Road to Nowhere: Loss of the Christian Dating Script

I was joking with a friend who recently starting dating about how we should help arranged marriage make a comeback. She felt some anxiety around her dating journey and wondered how she could tell if her relationship was progressing "correctly". Her comment reflected a common anxiety I hear about Christian dating.

One might compare it to making travel plans in a third world country. You're trying to decide how to leave the airport while all kinds of people are trying to get your attention - rickshaw drivers, travel agents, bus people, beggars, taxi drivers. And you have questions in your head like: Am I doing this right? Where should I be going? How do I know if I'm getting there? And most significantly, how do I safely disembark from the vehicle if the need arises?

It is certainly easier to outsource this decision to interested and more experienced parties. And the travel analogy breaks down because marriage has far greater implications than tourism. Spouse selection is one of life's biggest decisions. Marriage is a journey requiring forethought, preparation, and planning. And to further complicate things, marriage is not just a destination but also a starting point. 

Who you marry and your life together has far greater influence on life trajectory than your career choice, which university you attend, or where you live. Physically, marriage often determines whether you have children and the quality of your marriage will definitively impact the kind of upbringing your children will experience. Emotionally, our culture views marriage as the pinnacle of romantic love and personal fulfillment. Spiritually, marriage is, as Tim Keller puts it, "gospel re-enactment" because matrimony reflects the union of Christ and the church. 

That's a lot of expectations to place on marriage. So if there's any area where the church would benefit by offering a script, it would be in the area of spouse selection.

Unfortunately we don't have one.

The most compelling attempt came almost twenty years when Josh Harris introduced modern courtship through his seminal I Kissed Dating Goodbye. I would characterize it as "dating with a purpose". In his book, he argued conventional dating promoted intimacy and emotions over commitment and created an artificial environment to evaluate another person's character.

I remember listening to his cassette tape series (before he wrote the book) and agreeing with him. And I still do. After all, his counsel worked out well for me. I got to know Judy during college through our campus fellowship. We were both upperclassmen living in the same dorm and led dorm bible studies. We had many mutual friends and multiple contexts in which to get to know and observe each other. Before we started dating, I met her dad so it was only mildly awkward to ask her father for his blessing to start a romantic relationship. We had strict physical boundaries. We talked seriously about marriage and wed a year after I graduated from college.

Fast forward a couple years and I began working with youth and college students in the church. I took a group of them to the park and introduced them to modern courtship and its principles.

They stared at me like I was from another planet.

Some of the college students tried the approach. It received mixed results. Harris' teaching generated anxiety and pressure around casual dating. If dating was supposed to lead to marriage and men were supposed to initiate dating, it raised expectation levels to impossible heights. Men not only had to overcome the fear of rejection but also be emotionally, intellectually, and financially prepared to pursue marriage from the get-go. Women had to assess a man's mate potential with little to no information. In addition, involving parents who were not Christians or who didn't have good relationships with their children made that aspect of courtship very challenging. Dating became a hyper-spiritualized activity meant to resemble marriage in all of its seriousness but have none of its benefits.

It's no wonder the book has been so highly criticized - it was treated as a script but was never intended to be one. Critics viewed his principles as some kind of formula for romantic success. They followed them like a recipe for chocolate chip cookies. You take the ingredients, mix them together, throw it in the oven, and the end result is something tasty. But relationships don't work that way. They are messy, unpredictable, and never complete in the way cookies in the oven get golden-brown. The nature of his principles also made them difficult to apply in varied environments. And yet I have yet to hear anyone invalidate the wisdom behind the principles. Many Christians have no purpose for romance outside of self-gratification. There is such thing as emotional promiscuity. Most types of dating are self-centered. The things Harris decried are real.

In the end, Harris' purpose-driven dating book sparked important conversations about how Christians get to marriage. There is no Christian mating formula. There has never been nor can there ever be a truly Christian dating script for two reasons. First, dating isn't in the Bible. It is an embedded part of our culture and due to the confluence of technology, feminism, and birth control, dating is quickly becoming a cultural relic. Second of all, dating is inherently un-script-able. Following a script (i.e. arranged marriage) means removing an individual's decision-making and preferences. Dating is the result of emphasis on individual autonomy and personal desire. We date because we want the ability to choose. Dating is, by nature, improvisational. Each person makes choices that alter the outcome. It is inherently unscripted.

A script tells you where you're going, how to know if you're getting there, and guidance for the journey.  Without a Christian dating script, there is no destination, sense of movement, and outside counsel. I call these missing elements: ethical guidelines (where we're going), progress markers (how do we know we're getting there), and community (our guides).

