Not long ago, it was called “living in sin.” Now new data shows young evangelicals are increasingly joining in, with seemingly, little hesitation. David J. Ayers, a professor of sociology at Grove City College documents this concerning trend in a new article over at the Institute for Family Studies. He notes that “cohabitation is a new norm among young, professing evangelicals.” As a fellow believer himself, Ayers laments, “It is stunning that this has quietly come to pass among adherents to a form of Christianity that emphasizes radical obedience to an inerrant Bible, [and] forbids all sex outside marriage…”

Professor Ayers’ documentation of this development is as concerning as it is careful. He is working not from mere opinion polls conducted by non-academic institutions, but some of the most recent, reliable and diverse data available to sociologists. In conversations with demographers at the Pew Research Center, they informed Ayers that “58% of white Evangelicals say they believe that cohabiting is acceptable if a couple plans to marry.” And younger evangelicals tend to be even more permissive on the matter.

Working directly with raw data from the highly reputable National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG), Ayers found that evangelical young adults are clearly the least likely among other faith groups to say they could cohabit in the future and are most likely to say they will not. But these facts are of little comfort. He explains specifically, “Still, only about one in four [evangelical teens and young adults] gave the ‘Bible answer’ of ‘definitely not,’ and close to half are planning on or leaning toward it.” Ayers provides the specifics in this chart.

But what about what young evangelicals have actually done when it comes to living together outside marriage? While evangelicals tend to do better here than those in other Christian traditions, the news is not encouraging. More and more are actively living with a boy- or girlfriend and have done so more than once.

And a data point that would make our grandparents cringe, a slight majority of evangelical couples marrying today report having lived together prior to their wedding. This finding is really stunning for various reasons.

Apart from simply being inconsistent with what Jesus taught about marriage and sexuality – He’s very clear about it right there in the beginning of Matthew 19 and Mark 10 – this means that our children are increasingly but sadly making choices of their own free will that actually harm their chances of attaining their dream of a happy, life-long marriage.

The sociological research on this fact is robust and consistent and is carefully detailed here. Mainstream scholars say there are few things couples are choosing to do today to sandbag their shot at successful marriage than living together before they wed.

Just Living Together on the Way to Marriage?

Some argue that while cohabitation is rising among young evangelicals, they are still more marriage minded as most are simply cohabiting with the person they are engaged to marry. Professor Ayers challenges this assertion, explaining that “among Evangelicals who have ever cohabited, only 49% of first cohabitations culminated in marriage by the time they were surveyed” and this makes them not too different than Mainline Protestants and Catholics. He adds that among “the currently cohabiting, only 55% of cohabiting Evangelicals were certain they would marry their partners—less than Mainline Protestants (59%), but more than the other religious groups.” So it appears a great many evangelical young adults are just moving in together with not real clear plans for marriage. This indicates a great deal of confusion on their own understanding of what sex and sharing a domestic life is really about.

Now we might argue that these young evangelicals who are cohabiting are simply nominal in their faith, rather than serious believers. Ayers challenges this explanation as well. While seriousness towards one’s faith certainly does mitigate against likelihood to cohabit, that affect is not as strong as many would assume. Ayers explains, “In fact, roughly one-quarter of those who attend church regularly have cohabited two or more times, and most have done so at least once.”

This data demonstrates the critical need for serious Christian churches and parents to do a better job of teaching our kids why God’s plan for sexuality is not only right, but wise as well. Focus on the Family has numerous resources to help everyone accomplish this critical task. The future happiness and longevity of our children’s and grandchildren’s families rest on this vital work.

Additional Resources

Focus on the Family’s The Family Project

God’s Design for Marriage

Four Reasons We Care About Marriage

Research Update: Why Marriage Is Healthier Than Cohabitation

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