Article by Patrick Ray
Too many churches are segregated based on position in life. There are 20-something groups, singles groups, empty-nester groups, married groups, children’s ministries, middle-school youth groups, and high school youth groups. There’s nothing wrong with any of those groups (Pastor Drew, I promise, youth group is cool), but if the people of a church are only experiencing close relationships with those like “them,” how is that different than the world? I start off my post this way, to ask you to read it even if you are not dating. If you’re a married man, this post is relevant for you. If you’re choosing the route of lifelong celibacy, this post is relevant for you. If you’re not quite ready to look for a wife, this post is relevant for you.
Four years ago yesterday, I told my now wife “I kind of sort of dig you.” September 25th is always a big day on the calendar for us. It’s always a good time for the two of us to look back and remember how fun it was getting to know one another (even if I couldn’t afford to take her to dinner).
Guys often ask me, “when did you know you should marry Shelby?” I always respond with the same thing. “I got to know her.”
So many people are looking for a special feeling in their gut to tell them to marry a specific person. While I believe we should be tuned into our intuition, I worry when I see people putting too much stock in their initial feelings.
Yesterday my wife and I were holding hands as we were driving home from the church service. As we held hands, I felt an electricity run through my wrist. It’s that kind of romantic feeling you get when you know you’re going to go home and fall asleep while watching My Big Fat Greek Wedding. While we were holding hands, I remembered the first time I held her hand. Honestly, it was pretty awkward.
I had just gotten out of a relationship (that’s a story for another day), and our hands just didn’t seem to fit right. Something just felt off. I had two choices: I could listen to Ted Mosby’s universe theology and conclude she’s just not the “one.” Or I could continue getting to know her.
I decided to continue getting to know her. We kept talking about our shared desires to plant churches, have big families, and live in the inner city of Minneapolis. After a month or so, I met her family. I got to see her interact with her father and mother, and little brothers and sisters. My family lives in Iowa, so I needed people in Minneapolis to be family for me. I would often check in with a pastor-friend of mine, who is about ten years older than me.* I wanted to know what he thought about my relationship with Shelby.
You see, I had relied on my feelings before. About a year before I met Shelby, I was a lonely-eighteen-year-old who fell in love at first sight an average of 12.3 times a day. I began to realize I shouldn’t just rely on my feelings, but needed to rely on my community.
I wasn’t going to ask my pastor to arrange a marriage for me, but I did realize I needed my church community’s input. Infatuation is fun, but it’s also dangerous. Without infatuation men might not have the courage to ask women out. Without infatuation, we might not overlook those tiny faults that really aren’t a big deal. Infatuation is a gift from God to humanity. But like all post-Fall gifts, we need to remember infatuation can be deadly. I knew infatuation could convince me to marry a woman who isn’t godly. I knew infatuation could convince Shelby to look over my most destructive qualities.
We needed people to speak wisdom into our relationship. To do that, we had to let other people know us. Trips to Shelby’s family’s house were a regular occurrence. Late night coffee at Perkins with our friends was a weekly date for us. We didn’t do these things because we wanted other people to run our life. We did these things because we saw the value of outside perspectives.
I recommend dating within the context of community. Here’s what I don’t mean:
You have to introduce first date’s to all your friends.
I do not mean you have to introduce all your friends to a woman before you go on a date with her. No, you’re unmarried. Go on lots of first and second dates with women if you want. Get to know women, and don’t makeout or elope with anyone. First dates aren’t marriage proposals, they’re first dates.
Recommendations for dating within the context of community:
Dating within the context of community might look differently for you than it did for me, but I hope you find people in your life who will give you brutally honest feedback about your dating relationships. Here are four recommendations as you start the process of dating within the context of community.
1: Choose these people ahead of time.
Give people permission to speak into your relationship before you even start dating. Shelby and I shouldn’t have started dating when we did.** I had just gotten out of a serious relationship, and I wasn’t emotionally healthy enough to date. I remember intentionally choosing not to ask my pastor, Bob, for advice, because I knew what he would say. I knew Bob wouldn’t think it was wise to move into another relationship so quickly. That was foolish of me. If I had come to Bob for advice, I would’ve saved myself (and Shelby) a lot of confusion. Our relationship would’ve been healthier.
