My eyes blazed and my mouth dropped open in shock at what I had just heard.
“I’m serious,” repeated the gentleman leading out the adult Sabbath School class. “Adventist education is the most expensive dating service you can pay for.”
At first I thought he was joking, but the concerned father was, as he put it, serious. As he went on to contrast how his two sons were taking advantage of this most expensive dating service, I sat back to nurse my shock. Didn’t we go to college to, you know, get a degree?
For young Adventists, the university setting, while offering academics, also offers a student the opportunity to meet a special someone. However, along the way concepts and guidance for relationships and finding your significant other have varied from “date everyone” to “date no one and wait for God to bring the right person into your life.” Confusing?
But perhaps the reason the sometimes skewed path to marriage is so confusing for some can be traced back to a book.
In 1997 a book was published that changed the dating landscape for many young Christians. Joshua Harris’ I Kissed Dating Goodbye hit bookstores, and readers ate it up faster than post-breakup ice cream. The book offered a new, more God-centered approach to finding a spouse: courtship.
While Harris took a stand not to date until he was ready for marriage, many young people took anti-dating to an extreme, deciding not to date until they believed they identified “the one.” Then and only then could courting enter in.
The definitions of both dating and courtship are similar. Basically each is a period of time in which two people are (1) interacting socially as a couple, and (2) examining each other on a deeper level to explore whether they are compatible for marriage.
In his article “Why Courtship Is Fundamentally Flawed,” PracticalCourtship.com founder Thomas Umstattd, Jr., breaks down how it really should work:
When I was in high school, courtship sounded like a good plan to me. My dad could weed out all the bad boys because they would have to go through him first. The plan seemed foolproof, especially when Harris argued that traditional dating had many flaws.
According to Umstattd, those in favor of courtship were trying to return some sanctity to the process of finding a spouse. Courtship was a way to compensate for the hookup and breakup dating culture that took root in the 1960s and 1970s. What we are left with today can be considered a hybrid of courtship and dating methods.
However, many stories have since surfaced from people hurt by the more extreme view of not dating anyone until you believe God presented “the one.” Tales emerged from those who never dated and are still single in their late 30s and early 40s, and other stories come from those who married the first person they courted, only to divorce. Because of personal accounts like these, Harris has recently publicly apologized to those hurt by the message in his books.2
My parents always told me I would go to college, meet a nice guy, graduate, get married, and live happily ever after—in that order. So when I went to college and met a nice guy and started dating with the intent to get married, I couldn’t understand why they were mortified. Wasn’t I following their perfect plan?
During that relationship my mom told me I should be “dating around,” meeting lots of people, and getting to know different personality types. This was the same advice given to a young Umstattd by his grandmother when he first discussed dating with her. Years later, when he was researching his article, he went back and asked Grandma why she said what she said. She then broke down the difference between dating and going steady as she understood it. Dating in Grandma’s generation meant dating casually and getting to know many different people. Going steady meant you were exclusive. Today we’d look at it as the difference between hanging out and being in a relationship.
For the most part, hanging out and hooking up is the direction the secular dating scene has gone. With many young adults working on establishing careers and feeling unready to start families, they keep it simple—perhaps too simple—by turning dates into just hanging out. Casual dating can keep relationships relaxed and allow one to meet lots of people, but it can also keep dating so casual that hanging out never has the opportunity to turn into something more.”3
“I don’t know if I can do this again, but I don’t want to end up alone.” My heart bled for my friend as she said this to me. Getting over a breakup is rarely easy, but her words resonated with me in an uncomfortable way. While many are quick to repeat the cliché that we have to be happy alone before we will be happy with someone else, few of us see ourselves remaining alone forever. So what’s the answer? Do we date? Do we court? Do we care?
First and foremost, I suggest young adults take a page out of I Kissed Dating Goodbye and invest ourselves in getting to know God better. Part of Harris’ message was for people to build a relationship with God before building a lifelong relationship with another person. As the Creator of humankind and the world’s first matchmaker, God can teach us more than a few things about finding the person who is right for us.
Second, instead of fixating on being single or on finding someone, seek to really know yourself. Start doing all the things you’ve wanted to do to create the life you want to live. Wendy Powell of Greenville, South Carolina, who has three children with her husband of almost 20 years, said young adults today should be “traveling the world, exploring, having fun, and relaxing.” Life doesn’t have to begin only with the addition of someone else. God has plans for you regardless. Big ones.
In addition to investing in ourselves, we should also invest in other people. I agree, as Umstattd suggests, that we shouldn’t discard the good things that can come from a casual date. Live and date with the intention to meet and make lasting relationships, whether that relationship turns into marriage or not.
Marcus Keenan, who married his fiancé the day after they graduated from college in 2014, said young adults today should meet many different people, because “you won’t know if they are someone you could marry if you won’t get to know them in the first place.” Let’s focus on making our lives and relationships more meaningful overall.
While I attended college at Southern Adventist University, a professor who still believed in the concept of “Southern Matrimonial College” introduced one of his former students to the class. This student had met his wife in that very class, and the teacher wanted to show us that we too could find someone special in school. While it was a nice gesture, I didn’t buy it. There isn’t a magic formula for finding “the one”: not courtship, not dating, and not going to an Adventist university.
At this point in my life, instead of focusing on being single or married, it’s more important to focus on being happy and living the fulfilling life God wants with the people I enjoy being with. “Lead an active life serving the Lord, and be happy and content being who you are,” says Laura Davidson of Crossville, Tennessee, who got married at age 25 after God dropped Mr. Right on her doorstep that same year.
That’s a solid recipe for personal happiness, and a great place to be while we wait on the Lord for whatever He has in store for us.
Anna Bartlett is a young adult writer and editor in the Washington, D.C., metro area. Find her on twitter @bartlett_anna.