of these younger singles (53 percent) say there’s at least some pressure from society to find a partner.
The lack of perceived pressure may help explain why fully half of single adults say they’re not currently looking for a relationship or dates. Among those who are looking to date, about half are open to either a committed relationship or casual dates. Single men are far more likely than single women to be looking for a relationship or dates (61 percent vs. 38 percent, respectively).
Online dating is a primary source for those looking to date today. The Knot 2019 Jewelry and Engagement Study found that about 22 percent of newly married respondents said they met their partner online.
A Pew Research Center study revealed that almost two-thirds of adults (65 percent) say sex between unmarried adults in a committed relationship is acceptable at least sometimes, including 43 percent who say it is always acceptable. Casual sex between consenting adults who are not in a committed relationship is also seen as generally acceptable (62 percent). About half (49 percent) say it is acceptable for consenting adults to exchange explicit images of themselves.
Despite these common cavalier views on premarital sex and cohabitation, the U.S. government’s National Survey of Family Growth showed that young women who married between the ages of 22 and 30 without ever cohabitating prior to marriage had some of the lowest rates of divorce. Women who had lived with men other than their future husband before marriage were more than twice as likely to end up divorced, according to the Wall Street Journal article, “Too Risky to Wed in Your 20’s? Not If You Avoid Cohabiting First” (February 5-6, 2022).
The writers of the article struggled to explain these findings, but anyone who has read the Bible could tell them why it works best to follow God’s ways.
Gallup research from late 2020 shows that society’s view on the importance of marriage continues to change. Less than one-third (29 percent) of people said it’s very important for couples with children together to be legally married, down from 49 percent in 2006. And 38 percent of Americans say it’s very important for couples to marry if they plan to live together the rest of their lives, down from 54 percent in 2006.
Churchgoers’ views on marriage are also changing. In 2006, almost two-thirds (65 percent) of weekly church attendees said it was very important that couples who sired children together legally marry. That share fell to 45 percent in 2020. Currently, 67 percent of weekly churchgoers say marriage is very important for couples who want to spend their lives together, down from 82 percent in 2006.
According to a Gallup survey, in 1996, 27 percent of Americans said same-sex marriages should be recognized as legally valid and hold the same rights as traditional marriage. In 2012, when Gallup first began asking about LGBTQ identification, the American public was evenly split on same-sex marriage—50 percent affirmed same-sex marriages and 48 percent did not. Today, 70 percent say such marriages should be legally valid and 29 percent disagree.
While biblical views on marriage continue to deteriorate, the research proving the wide-ranging benefits of traditional marriage and church involvement for couples is unmistakable. A study released by the Institute of Family Studies (IFS) found that couples who regularly go to church together report higher levels of happiness than those who don’t. More than 3 in 4 regular church-attending couples (78 percent) say they are “very happy” or “extremely happy” in their relationship.
More than three-quarters of married couples who had mutual religious friends (76 percent) reported happy relationships, compared to 65 percent of those who don’t have those kinds of relationships.
Praying together also is a good indicator of happiness, with 78 percent of couples who do so almost every week or more reporting being very or extremely happy. Only 61 percent of those who don’t pray together that often report the same type of happiness.
Research from the National Academy of Sciences discovered that the less education a woman has, the more likely she is to become a parent for the first time outside of marriage. Among women ages 32 to 38 who do not have a high school diploma, 87 percent delivered their first child while unmarried; among women with only a high school diploma, the figure dropped to 60 percent. Among women with at least a bachelor’s degree, 25 percent were unmarried when they had their first child, according to surveys from 2017–2018 (that was a sixfold increase from 1996, when the share was 4 percent for that group, the Wall Street Journal reported).
Despite a growing number of new parents who are unmarried, the annual birth rates continue to decline. A September 2021 Census Bureau survey reported that the number of U.S. births has declined every year since 2008 (except for 2014). This likely signals a decreasing number of new parents for churches to serve. But according to a 2020 Barna study, more than half of engaged Christian parents (58 percent) chose their current church primarily because of the children’s program.
More than nine out of 10 parents of children under age 13 have a muddled worldview, according to new research from the American Worldview Inventory 2022, conducted by the Cultural Research Center at Arizona Christian University. The study based that conclusion on the fact that most of today’s parents of younger children are millennials (born 1981-96), the adult generation in America least likely to possess a biblical worldview.
The younger the parent, according to research, the less likely they are to have a biblical worldview. That leaves 94 percent of parents of preteens having a worldview known as syncretism, a blending of multiple beliefs and practices in which no single life philosophy is dominant; this produces a worldview that is diverse and often self-contradictory.
On a positive note, research showed the three groups of churches that boast an above-average proportion of parents of preteens who possess a biblical worldview are nondenominational or independent Protestant churches, Pentecostal or charismatic churches, and evangelical churches.
Parents associated with congregations that are nondenominational or independent Protestant were about eight times more likely than the national norm to have a biblical worldview, while those aligned with either evangelical or charismatic Protestant churches were about three times more likely. However, only 19 percent of children under 13 attend those types of churches.
“Every parent teaches what they know and models what they believe,” said researcher George Barna. “They can only give what they have, and what they have to give reflects their driving beliefs about life and spirituality. Parents are not the only agents of influence on their children’s worldview, but they remain both a primary influence and a gatekeeper to other influences.”
Springtide’s 2019-2020 study, “The State of Religion and Young People 2020,” surveyed more than 10,000 young people ages 13-25 and asked them where, or in what settings, they’ve met their friends. The largest proportion of young people say they’ve met friends at school (81 percent), followed by their local neighborhood (43 percent), or at work (38 percent). Only 28 percent said they met friends within a church or spiritual community, or about the same chance of meeting someone by happenstance (26 percent).
Why is that? Because 47 percent of Generation Z (born 1997 and 2012) attend religious services once a year or less, which is the same percentage of young people who attend religious services once a month or more. Additionally, only 37 percent of Generation Z say they attend a youth group.
An increasing number of parents are raising a child who identifies as LGBTQ. And almost every Christian student will have an LGBTQ friend or classmate, so church leaders must speak on issues of sexuality with truth and love.
The latest Gallup survey found only 7.1 percent of the population identify as LGBTQ, up from 4.5 percent in 2017. This number is still far below what the average American estimates—that 24 percent of the U.S. population identifies as LGBTQ.
Among Generation Z, however, 16 percent say they are something other than heterosexual, significantly higher than other generations—millennials (9 percent), Generation X (born 1965-80, 4 percent), baby boomers (1946-64, 2 percent), and traditionalists (1928-45, 1 percent). Women (10 percent) are more likely than men (5 percent) to identify as LGBTQ, according to Gallup. Additional research indicates many of those individuals identify not only as LGBTQ but also as Christian. One survey found 23 percent say they’re a Christian/Protestant.
“The Kissing Song” may no longer be popular on playgrounds, but the need for churches to invest time, teaching, and resources in the areas of dating, marriage, and parenting continues to be essential. The cultural tide continues to shift around us, so churches must innovate and experiment with new methods while maintaining the same biblical principles to impact change.