Don’t pick and choose people based on the relationship. Don’t count people out because you know they don’t approve of the person you’re dating or the timing of the relationship. If you think they might be right, slow down and consider what they have to say. I knew Bob was right, but I wanted to date Shelby right away. So I intentionally avoided asking Bob his opinion. Don’t make this same mistake. Find wise people and ask for their opinion from the outset.
2: Do they really know me?
Try your best to choose people who know you well. I am the type of person who often grows close to people very quickly. I might be calling you “one of my closest friends” after a few months. But if I only choose people who barely know me, I’ll be tempted to respond to their brutally honest feedback with, “You don’t even know me.” Pick some people who know you very well and give them permission to speak into your relationship. When you’re infatuated, the people who know you very well often know you better than you know yourself.
3: Know your timeline.
One way to avoid a devastating break up is to know where you’re at in life. Are you wanting to get married within the next year, or does that seem like it’s too soon? Before Shelby and I got too serious, I asked her how long she would date someone before getting married. She told me she thought eighteen months was a good timeline. I agreed. We were married twenty months after the I told her “I kind of sort of dig you.” This conversation wasn’t a proposal, it was just a check in.
I’ve seen people break up because one wanted to get married soon and another wanted to wait a few years. If you can avoid that before getting attached, you should. Date people who are at similar spots in life as you.
4: Be willing to break up.
In order for this to work, you need to be willing to break up. If you’re dead set on this relationship ending in marriage, you won’t be open to the brutally honest feedback you might get from friends and family. If you’re only willing to hear positive feedback, you’re not really open to feedback. You’re only open to affirmation.
If you’re dating, you aren’t really committed to your girlfriend. Don’t pretend to be committed if you aren’t actually committed. Be willing to break up. People ask my uncle when he knew my aunt was “the one.” He always responds, “When I said ‘I do.”
Dating isn’t a mini-marriage. Breaking up isn’t like getting a divorce. Be willing to break up, if that’s what wisdom is telling you. And once you break up, do the best you can to live at peace with your sister in Christ.
What’s at stake?
A friend of mine married a wonderful, nominal Christian who was in a spiritual high during their early stages of dating. She’s beautiful, intelligent, and she has absolutely zero desire for the wartime mentality of following Christ. If my friend and his wife have children, my friend’s children will be discipled by a nominal Christian. Think about that.
What’s at stake? Your household’s gospel witness is at stake. What’s at stake is your ability to follow Christ in so many areas: how you use your money, how involved you are in your church, how you witness to your neighbors, how you raise your children. Read and remember the stories of men whose marriages paralyzed them from a life of service towards God. Choosing a wife is no small thing and it has so many greater implications than your romantic fulfillment. Worry less about electricity shooting up your arm and more about her godliness. Here are some good questions to talk through with a friend: 1) Does she love the Lord? 2) Is she involved in making disciples? 3) Is she generous with her money and the rest of her resources? 4) Do we want to live a similar lifestyle? 5) Will she be a good mother?
Let’s pray: Heavenly Father, a beautiful marriage is a wonderful reflection of Christ and the Church. Keep us from the evil one, who would want to rob the world of this gift.
We pray for all the husbands and wives in Hope Community Church, keep them loving and faithful. Help them say “no” to idealizing the so-called American Dream so they can say yes to following You, wherever You lead.
We pray for all those who have chosen a life of celibacy. Thank you for their dedication to You. We ask that You bless them with the love of Your people. Help Hope Community Church be a blessing to them and to never overlook them.
Finally, we pray for all those looking for a husband and all those looking for a wife. Keep them from the evil one, who wants to tempt them with making an idol of marriage. Keep them from the evil one, who wants to rob them of their joy in exchange for cheap grace and nominal Christianity. Help them be humble, and help them listen to wisdom.
*At the time, our church only had about six people. We were in the pre-planting stages which basically meant we were a small group doing church together.
** Earlier I said, “Go on lots of first and second dates if you want.” With that being said, if your community doesn’t think that’s wise, consider their advice.