Loss of ethical guidelines: where are we going?

I'm not wringing my hands over the downward moral spiral of today's culture. Every generation has faced its share of ethical challenges and we are no exception.

The loss of ethical guidelines is not in a reference to sexual immorality or even the struggle to define what is appropriate conduct in a dating relationship. Those concerns are factors, especially the latter but I'm talking about relationship inertia and the absence of a goal in dating. The problem is this: Christian dating does not have a clear, agreed-upon destination in mind.

Our society provides a broad moral goal for child-rearing - helping one's son or daughter become happy and independent - but there's no such common vision in dating/mating. In mainstream culture, couples date out of self-gratification ("it was natural and felt right") but Christian dating often lacks even this specific of an objective.

And if the goal of dating is indeed marriage, as noted above, it's a massive expectation that generates a lot of stress and anxiety. It feels too lofty and inaccessible for most Christians, especially college students and young working professionals, who have been trained to put career and financial stability ahead of marriage and child-bearing.  In order to defuse impending marital doom, Christians will pursue romantic relationships while eschewing the label of "dating" in order to avoid marriage pressure.

Loss of progress markers: how do we know if we're getting there?

For the parent-child bond, we track all kinds of milestones  - when an infant starts crawling, walking, the first day of kindergarten, lost teeth, driver's license, etc. But we don't have anything like that for dating.

Physical intimacy is hardly a barometer of relationship health and/or progress towards marriage. Our casual sex culture aided by technology has ensured that. In Western society, you can sleep with someone without knowing their name. Whereas in the Ancient Near East, it would be normal to hold hands for the first time on one's wedding night. Actually I have no idea what normal physical intimacy looked like for that time period. Maybe they never held hands.

The same goes for emotional intimacy. Telling someone your deepest, darkest secrets might qualify your significant other as a potential life partner but people do that all the time via blogs and social media so that's not worth much either.

Some view living together as a milestone towards marriage but research indicates cohabitation positively correlates with long-term marital stability only when marriage was already the intent BEFORE the couple moved in together. As with travel, one's dating destination and purpose  matter. Otherwise, it's sliding into, not deciding on, marriage.

One advantage of the courtship model was involvement of the couples' families provided a means of community support for the relationship. In the past, meeting a significant other's parents was a marker of how serious a dating relationship had advanced. Indeed, a man's ability to win over his future in-laws was a strong indicator of progress towards marriage. Parental and peer support is important. A village not only raises a child, it raises a family. That's the last point.

Loss of community: who will guide us on the journey?

Regarding community for parents, we have a tons of mom support groups and the public education system provides all kinds of peer support for parents. On the other hand, there are no dating support groups. Our society provides all kinds of resources for the parent-child relationship but none for courtship/mating.

The local church informally performs this vital social function - that of helping men and women meet, date, and marry. The church is the sina qua non for Christian dating principles. One cannot have ethical guidelines and progress markers apart from Christian community. If you're not part of the body of Christ, you have no tangible example of what Christian relationship formation looks like. The church is a community where one can witness couples who are married, couples who are dating and/or on their way to marriage, and all other types of relationships - healthy and otherwise.

This is especially helpful for Asian Americans. We naturally want community support and want to honor our parents. And one's parents are also part of this community, even if they're not Christians. They have been ordained by God as a spiritual authority in one's life. Seeking their involvement in mating is crucial. But as Christians leave the nest to go to school and find work, relationships with mom and dad fade into the background. Peer relationships become more important. But that's not the greatest change.

Technology has replaced community's most important function. Less than a century ago, one's ability to meet new people was limited by geography, language, social class, and economics. Most importantly, who you met was a direct function of the community you lived in - you dated your own people, if you will. With dating apps, every person on the planet with a laptop or smartphone can be "your people". Except "your people" may not share the same ethical guidelines, progress markers, and community as you do. So we have this immense dating marketplace with a dizzying array of options but everyone in it has different destinations, different ways of assessing how they're getting there, and different guides for the journey. And through all of that, we somehow want to end up on the right train with the right person going to the right place. In the past, one's community ("your people") served as a filter for shared ethical guidelines and progress markers. Now, there is no filter and we are way beyond broadband. 

For Christians, it's not at all like being an American visiting Cuba. It's more like being a tropical forest native from Papua New Guinea and visiting Tokyo. We're visitors from an undeveloped country trying to navigate the Japanese high speed rail system. We can be anywhere we want faster than ever before but we're uncertain it's any place we want to go.

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