His research on the sexuality, family dynamics, and religious behaviors of youth and young adults in America led Mark Regnerus to become an advocate for early marriage. Associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin and author of Forbidden Fruit: Sex and Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford, 2007), Regnerus offered an "emotional, biological, and economic case for marrying young" in the Washington Post in April 2009. Later that year he added biblical and theological considerations in a cover story for Christianity Today. Leadership's Brandon O'Brien asked Regnerus what his research might mean for youth and young adult ministries in local churches.
Why do you advocate for young marriage?
Marrying early is certainly not something everyone ought to do. But the 20s seem meant for marrying and having children. It's how God designed us, both in terms of normal sexual development and fertility.
What's wrong with waiting to marry until 30 or later?
We say we like families. We try to honor marriage. But we're witnessing a nationwide slowdown in the formation of families that signals a declining confidence and interest in marriage among young people, especially men. This is true both outside and inside the church.
Why do churches not encourage younger marriages?
Plenty of Christian parents attribute their own failed marriages to the young age at which they married. As a result, they counsel their children to marry later. Many parents think their early 20-something children aren't mature enough for marriage. Then there's education: more of it seems required today than ever before, and having a full-time job has been a traditional indicator of marital readiness. Finally, some of the delay is probably a byproduct of a more intensive parenting style: we pour more of our time and resources into fewer children, wanting to help them craft a life of significance and accomplishment. But love and marriage involves another person—which is risky by definition. And doting parents want to reduce risk to their children. So we counsel them to wait. It feels shrewd and wise. It may not be.
Half the job description of a youth pastor seems to be talking students out of having sex before marriage. Should youth ministers be talking more about marriage than sex?
I hear youth pastors talking a lot about sex but not about the vocation of marriage or singleness, in part because marriage feels too "grown up." We ought to be encouraging young Christians to begin to discern their calling and be mindful about it. Young Christians shouldn't be embarrassed about either pursuing marriage or being content with singleness.
What should we be telling youth about marriage?
We tend to communicate to young Christians that marriage should wait until their careers are up and running, until they are more mature. Yet we continue to link legitimate sexual expression exclusively to marriage. That's a tall order, especially in an era when pregnancy can be avoided or ended, most STIs either skirted, cured, or managed, and the reputational damage from sexual choices is often minimal. Our collective efforts to deter premarital sex are not that successful: 41 percent of churchgoing, conservative Protestant men's relationships become sexual within one month, barely lower than the national average of 48 percent. We expend so much energy to generate so little difference. If church leaders began focusing on marriage, then sex could be a plausible reality for many early 20-somethings. Our discourse could turn from sex-negative to sex-positive!