Despite our ever-greater mobility and even more efficient connectivity, sociologists continue to note that Americans struggle to form lasting, fulfilling relationships of all kinds, but especially marriages. We face a very real epidemic of loneliness, one that is, not coincidentally, accompanied by a steady decline in marriage.
According to Pew Research, marriage rates have fallen to historic lows over the last 30 years, especially among younger people. At the same time, the typical age at first marriage has climbed to a historic high.
Increasingly, Americans who are looking for love can’t find it, at least not in the traditional ways. And so they are turning online. A new study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University reports that online dating has now replaced the church, family members, and mutual friends as the primary way American couples meet.
Now, in no way do I wish to knock online dating, per se. Many happily married Christian couples began their stories together via an online dating service. I’d suggest online dating is filling a void left as traditional social institutions fail. At the same time, plummeting marriage rates and spiking loneliness rates indicate that even our best technologies will never fill the hole left as families, churches, and communities become less central to our life together.
The loss or decline of core social institutions in recent decades is well-documented. Just in my lifetime, extended family, youth clubs, civic organizations, and the church have all become less important to more people than ever before. This seismic social shift is a problem for many reasons, not least of which because these were places and means by which couples used to meet and connect. It’s simply impossible to replace such timeless, local, and embodied ties with apps!
In fact, it’s not exaggerating that this is even a question of how the next generation will come into being—and what will play the central relational roles in their lives. After all, marriage is not a stand-alone institution. It’s part of a social fabric that’s tearing apart. As fewer couples get together and form strong marriages, the faster the tear grows, and the further apart people drift.
Writing at Quillette recently, Mary Eberstadt describes how the de-centering of marriage and family has resulted in and reinforced the explosion of sexual and gender identities. Increasingly, young people are forced to answer the basic human question “who am I?” without a mother and a father, without siblings, an extended family, a community, or a church body to help. So many are left only with a letter in an acronym or an adopted sense of historical grievance to center their identities.
No wonder, as Eberstadt describes in her new book “Primal Screams,” so many identities today are meager and fragile, and the movements built around them more and more unhinged.
Yet, this culture of identity and family crisis is also a tremendous opportunity for the church, one not without historical precedent. As Rodney Stark observes, one of the reasons early Christianity grew so rapidly in the second century was that Roman young men turned to the church to find eligible young women. The church was full of eligible young women because early Christians had faithfully rescued Roman girls from infanticide and raised them in their communities.
Years ago, I heard Maggie Gallagher suggest that it might be time for churches to get back to this kind of work. While we rescue babies from abortion in word and deed, perhaps we should also get serious about introducing singles to each other. Perhaps married Christian couples should, you know, “meddle” a bit more and host some matchmaking dinners?
While there’s a universally repeated “ring by spring” joke across every Christian college campus, perhaps marriage opportunism is a good reason to encourage your son or daughter to attend one. Where else, other than working summer staff at a Christian camp, will young believers be surrounded by so many like-minded peers of the opposite sex? Having spent years watching this process in action, I promise it works.
The Body of Christ has a unique potential role to play in reversing the decline of marriage and the epidemic of loneliness. If we do, those looking for love may one day open the doors of a church instead of an app.