Our friend (and one of the fabulous Baylor history Ph.D. students) Paul Putz has a fascinating piece over at the Religion and Politics blog on the deep history of Christian matchmaking in America. After discussing the intriguing “matrimonial bureau” of Omaha pastor Charles Savidge in the early 20th century, Putz reflects on the contemporary relevance and challenges of online dating sites such as ChristianMingle. Putz says that
Given the reality of our increasingly online, increasingly digital world, Christian niche dating sites serve as an easily identifiable online companion to more traditional offline means used by evangelicals to find a spouse. They allow evangelicals to adopt the broader cultural turn towards individualism in the selection of romantic partners while still remaining true to conservative evangelical insistence on intrafaith marriage. “We want Christians to marry Christians,” Moorcroft said. “We don’t want Christians to marry nominal Christians or nonbelievers at all.” And once their customers are married, Christian dating sites claim to provide help on another account: they supposedly facilitate more compatible matches, which, according to ChristianCafe.com’s Fred Moesker, will help “to decrease divorce rates.” Moesker’s claim may seem dubious, but it does have at least the modest support of initial research from John T. Cacioppo and others for the National Academy of the Sciences. They conducted a recent study showing that marriages that began online were slightly less likely to end in divorce and were “associated with slightly higher marital satisfaction” than marriages that began offline.
Of course, not all evangelicals view Christian online dating in a positive light. In 2011, Christianity Today ran an opinion roundtable with the headline, “Is Online Dating for Christians?” Answers ranged from “With Gusto!” to “With Caution” to “No; Trust God.” More recently, Jonathan Merritt, a senior columnist at Religion News Service, wondered if online dating websites actually served to undermine Christian values, concerns that were echoed from another corner of the evangelical world by the Gospel Coalition. For wary evangelicals, the turn to online matchmaking could carry the potential for further detachment from involvement in local church bodies at a time when more and more Americans are willing to shun affiliation with formal religious organizations.
I am no Luddite about technology, or about newfangled ways to connect with people. For full disclosure, I met my wonderful wife through common friends, not through the internet, but we were a several-hour drive away from one another when we started courting, and e-mail did play an important role in starting our relationship. Therefore I can fully appreciate circumstances which warrant looking outside one’s own town, and one’s own congregation, for a good match, and using technology to do so.
But there may well be a price to pay for a highly individualized, digital method of dating. Yes, online dating can help singles find “like-minded” believers more readily, and evangelicals should unapologetically affirm that marrying a spouse who’s within the evangelical (or at least orthodox Christian) fold is a must. But I wonder if our approach to dating in evangelical circles implies that if you can just find the right match, wedded bliss will follow, with no thought toward the struggles or suffering that inevitably come via changing circumstances, family problems, or the garden-variety consequences of sin. Spiritual compatibility matters, but a focus on compatibility can also obscure the difficulties and gracious compromises that any healthy marriage will pass through.
The right balance, for those not called to singleness and celibacy, is to look for someone of spiritual compatibility, but to understand from the start that this is someone with whom you will share hardship and struggles as much as the much-advertised (literally) delights of Christian marriage. Instead of the quest for Mr. or Ms. Perfect, those called to marriage should pursue someone of shared values regarding family and church, but realize that for all its goodness, even the best Christian marriage only unites two sinners who are at some incomplete stage of sanctification. No matter how perfect the match, this is going to require some work.
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