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Christian boy meets Christian girl

Christians are not like the world when it comes to dating and courtship.

Christian boy meets Christian girl

(Lee Love/Genesis)

'How do you meet guys?'

I ask a class of students in a figure drawing class at Parsons The New School for Design near Manhattan's Union Square. "In your classes?" The students, would-be artists and fashion designers who come from all over the world, laugh. In a school where nearly 80 percent of the students are female and many men are gay, their prospects are few. So they meet random men in Union Square or at Max Brenner's chocolate emporium. They start talking. They exchange phone numbers, a crucial step in what comes next, "digital flirting." They "text and text for weeks," liberated by the sense of remove that texting allows: "You're talking, but not really."

Many Christian students also prefer texting to face-to-face talking. But in 40 hours of comparing the boy-meets-girl ideas of secular students at Parsons and serious Christian ones in Alabama, Texas, New York City, and Virginia, I found a huge difference between the two groups. That difference is both comforting and confusing.

The classroom at Parsons has large windows along one wall to let in natural light. Easels around the room's perimeter allow the students various perspectives on the model who poses on a raised platform in the center. During a break from drawing, the students gather around the platform to answer questions about dating and marriage. The students come from all over-California, Costa Rica, Colombia, South Africa, Turkey, Russia, Bhutan, New York.

They embody the stereotype of a younger generation that sees nothing wrong with "hooking up" or cohabiting before marriage. Skeptical about the possibility of lifelong love, they readily list downsides to marriage. A few admit that they would like to marry-for friendship, to ward off loneliness, and for support-but even they see marriage as constricting, depriving them of freedom and the ability to focus on their careers.

Moving to New York expanded their opportunities: two Latina students, one from Colombia and the other from Costa Rica, both said they'd be married if they had stayed home. A 19-year-old from South Africa said, "I don't believe in marriage at all. . . . If your family is attached to the ritual and ceremony you'll want to do it," but otherwise "we don't think it's necessary." Her family agrees. Her dad has lived with his girlfriend for 16 years.

In general these students don't associate marriage with either childbearing or sex. It is one avenue among many to personal happiness, period. They see no right destination and no right way to get there. Anything that's mutually acceptable goes.

The serious Christian students-with homeschool, Christian school, or public school backgrounds-are different. They have a high view of marriage. Many of them, even high-schoolers in Fort Payne, Ala., talk about marriage theologically. They don't believe in divorce or premarital sex. But that's about all they agree on, because the path to marriage seems fraught with difficulty. High-school boys say, "Guys don't even know how to pursue in a manly or godly way"-and graduate students don't feel any more knowledgeable.

Some Christian students tell broken-hearted stories that seem timeless. Benjamin Barber, a junior at Patrick Henry College (PHC), said he was naïve when he arrived at the school. He grew up with only brothers and didn't have much experience with girls: "I thought boys and girls could be friends." But it didn't take long for him to develop an attachment to a girl that turned out badly: "I got hurt. You need to be careful and conscious or that will happen."

After a while he got up the courage to ask a second girl out. Things went OK, yet he concluded, "We both love Jesus but we want different things." Now he is skittish and doesn't know how "he'll jump back in." He's been wondering about that for the past year and a half: "I don't make decisions I know will hurt."

Other Christian students tell fearful stories shaped by the past several decades of rampant divorce. The parents of Joshua Encinias, a student at The Kings College (TKC), divorced when he was 13: "It made me clam up . . . to believe that nothing matters. I was so strong-willed and angry." After the divorce, Encinias failed 9th and 10th grades. He weighed 400 pounds by the time he was 19.

God worked, and Encinias changed his ways and lost 200 pounds. At community college he won accolades and earned the grades that won him college admission. As he was deciding to move to New York, his parents got back together, remarrying a year ago. Now he says he's "biding his time," worried that he might be prone to making wrong choices because his parents did.

Encinias is looking for male role models and admits to watching a favorite professor "as a hawk." It's not that he's trying to map out a similar path, but he wants to see why this married Christian man with stellar credentials "has joy no matter what." Encinias doesn't want his fear to limit him: He is half-heartedly moving toward relationships and knows his decision is somehow "bound up with my parents."

Whether the reasons are old or new, many young men seem frozen, unsure of the right way to proceed. Many voices are trying to point the way, but one writer in particular has special influence: Josh Harris and his book I Kissed Dating Goodbye (2003) came up in nearly every interview I had. Even Christians who don't like the book feel forced to color within the lines Harris drew-"courtship" is best-because of his influence on so many of the other students in their social milieu. The book helped many Christians avoid the traps of secular practices like those at Parsons. But another result, according to many women, is both paralysis and pressure.

TKC student Catherine Ratcliffe says I Kissed Dating Goodbye shows well that "sexual purity is important," but it also led many of her classmates to "think we should never hang out unless we want to marry. In the 1990s, casual dating was the culprit. [Now] Christian couples will rush into relationships, saying, 'we intend to marry,' because they think they are not allowed to date unless they intend to marry."

Pressure, pressure, pressure. Ratcliffe says, "If girls do get asked out they think, 'We have to make this work. I might not get asked out for another 10 years.'" The "if" is big: Christian student after student in four states generalized to me: "Women don't get asked out."

