Today we are in a unique position to reclaim the holy purpose and intention of God for marriage. E. Stanley Jones used to say, “…we are Christians in the making.” If this conviction is true, the question naturally follows: How is a Christian made? We are convinced one of the primary ways the heavenly Father forms us into the likeness of our Lord and Savior is through the covenant of marriage. Marriage is a formational relationship where we are made holy as God Himself is holy.
The Apostle Paul points to this reality in Ephesians 5:15-33. Paul can’t help but point out that to talk of Christ-following in the context of marriage is to also speak of the marriage of our Savior with His bride the church (cf. Ephesians 5:32). The marriage relationship between a man and a woman is a reflection of a deeper and more profound mystery: the unity of Christ and the church. According to Paul, this unity is for the purpose of Christ making His church holy (cf. Ephesians 5:27). If marriage is to reflect this dynamic between the Lord and the church, we have to conclude that holiness is also an integral part of the purpose of God’s presence and work in the marriage relationship.
Marriage offers deep Christ-following realities that are unlike any other human context. There’s the lifelong sacred covenant. Relational humility is most pronounced in marriage when “feelings” of love ebb and flow over the course of a lifetime. Forgiveness and intimacy, honesty and purity, faithfulness and servant-hood, selflessness and thinking more highly of the other… along with numerous other relational dynamics, all play an important part in a marriage seeking to honor the Lord. There isn’t another earthly relationship that bears the joys and the cross-carrying sacrifice of loving God and neighbor like a marriage relationship does.
It’s easy to talk about holiness and marriage. What does it actually look like when “Kim and Jake” (who are married and come to your church) come into your pastoral office or tap you on the shoulder after a worship service and share their marital struggles? What are they looking for? They’re asking you: “How do we stop fighting? How do we communicate better? How do we get on the same page? How do we avoid divorce?” They are very much aware that their marriage is struggling, and, whatever the catalyst is, they are looking for practical help. Our conviction is that although every couple is seeking practical solutions to their marital challenges, what they are really looking for is a theology of marriage (even if they can’t articulate this). The challenge for the pastor and local church is to intentionally minister to Kim and Jake in order to allow the practical solutions to inevitably lead this couple to the theologically rich truth that God has called them in their marriage to be holy as He is holy. This is the heart of an effective marriage ministry.
The Church is coming to an understanding that soul-care cannot be mass-produced. Effectively ministering to married couples means we have to recognize that every marriage is different. Every marriage has its own history, context, background and present realities. So we suggest the following approach for a growing church to grow marriages:
1) Pastors… let the marriage relationship be a priority in your preaching. Touch on it. Do sermon series that focus on it. Even if there are a number of people in your church who are not married, don’t let that stop you. One of the most effective ways to hear a sermon is if a person listens in on what God’s Word has to say to someone else. As you preach the call to holiness in the context of marriage, others are picking up those essential truths as well and can apply them to other areas/relationships in their own lives.
2) Understand that effective marriage ministries require the cost of time and intention. We offer marriage classes for as many as 40 couples at a time but see these more as short-term entry points for couples to begin to think prayerfully and critically about their marriages. The ministry we are really passionate about is the smaller and longer-term groups we run with 6 or 7 couples where we get to know them and their personal stories and struggles. It’s sacrificial on our part to take this time with them but there is much more pastoral care we can offer the couples.
3) Grow leaders and make sure in this growing process you’re not forcing leaders. There are some seasons when you may not find a couple who is ready to help you lead an intentional marriage ministry. Be patient. Wait for couples who have a personal commitment to a theology of marriage where holiness is the central purpose.
4) Cultivate working friendships with Christian counselors who share your theology of marriage. Take the time to get to know them. As couples like Kim and Jake come to you, you’ll be in a position to refer them to ongoing supportive resources outside of the weekend sermons or even pastoral care that you can provide. We’d also suggest there’s a difference between pastoral care and Christian counseling. As you pursue a pastoral presence you’ll also need to maintain a clear boundary on the care you provide and how this is different from the counseling support the couple may be in need of.
5) Take intentional care of your own marriage. Maintain fixed boundaries in ministry that reflect the covenant you have with your spouse. Guard your marriage, and, when necessary, seek marriage counseling too. Your ability to grow a church that grows marriages is directly connected to the growth and authenticity of your own marriage relationship.
Some of the greatest joys in ministry have come through marriage ministry in the almost twenty years we’ve been involved in the local church. It’s a ministry that has a multigenerational footprint. As Wesleyans, the commitment to a Wesleyan theological view of marriage is a critical gift we can give not only the local church, but can also give to the generations coming up who are wondering how following Jesus can make a difference in this wonderful mystery we call marriage.
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