I have often reflected on how and why dating has become so difficult in the 20 years since it was of any real concern to me. At least, when speaking to today’s young adults and observing their lives, it sure seems there has been a significant shift. Something has changed between then and now so that what once seemed relatively simple has become strangely complicated. I know there are many reasons for this, but I’ve been pondering the possibility that the difficulties arise from two extremes, one lauded in the church and one lauded in the world. I wonder if today’s Christian young people are having trouble finding the space between courting and hooking up.
In the wider culture, hookups have become the norm. A couple of generations ago, it was the societal consensus that the right and appropriate context for sex was marriage. The sexual revolution soon “liberated” sex from marriage, but even then it was still considered an act associated with some kind of relational commitment. However, the revolution has since advanced so far that sex is now a kind of opening act. It’s now considered perfectly normal for a relationship to progress from awkward introductions to tearing off clothes in mere minutes. The discussion today is not about whether it’s okay to have sex before the wedding night, but if it’s okay to not have sex on a first date. Sex has gone from a rite of consummation to an act of initiation. It is a pre-love, pre-commitment ritual that people insist has no real significance.
Today’s teens and young adults have grown up in this kind of a world. The hookup culture is the air they’ve breathed through life, example, and a million television shows. Now imagine a young man and woman who are vaguely interested in one another. A couple of generations ago they could admit this mutual attraction and perhaps go out together for a no-commitment, no-pressure date. The invitation to dinner and a movie was essentially the invitation to get to know one another. But in a hookup culture, any date carries the possibility, perhaps even the likelihood, of sex. “Would you like to go out for dinner?” is understood as, “Would you like to have sex with me?” This is a tremendous weight to lay on the earliest stages of a relationship.
That’s what’s going on in the wider culture. Meanwhile, in the conservative Christian subculture, courting has become the norm, or at least held up as an ideal. For years we were told that dating was unsafe and would lead inevitably to fornication, and further, we were told that dating was unbiblical, that it dishonored God and his vision for Christian families. Young men were instructed that they must approach a young woman’s father to seek his permission before they could do something as minor and innocent as asking his daughter out for coffee. They were told that any God-honoring relationship must see marriage as the goal.
Today’s Christian teens and young adults have grown up in this kind of Christian subculture. The courtship model was lauded and held up as the God-ordained means of bringing couples together. Now imagine a young man and woman who are vaguely interested in one another. To know whether that vague interest can grow into romantic attraction, they need to get to know one another. But they cannot do that without securing the permission of her father, and to secure that permission, the young man needs to express his interest in her as a potential wife. Any desire to spend any time together is understood as interest in marriage. “I’d like to get to know you” carries the connotation of “I want to spend the rest of my life with you.” This, too, is a tremendous weight to lay on the earliest stages of a relationship.
On the one side, the world means to convince young people that relationships begin with sex in the immediate background while the church means to convince them that relationships begin with marriage in the immediate background. The world insists dating has no real meaning while the church insists dating has the ultimate meaning. Courtship and hooking up are two very different approaches for a relationship, but they share a common consequence: They put too much weight on too weak a relationship.
What’s the solution? I suppose it’s finding ways in which the early days of a potential relationship can carry a message no more complicated than, “I’d like to get to know you.” Obviously we want dating to be pure and purposeful, to maintain the highest standards of sexual purity and not to be merely casual, with no hope for a shared future. The challenge is to give young adults the freedom to get to know one another without attaching the weight of sex or the weight of a lifelong commitment. That may involve going back to an older model, but, more realistically, it’s probably working toward a newer model that accounts for all the ways society has been transformed over the past couple of decades.
(I don’t mean that courtship can never work or that there’s anything necessarily wrong with it. Rather, the notion of courtship that grew up in the past couple of decades was taken from a different time and place and then inserted into a culture that, in many cases, wasn’t ready for it. It may have been appropriate for some families or settings, but certainly not for all. Additionally, it was taught with the force of biblical imperative where the Bible only ever describes, never prescribes it.)