Christian students at the University of Texas at Austin find a friendly haven at Hill House, an old home just off campus with books, comfortable chairs, and Bible studies. After one study, graduate student Stephanie Nestor told me that in the past year six of her friends have gotten engaged. In each case the guys had never dated before: "Guys want to be sure before they date that this is the one. In Christian circles, girls aren't getting asked out."

Nestor described a social scene focused entirely on group activities, where guys observe the women over time and then make a choice. That leaves most of the girls waiting. A conservative female seminary student concurred, "I am extremely frustrated by the dating process. I'm traditional. I believe in the man asking the woman out. Women don't get asked out."

Ellyn Arevalo, an assistant to UT professor Mark Regnerus (see sidebar), voiced her frustration: "You don't have to know you want to marry me to ask me out. . . . They don't ask me out. They don't ask anyone out. It is alternately frustrating and extremely painful. Your hands are tied."

Their hands are tied because they want the guys to initiate: "We want them to be initiators. But they are content with the way things are. . . . We want to be wanted. We want to know we're desirable. Christian boys are scared of girls who make advances."

The tension between dating and courtship takes place in an environment where "no one is rushing to make marriage a priority." In fact, many single Christians say their churches don't emphasize marriage in order not to offend singles-but it feels, Arevalo says, as though the church is saying, "Darn it, girl, why aren't you happy with this status?"

Daniel Evans, a male engineering graduate student, wandered in and asked if he could join the conversation. The women pounced: "Are most Christian guys wanting to have their whole career figured out before they start relationships? Are guys turned off by independent girls?"

Evans put up a stout defense. He is annoyed at the pressure he feels. He's afraid that if he met and married a girl in the next few years, she'd expect him to work as an engineer. He wants to do that for a few years, but long-term he wants to be a teacher and coach. He thinks a wife would make it hard to switch to a less remunerative career.

Under pressure from the female grad students he went further: He's "no fan of casual dating." He wants to "make sure as best I could" that he only asks out a girl if it's likely to result in marriage. He wants to be "fairly confident" and uses terms like selective to describe his process: "If and when I do get married, I want to enter into it with as few relationships as possible."

There's the dilemma. Some guys will only ask a girl out if there's a high degree of probability it will end in marriage. But some young women hate that pressure: "Saying yes to a date is not saying yes to a proposal." College senior Susannah Foote felt that pressure. She is coming off a failed relationship: "It would have ended earlier without all the pressure. . . . You can't hang out. You go from zero to 100, or people will talk."

While guys wait to find Miss Right, some girls "guard their hearts." College freshman Alexandria Nogy didn't date in high school because she didn't see the logic of it. Dating for recreation: No. Investing time with marriage as the end goal: Yes, "otherwise it doesn't lead to anything productive." Maintaining "emotional purity" isn't easy, and sometimes girls get into heart relationships despite their best efforts to monitor their thoughts.

PHC student Hannah Farver invested: Now she is "coming off a failed relationship" and a realization that some of what she formerly preached about courtship doesn't work. Since she didn't believe in "casual dating," she had to be either emotionally separate from the guy, or engaged to him: "If you are dedicated to emotional purity, you are afraid. You either risk nothing or you risk everything." We talked about which Jane Austen book captures what she's trying to say: She suggested half Sense and Sensibility (because of Eleanor's emotional reserve), and half Persuasion (the waiting and waiting), but "without any chance of a happy Austenish ending."

Those who advocate courtship take pains to say that some people have carried it too far and made it legalistic. Brett Harris, one of Josh Harris' younger brothers, is 22 and a PHC junior. He's thoughtful as he critiques contemporary American culture's corrosive effect on relationships.

First, he defends guys who don't initiate. They have real fear of rejection, he says: "They give their heart, and girls spit on it and throw it away." He sees a bigger problem with guys afraid to commit because they are overwhelmed by all the choices. There will always be someone more beautiful, more godly, more intelligent: "We can get caught up in the comparison game." With the choice of a date tantamount to a choice of a mate, Harris says there might always be a better spouse "out there," so people are afraid to settle: "Girls may say they are waiting for a guy, but they are waiting for a particular guy to take initiative."

To get that particular guy to take notice, Nestor and Arevalo at the University of Texas say that girls often resort to "tricky girl things," meaning they find out if a guy is going to be at a particular activity, and then make sure they are there. They find out what time he's arriving, and happen to arrive at the same time: "They end up a default stalker and feeling pathetic."

Or as Catherine Ratcliffe explained, "We feel we are intelligent women with deep thoughts . . . mature and competent in how we handle our relationship with God, and our academics, but in relationships, it's like the Disney Channel." She observes the pressure to have "intentional romance" and concludes, "Now we just need romance."

How do some couples navigate dating/courtship obstacles and make it down the aisle? What can churches do to help them persevere? That's the subject of part two, in the next issue.

Read Marriage and Relationships, Part 2.

Susan Olasky

Susan Olasky

Susan is WORLD’s story coach and has authored eight historical novels for children. Susan and her husband Marvin live in Austin, Texas. Follow Susan on Twitter @susanolasky.