By / Jan 9

Recently, I sat in my office with a young man considering moving in with his girlfriend. I’m finding myself in this situation a lot. It’s caused me to consider the reasoning behind the increased cohabitation among Millennials, which is the demographic I primarily work with. There are many, but here are a few that were obvious to me:

The attack upon marriage. The direct correlation between the attack on marriage and the increasing likelihood of cohabitation is undeniable. At one point in time, a man and woman living under the same roof meant they were married. The cultural attack upon marriage has caused many Millennials to deny the wisdom of getting married.

The delay of marriage. Fifty years ago, if a man met a woman he liked, he would pursue her, and they would marry shortly after. With the rise of undergraduate studies (and increasingly graduate), Millennials are waiting longer and longer to get married. In 1960, the median age of marriage was 20.3 (females) and 22.8 (males). In 2010, that number had grown to 26.5 (females) and 28.7 (males). Research also shows that in 1960, 72 percent of all adults 18 years and older were married. In 2010, that number dropped to 51 percent of adults. Marriage is no longer seen as a right of passage into adulthood. It’s now considered something that can or will happen once other “things” are in order.

The cultural normalization of cohabitation. According to Barna research, two-thirds of adults believe it is a good idea to live with someone before marriage. Millennials, compared to Elders, are twice as likely to believe cohabitation is a good idea (72 percent, compared to 36 percent). Millennial Christians are hearing advice from others commending them for their desire to live together.

The cultural normalization of sexual activity outside of marriage. One doesn’t have to look far to find explicitly sexual activity on television, within magazines, music and on the internet. Millennials have come to age in a time where sexual activity outside of marriage has become the norm. They’re being persuaded to explore all the boundaries of their relationships with one another.

Rite of passage into marriage. Many couples that I talk with state they want to live together so that they can be sure marriage is right for them. They believe cohabitation should be a prerequisite for marriage. How will you know if someone is clean? How will you know their sleeping habits? How will you know what they are “really” like? Of all the reasons for cohabitation, Barna reports that 84 percent stated “compatibility” as the main motivator. They would even say it’s wise to live together.

Prioritizing financial stability. When I press couples who are already living together, most state that it financially made sense. Usually, one of the partners didn’t have anyone else to live with. This is a poor excuse and more of an indication of their lack of healthy community. Money is a legitimate concern for Millennials, and many times it dictates their behavior (like it does all of us).  

In light of all the cultural norms and pressures, how should we be ministering to this demographic? Here are some things that I practice as I’m meeting with people about this topic:

1. Determine their spiritual condition. Whenever I’m meeting with someone, I want to know whether he identifies himself as a believer or not. His or her answer will help me determine what advice I give and how hard to press. In my most recent conversation, he identified himself as a Christ follower. I told him that he could either continue to make decisions based on what he wanted or he could follow God’s instructions.

In the case of a non-believer, I want to first explain the gospel and its importance. As my professor advised in seminary, the session changes from counseling to evangelizing if the counselee doesn’t profess to know Christ. However, I also try to show him or her the value of research (granted, science and research conclusions can quickly change). The correlation between divorce and cohabitation has been studied closely. In the National Marriage Project, it was concluded, “After 5 to 7 years, 39% of all cohabiting couples have broken their relationship, 40% have married (although the marriage might not have lasted), and only 21% are still cohabiting.” If someone truly loves a person, living together is not what is best for the long term health of their relationship.

According to the National Survey of Family Growth, unplanned pregnancy also rises with cohabitation. Women are 20 percent more likely to become pregnant when living with their dating mate (a male usually responds negatively to this stat).

In all of this, I’m seeking to help them understand that cohabitation is not a wise choice by any standard. It’s not a good “test drive” for marriage. It’s seeking to reap the benefits of marriage without the commitment. Honestly, in my experience, it’s rare to talk a non-believer out of cohabitation. Stats and research don’t change heart affections; only Jesus can.  

