Years ago, would-be couples would meet at a dance, at church potlucks, or around a friend’s dinner table. Even further back, due to the gender imbalance created by selective infanticide, Roman young men found their spouses at church. Today, many singles (including Christian singles) search for relationships online, scouring dating apps, debating whether to swipe right, swipe left, or just give up.
Dating apps have re-conditioned how singles think about dating and relationships. Long gone are the times when a single young man walked into a community, noticed a young lady, and was forced to overcome his nerves to take a risk. On one hand, many dating apps have taken first impressions beyond mere appearance to other important relational factors such as interests, hobbies, and shared views on essential issues. On the other hand, apps have isolated relationships from real community. That’s often not healthy.
Apps are yet another way our day-to-day lives have become disembodied. Recent studies reveal that many young people are “explori-dating,” interacting with someone from a different country, background, or faith, ditching what are leading indicators of long-term relational stability. Some are now “hesidating,” a term coined by the online dating site Plenty of Fish to describe mostly single females who struggle to choose whether to date seriously or casually because of how uncertain life feels. Tonight, in fact, many young people will choose to celebrate “Galentine's” or “Palentine’s” Day instead of Valentine’s Day, an indication of how difficult it is to date and commit these days.
And of course, there’s the uglier side of dating apps: sexting, secret connections, ghosting, and targeting. Online anonymity can lead singles to go farther than they wanted to, stay longer than they intended, and pay more than they were hoping.
To be clear, dating apps have diversified and improved. Many have found love online, entering long-term committed relationships that culminate in marriage. In one sense, apps now fill the significant relational gaps that have only widened in our rapidly changing culture. Some suggest that given how difficult it is to date these days, apps have changed things in “positive ways.”
Helen Fischer, an anthropologist who's studied dating trends for over forty years and an adviser to one of the largest dating apps, believes these opportunities create “historic turnarounds with singles. They are looking for committed relationships.”
But what if the church has a role to play in creating contexts for relational connections, even romantic ones? What if the current relationship dearth being filled by apps could be filled by Christian matchmaking communities instead?
Since it is Valentine’s Day, it’s worth reflecting on the day’s namesake. Valentinus of Rome was a 3rd-century martyr, and though the specifics around his life are somewhat cloudy, the most widely accepted version of his martyrdom is that he ran afoul of emperor Claudius II for encouraging romantic love and marriage in his community.
Claudius banned marriage because he believed that Roman men were unwilling to join the army because of their strong attachment to their wives and families. Valentinus believed marriage was an essential part of human life, or like we say around the Colson Center, like gravity. So, he married couples in secret despite the edict from Rome. He was caught and executed for his deeds.
Today, to follow Valentinus’ example by creating contexts for singles to meet within a larger healthy community, is to offer the world something it needs but doesn’t have. To celebrate marriage, not just in word but in deed, is to declare that committed romantic relationships are possible and good. To place these relationships, as the Christian worldview does, in the larger context of our God-given identity and purpose is to point young people to love for the good of others, as opposed to love as mere self-expression.
As C.S. Lewis outlined in The Four Loves, a Christian view of passionate love, “eros,” differs from mere sentimentality or sexual desire. Eros, when rightly ordered, causes us to toss “personal happiness aside as a triviality and [plant] the interests of another in the center of our being.” Where else will young adults hear that definition of love?
The Church has much to offer a lonely world on Valentine’s Day and the rest of the year. The Church, of course, is to be a people that cultivate a community together. It may be that we should become a bit more intentional about cultivating marriages too.