The privilege of driving a car brings about many freedoms and even pleasant experiences (sunny days, beautiful scenery, etc.), but it is also fraught with many dangers and serious responsibilities. You wouldn’t just sit down for a few hours with a first-time driver to read a driving manual, talk dreamily about how driving is hard work at times but also wonderful, toss them the keys with a “Bon voyage”, and never check up on their progress again.
You wouldn’t toss a Bible at a new convert and leave him to his spiritual growth in isolation.
But what many churches do with premarital counseling is hardly different. The approach of having a couple of instructional meetings followed by a “Bon voyage” not only undermines this new family unit, it does damage to the local church.
Regardless of the new couple’s background and spiritual maturity, joining into a new covenantal union with each other is a profound change. For the new couple to grow up together in “all aspects” (Ephesians 4:14-16) of Christ-likeness, including this new marriage to each other, they need their local church family to speak “the truth in love” to them on a regular basis. But as odd as it may sound, they have no hope of receiving this kind of ministry by simply joining the church and attending every choir practice and every Sunday service. Corporate worship and service is vital to the church, but it is not enough. Biblical, corporate worship will indeed instruct this brand new husband on how to love his wife like Christ loves the church, but it will fall short of helping him examine the details and personal struggles in his own heart and rigorously apply it to the specific combination of challenges within his marriage.
No one grows into Christ-like maturity in isolation (1 Corinthians 12:7-26). The new husband needs wiser, spiritually mature men in his life. Likewise, the new wife needs older, godly women to train her in how to love her husband (Titus 2:1-8). This is God’s good and wise design for the church.
How about the health of their church? This new couple is part of “every joint”. If they are stunted in their growth, continually ensnared in their own struggles, then they are unable to help bear up the burdens of the church, doing their part to “cause the growth of the body” (cf. Galatians 6:1-5). Their perpetual state of isolated struggles will slow if not damage the growth of their church.
This is a much wider issue than two people.
So we want our time of premarital counseling to lay that kind of foundation. How? Here are three components that must be present:
- Teach biblical material about marriage.
Without biblical instruction from God’s Word, we do not have a prayer of guiding them in the right direction.
- Evaluate the couple for marriage.
As a companion to their reading, assign homework that helps evaluate their understanding of the material as well as areas where they might struggle to apply it consistently in their future marriage.
- Develop a relationship of trust and friendship between this new couple and a godly couple in the church.
This last one is key. We all need these types of relationships within our church family, and many churches even organize small groups and other activities to promote deepening, edifying relationships within the body. The wonderful thing about premarital counseling is that this process provides fertile ground (and a captive audience!) for such a long-term relationship with the new couple.
This can admittedly be a challenge, especially if we rush through our teaching material like it’s a business meeting we can’t wait to finish. So one of the first things we do is to slow down the whole process. At Grace Community Church, our material is taught in 5 lessons, and we only do one lesson a month (ideally). That allows us to spend meaningful time with each other over a long enough period to demonstrate and build transparency, love, and trust.
That kind of relationship lasts, and it’s one of the things my wife and I love doing together in ministry. We still fellowship regularly with many of the (much) younger couples we have had the privilege to counsel from even 10-15 years ago. Our greatest times of encouragement, though, are when a couple encounters a difficult issue or conflict and does not hesitate to come to us rather than letting the problem grow until it seriously threatens their marriage.
There’s really nothing ground breaking about these three goals because it reflects what should be going on regularly in our churches in order to make disciples as Christ commissioned us. To me, the beautiful thing about discipling an engaged couple is that they are usually very teachable during that time as well as after the wedding ceremony when they realize that applying these truths just might be tougher than they anticipated. Premarital counseling presents a precious opportunity to invest time and love into something that can grow into a life-long relationship – take full advantage of that for their benefit, you and your church’s benefit, and most importantly for the glory of God.
Tim Keeter is a full time engineer and ACBC counselor. He is also a pastor at Grace Community Church in Huntsville, AL. He speaks often at our Counseling and Discipleship Training events on the topic of marriage and family. You can purchase to several of his lectures in our online store.