2. Speak truth, and use the Bible. Millennials want you to be upfront with them. Don’t dance around the issue. Speak directly about how God would view their cohabitation. Call cohabitation, and sex outside of marriage, what it is—a sin. Remember, we walk a balance between grace and truth. Help them understand you care for them and truly believe honoring God is what is best for them. If they (or he/she) identify themselves as believers, then present a good biblical case for why it’s wrong and dangerous. Many of them have heard it’s wrong (from their parents), but they haven’t heard why the Bible says it’s wrong.

Three verses I use regularly are: Colossians 3:17, where Paul writes, “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (ESV). I explain that Paul is addressing what he would consider to be a mark of being a believer—that we should strive to do all things in the name of Jesus. I then ask whoever I’m counseling if they honestly believe living with their girlfriend/boyfriend is to the glory of Jesus or a choice based on what they want. I have yet to meet one Christian Millennial who believes it honors Christ.

I also point them to Philippians 4:8, where Paul writes, "Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” Here, we see Paul addressing the inner thoughts of believers. If Paul set this as a standard for our inner thoughts, wouldn’t it be fair to assume our actions should also reflect what is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely and commendable? I ask, “Does living together before being married seem true, honorable, just, pure, lovely or commendable?” Their answer is always, “No.”

Finally, 1 Corinthians 7:1-5 addresses the priority of sex within the confines of marriage. Paul is highlighting the necessity for a husband and wife to have a healthy sex life. When reading this text, it becomes extremely clear that sex is limited to inside the marriage covenant. To have any type of sexual relationship with someone who isn't your spouse is sin. To counter this point, a Millennial may tell me they aren’t having sex. Most likely, this isn’t true, but if it is, then they’re either really self-controlled (not likely, considering our conversation) or not attracted to each other and have a whole different set of problems.

Many might think they are “OK” as long as they have set sexual intimacy boundaries. But, they’re drawing a line that God hasn’t. Intimacy goes deeper than just sex. They don’t realize they’re engaging each other in a type of emotional intimacy (by creating a household together) that is unwise and that I believe God finds displeasure in.

It’s important to avoid only giving “don’t’s,” though. I want the Millennials I’m counseling to know they have a wonderful opportunity to display real, God honoring relationships in a culture that discredits the Christian faith. We each have an opportunity and responsibility to be Christ’s ambassadors to the world (2 Cor. 5:20). What a wonderful time for believers to push back the darkness by setting a dating standard that is unlike the world!

3. Connect them with others. In some cases, we’ve talked couples into separating from living together. Now what? Does our help stop with advice and edification? If we’re going to lovingly present a case against it, we have to lovingly help them find somewhere to live. Find a older couple in your church that has a open room. This is what the local church does. We take care of one another and help meet each other’s needs.

If we want to see more millennials pursue a biblical sexual ethic, it will take thinking deeply about what motivates and influences them. We have a way forward in the gospel. They can both experience enriching dating relationships and honor Christ. We must be willing to step into difficult conversations and speak gospel truth. In my experience, Christian Millennials have a desire to honor Christ in their relationships, but they simply lack the courage, confidence or discernment to make countercultural decisions. Let’s refrain from generalized criticism and, instead, come alongside our Millennial friends and help them make choices that glorify the Lord and serve their good.

By / Sep 7

This year, I had the opportunity to attend the 2016 ERLC National Conference, which was focused on the timely and relevant topic of Christian cultural engagement. It proved to be informative and influential in my thinking.

As a young 18-year-old Christian who is interested in politics, this election season has been soul-crushing. I have felt betrayed. I have listened to demagoguery. I have watched leaders compromise conviction for political power. It’s been disillusioning, to say the least. How could this happen? The conference speakers provided some insight as to how we got here.

How did we get here?

I learned that this is a result of a church with distorted priorities. We have tolerated heretics in the pursuit of political power. We have been willing to call out the sins of others but refused to call out the sins of our own church body. We have allowed moralistic therapeutic deism to take to take root in our churches in the name of Christianity. We have refused to adopt the racial reconciliation of the apostle Paul, and instead adopted a policy of indifference, which is a problem that we can no longer blame on outside forces; it is a problem within the church itself.

