In April of 2021, just after COVID-19 restrictions had lifted, allowing people to gather indoors, 92 couples flooded the campus of The Bridge Bible Church in Bakersfield, Calif., for the one-day Refresh Marriage Conference.
With lights low and the smell of coffee filling the air, the sanctuary buzzed with anticipation and the excitement of being together. The celebratory atmosphere stood in stark contrast to the struggle many couples carried with them.
Following the lockdowns of 2020, the national number of divorces skyrocketed, up 34 percent compared to 2019. The combination of stress from financial strain, illness, death of loved ones, homeschooling children and increased depression and anxiety took a toll, putting a significant strain on relationships. Noticing these effects among its own church body, The Bridge felt the Refresh conference was essential.
“Marriage isn’t easy”
“Our vision at The Bridge is to see our neighborhoods full of families centered on Jesus and actively living out the Gospel,” lead pastor Jeff Gowling says. “It is obvious to us that for that to happen, marriages need to be healthy and Christ-centered. In today’s culture, marriage isn’t easy.”
Phil and Diane Comer, founders of the Intentional Parents ministry (and parents of pastor and author John Mark Comer), served as key speakers. Gowling and his wife, Tracy, along with several other pastors and their wives, also presented. They offered biblical principles for strengthening marriage and practical tips for restoring marital closeness in the wake of a stressful season.
The Refresh conference, which featured live worship and included lunch, offered sessions on building friendship with your spouse, protecting marriage from affairs, working through conflict and centering your relationship on Jesus, exercising the love and honor he commands. Three to four couples gathered at each table led by a more seasoned married couple.
The Gowlings taught a session on protecting and prioritizing friendship in marriage. In 2019, the couple walked through Jeff being diagnosed with a rare, life-threatening form of lymphoma and the subsequent treatment, including a stem cell transplant.
“As a couple, we have lived through some difficult months of chemo and recovery,” Tracy said. “Having a solid friendship has been an anchor for all we have endured. We’re so thankful for the foundation that existed before the trials hit.”
Couples who were navigating significant challenges in their marriages, such as infidelity or sexual addiction, were invited back in the evening for a “Restore” session, which provided an opportunity to discuss tough issues and plug into a recovery support group.
Following the conference, the church led a 6-week class, where 25 couples walked through Ryan and Selena Frederick’s “Gospel-Centered Marriage” teaching videos and curriculum. After the course, couples reported feeling greater confidence in making Christ the center of their marriages.
A class for all marriages
Pastor Stuart Curry of Salem MB Church in Bridgewater, S.D., noticed a need for marriage enrichment for newlyweds at the church.
“We wanted to offer a marriage Sunday school class for young married couples,” he says, “but those who had been married longer expressed an interest.”
The class, offered during Salem’s Sunday school hour—where approximately 60 are in attendance—featured a DVD presentation of “Marriage on the Rock” curriculum by Jimmy Evans followed by group discussion. Participants follow along with their own workbooks. Six newly married couples took the initial class and four more couples who have been married for longer joined the second wave.
Curry has been encouraged by the interest in the class.
“We have heard that it has helped couples better understand their spouses and discover some things they are doing personally that need to change,” he says. “Marriage is ordained by God. The church needs to provide couples with the resources to make their marriages into great marriages.”
Pouring into next generation marriages
Last fall as county lockdowns began to lift and mask policies relaxed, Ridgepoint Church in Wichita, Kan., decided to take advantage of the opportunity and offer a weeknight marriage class for couples called “Strengthen Your Marriage.”
Matt Gallagher, who volunteers with Twenty30, Ridgepoint’s young adult ministry, leads the class with his wife, Lori. Matt and Lori have attended Ridgepoint for 22 years and have served in multiple roles. Matt is also a licensed clinical professional counselor who has been in private practice for 13 years. This gives him a unique understanding of what young couples are up against.
In 2018, the Twenty30 leadership team began developing a plan to deliberately engage young married couples in the church. Matt was invited to help provide leadership for a “No Pressure Life Group,” which met one evening during the week and a Sunday morning “Coffee and Jesus” class. Both were designed to facilitate community and help couples grow in faith.
“It was exciting to watch this ministry launch with new connections forming and steady growth in attendance,” he says. “In the early days of the pandemic, it was frustrating to have to cancel events and lose that sense of connection.”
Last fall, the team was excited to be able to pick up where they left off. As part of the “Strengthen Your Marriage” class, Matt and Lori lead discussions on everyday marriage challenges, such as communication, conflict resolution and the stages of development for couples and young families.
“The loose format leads to unplanned moments,” he says, “but also facilitates some organic discussions about everyday life that hopefully normalizes each person’s experience.”
Six to 12 couples attend weekly.
“Some of the most rewarding moments are watching individuals realize how normal it is to grow weary in everyday challenges or argue over the mundane patterns of life like folding laundry, doing dishes and cooking food,” Matt says. “But God can meet them there and bless their relationships.”
The Twenty30 leadership team regularly reflects on ways to provide new opportunities for connection and personal development among young married couples.
“Ideally, we are looking for ways to encourage organic leadership and encourage the next generation that will guide our churches,” Matt says.
Churches like The Bridge, Salem and Ridgepoint have discovered that strong marriages and families can be an engine for accomplishing the Great Commission found in Matthew 28:18-20. Efforts to strengthen marriages and encourage couples to center their homes and families around Christ acts like fuel for that engine. As we move into a post-pandemic world, the timing could not be better for fortifying the marriages of God’s people.
Angel Gabion and her husband, Jeff, who have been married for 18 years, attended the Refresh marriage conference at The Bridge. Angel says the messages that day revealed some specific “bad habits” she had been practicing throughout her marriage and some ways she and her husband weren’t walking in unity. The speakers’ words also gave her a lot of hope for change.
This change was cemented through attending the six-week “Gospel-Centered Marriage” class.
“The course provided Jeff and me guidance and tools to walk in our faith as husband and wife, not as separate individuals,” Angel says. “Because of this, we are now growing together in our relationship with God, and he has blessed our marriage and family in ways only he can.”
Suzanne Hadley Gosselin is the co-author of “Grit and Grace: Devotions for Warrior Moms.” Her husband, Kevin, is a pastor at Bridge Bible Church, a Mennonite Brethren congregation in Bakersfield, California. They have four young children.