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Are Churches Undermining the Abstinence Message?

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.

The abstinence message is coming through loud and clear to Christian youth, but another message promoted in many Christian churches is undermining it.

Mixed messages bombard all young people in America, putting them in difficult and conflicting situations, often leading to tears and heartache. But no conflict is more insidious than the conflict faced by Christian youth. On the one hand, they are taught abstinence until marriage, and in the next sentence some are told they should wait until age 32 before getting married. At least that is the advice our 14-year-old daughter was given recently.

Young adults are taught they must meet certain "requirements" before marrying. They are told they should experience travel, finish higher education, have some fun, own a car and maybe even a house before marriage. And don't forget the big, extravagant wedding; they must save for it, all before marriage. No wonder the urge for premarital sex often wins out.

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A comment in a recent blog posting at datingish.com captured the idea this way, "In your early-mid twenties you are dramatically changing as a person. If you can go through all of that and you and your partner still love each other for who you are then I think it's okay to get married.I'm a firm believer that waiting until you're older to get married is the best option if you are looking for a successful marriage."

We feel fortunate we didn't face such pressure. In our early twenties we had a modest wedding at a local church followed by a reception with cake, nuts, mints and punch. After a three-day honeymoon we started working. Our first child came two year later.

The trend to marry older has increased since 1970 by five years when the median age for first marriage for women was 21 and 23 for men, to 26 for women and 28 for men. "Christians have made much ado about sex but are becoming slow and lax about marriage," which is more significant, says Mark Regnerus, associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of "Forbidden Fruit: Sex and Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers." According to Regnerus, "We are marrying later, if at all, and having fewer children."

Regnerus points out several reasons for this. "In societies like ours that exhibit lengthy economic prosperity, men and women alike begin to lose motivation to marry and have children, and thus avoid one or both," he explains. However, "the institution of marriage remains a foundational good for individuals and communities. It is by far the optimal context for child-rearing." Economically speaking, he says, married people are wealthier, share many expenses like housing, food, and electricity and are less likely to become dependent on the government and indigent.

We aren't advocating teenagers marry but there are certain advantages to early marriage. Studies showing a correlation between early marriage and divorce occur mostly amongst those under age 20. For one thing, medical research reveals that the safest and prime childbearing years for both baby and mother is when the mother is in her twenties. After this, problems progressively increase for both as the mother reaches her late thirties and forties, along with expensive fertility procedures. Again, studies show that having a first child before age 30 decreases a woman's odds of breast cancer. Plus, a couple has much more energy in their twenties to raise babies and small children than when they later reach their forties and fifties.

Part of the problem is the delay of adulthood permeating our society. Getting married encourages responsibility and maturity. "Unfortunately, a key developmental institution for men -- marriage -- is the very thing being postponed, thus perpetuating their adolescence," says Regnerus.

Many friends and family are unwittingly giving bad advice to young people when encouraging them to postpone marriage. It simply makes it much more difficult for young people hoping to abstain from sex in their prime years of sexual interest and fertility if they now have the added pressure to marry in their late twenties and beyond. With fewer than half of all American households comprised of married couples, an added burden is placed on society and shifted off to mushrooming government programs.

If young adults in their early twenties find their "special" someone, the natural and logical step is marriage.

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