The church has been complicit in allowing itself and its values to be tainted. For too long, the church has traded its gospel witness for temporary political power. Yet, the speakers at the conference did not merely stop at a diagnosis. They also provided solutions.

An opportunity for the church

For the Christian, this should not be a time of doom and gloom; it is an unbelievable opportunity to reshape our priorities. Instead of mourning, we can be thankful that “the shaking of American culture is causing a falling out of the almost-gospel that has plagued the church,” according to Russell Moore.

The church has an unbelievable opportunity. We can be biblically bold and honest in a culture that is confused about almost everything. The church can and must be the place that fights for racial unity while bigotry goes mainstream in the culture. We can fight for purity when immorality is celebrated. We can stand on principle when manipulation is the norm. We can stand for justice in a culture of injustice. We can stand for moral courage in a time of moral cowardice. We must be willing to call sin, sin, not only in the culture at large but especially in our own churches. Most importantly, we must stand for gospel truth in any and every circumstance. The church must be a place where the gospel is prioritized above all else.

I left the 2016 ERLC National Conference incredibly thankful for the leadership of Russell Moore and those within the ERLC on these vital cultural issues. I especially appreciate their apparent desire for gospel-centered racial reconciliation. For too long, the church has been silent on racial reconciliation as a gospel issue. As Bryan Loritts said in his talk, “The only thing worse than hate is indifference.” We must combat the racial segregation in our churches. The new heavens and new earth will be made up of every tribe, tongue and nation, and our churches should reflect that here and now whenever possible. “If all of your relationships are with people who look like, sound like, and dress like you; you are missing out on the beauty of the gospel,” exhorted Bryan Loritts. We must follow in the footsteps of the apostle Paul, who believed that any form of ethnic supremacy was out of step with the Christian gospel message, of which he was willing to lay down his own life.

My final thought is a powerful word of gospel courage I heard from Russell Moore’s keynote address: “Because the gospel is true, we must march into the culture, not with fear, but with the courage of people who are going onward and upward.” So I say to my fellow millennials, we must move onward in Jesus’ name.

By / Aug 5

Phillip Bethancourt sits down with Russell Moore to get some perspective on how we, as Christians, should engage in the public square.

By / Aug 25

Browbeating is not the way of Jesus.

As He interacted with men and women, He could be provocative, compassionate, probing, even angry. He did not employ one standard relational template as He spoke and listened and taught.

However, He did not harangue. He taught the truth unequivocally but did not insist on agreement with it. His interest was not in demanding acquiescence but persuading and leading people into God’s kingdom. But He did, and does, demand decisions: Accept or reject as you might, but when it comes to the claims and teachings of Jesus Christ, neutrality or indefinite ambivalence are not options He allows.

In our time, persuasion is essential, especially among younger people. No one likes being lectured, but men and women 35 and under are particularly off-put by what they see as harangues. “Millennials want a personal connection,” writes Jeff From in Advertising Age. “Millennials don’t want to be spoken to; they demand to be spoken with.”

This can be difficult, as sometimes the wise course seems so obvious that to discuss whether or not to take it is just silly. Having a dialog on whether or not to put your bare hand on a hot stove is to claim that fact and logic have no meaning.

Yet dialog – respectful conversation that invites the other person to articulate his views, and responding with civility – is imperative if Christians are to win people to Christ and go on to make disciples of them.

Dialog does not park itself at the door of the church. Younger believers, as well as many older ones, are leery of being taught Scriptural truth in a didactic way. Many of them want to be romanced into the fullness of the orthodoxy they profess. Christians struggling with doubt need to be heard. Their inner conflict can be intensely painful, and their intellectual questions deep.

Similarly, those confused about Christian moral teaching regarding such things as human sexuality, sexual ethics, the nature of justice, and environmental stewardship should be allowed to express their disagreements without fear of reprimand.

There is a point, however, where professing Christians who persistently question biblical teaching stop pursuing intellectual integrity and social compassion and instead lapse into spiritual poutiness: The Bible says things with which they feel uncomfortable or with which to agree associates them with people with whom they would rather not be identified.

Spiritual rebellion and honest questioning are not the same thing. Ongoing dialog that refuses to reach a destination is mere rationalization and resistance, aimless spiritual globetrotting, an erstwhile quest for something the searcher says he seeks but does not truly want.

Such “dialog” ceases to be a means of understanding and persuasion and instead becomes merely a form of pandering (by those who wish to accommodate) and petulance (by those whose demand to be heard is really a demand for submission to their views).

Dialog is illegitimate if the questioner has neither a sincere heart nor the humility to receive instruction. This is not to suggest that the other participant, the mature Christian, has all the answers or cannot learn from the one struggling. The only source of revealed truth is the written revelation of the Bible, not the smug mind of the pompous believer.

But the Bible’s teaching on a host of issues is sufficiently distinct and consistent that it can be understood and applied. For example, Scripture’s teachings on such doctrines as the atonement and the deity of Jesus and such moral matters as sexual conduct and personal ethics are clear. This does not mean that all of these teachings are easy to accept or practice or that complete comprehension of what they mean is possible.

Rather, it means that the propositional declarations of the Bible, once understood, must at some stage be either accepted or rejected. Living in a “gray twilight” of chronic ambivalence is not an option for those who have come to trust in Christ as Savior and made a decision to follow Him as Lord.

Some Evangelicals rebel against a demand for decision. Influenced more by post-modern deconstructionism than the self-explanatory text of the Old and New Testaments, and more occupied with justifying anti-biblical conduct or belief than submitting to the Lordship of Christ, their dissatisfaction with orthodoxy and orthopraxy dissolves into whining, arrogance, and sin.

Not all opinions are equally valid. A few years ago I spoke at a gathering of perhaps 100 believers from across the country as well as across the theological and political spectrum. Although designed to foster dialog among Evangelicals of diverse political perspectives, the conservatives among us seemed more concerned with not appearing to have three heads than with persuading our brethren (“Yes, I’m pro-life, but I really, really don’t hate women” – this was unspoken but captures the tenor of the even).

More importantly, what struck me was the essential equivalence given to all the perspectives offered. This was more than frustrating; what some of the believers in that meeting needed was not a listening ear but a heart willing to accept instruction. Instead, the prevailing attitude seemed to be inoffensiveness above all, as though comity was an end in itself. Tolerance, whether warm or hostile, is not an end in itself; it must be a means, for Christians at least, to a far greater end – agreement about an unchanging core of truth before which we commonly should bow.

Christians are to measure their standards against those of the Word of God. When we stray from the truths of His Word, it is our job to conform to them, not try to contort Scripture into something it is not nor can ever be in order to gratify our preferences or rationalize our rebellion.

Yes, some of the Bible’s teachings are hard to accept. Yes, some of our fellow believers might not be people with whom, in our flesh, we would choose to associate or with whom we would want to be identified. Yes, there are some matters whose clarity is less than crystal: Eschatology and ecclesiology come readily to mind.

But what I like is far less significant than what is true. And the core of truth found in the Bible concerning God, His work, and His will is sufficiently transparent as to be accessible to all who want to know it.

We do God no great favor by submitting to Him. He created us for His glory, and does not frantically rub His hands together in the hope that we might like Him. He is compassionate and patient, but He is not desperate for our affection. He is not willing that any should perish, nor is He willing virtually beg us to repent and be converted.

Browbeating is not the way of Jesus. Neither is placating, desperately humoring, or exalting oozy warmth at the expense of truth.

There is no love in not telling people the truth and calling on them to make a decision about it. Such a call must be made graciously and compassionately, but also firmly and without equivocation.

There’s good precedence for this. It’s what Jesus did.