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Leaders of the country's largest Protestant denomination have a message for millennials. Hurry up and get hitched. The Nashville-based Southern Baptist Convention and its nearly 16 million members continue to resist societal trends like gay marriage and cohabitation. They also want church members to marry younger. Blake Farmer of member station WPLN reports.
BLAKE FARMER, BYLINE: In 1972, Pam Blume was pretty typical. She walked down the aisle to this wedding classic.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE WEDDING SONG")
PAUL STOOKEY: (Singing) Well, a man shall leave his mother, and a woman leave her home.
FARMER: And she was just a few years out of high school.
PAM BLUME: Looking back, I can see a 20-year-old. You're pretty naive, and you want the fairy tale and all that. But at the same time, you're not set in your ways.
FARMER: Pam and Allan Blume of Charlotte, N.C., had no jobs, no money, and today, four decades later, they have no regrets.
ALLAN BLUME: There's this thinking of you've got to have these things all lined up financially before you can get married, and then the next step before you can have children and before you can do this. But financial stability is not the main issue of life.
FARMER: Blume is a retired pastor who endorses this soft push to get Southern Baptists to marry younger. Andrew Walker is out front. He works for the denomination's public policy division. Married at 21, Walker says he's not suggesting a cutoff age to tie the knot, but he sees a sinful side to waiting. For one, it makes the Church's expectation of virginity impractical, especially, in Walker's view, for guys.
ANDREW WALKER: The reality is, you know, starting at the age of 12 - 13 boys and men growing up into maturity are hardwired for something that God gave us a desire for work and an outlet for. And so to suppress that becomes more difficult, the older you get.
FARMER: Men have been Walker's primary focus. He's hosted panel discussions talking about how online pornography may satisfy men's sexual desires, making them less motivated to marry. During a recent conference, though, a woman was the only unmarried person on stage.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
WALKER: As the single woman, which I'm not going to bring too much attention to - gentlemen.
FARMER: Lindsay Swartz, who handles social media for the denomination, laughed it off in front of a crowd of pastors. She says she would love to get married and start a family, but the 30-something also sees drawbacks.
LINDAY SWARTZ: I don't necessarily think it's better to be single, but I do think we run the risk, including myself, of idolizing marriage and children.
FARMER: She points out that key figures in the New Testament never married. Swartz also says it would be a shame if the marriage push also resulted in more divorces. While evangelical Christians oppose divorce in many cases, surveys find they break up at roughly the same rate as society.
CINDY NOVINSKA: I don't think you can say people need to get married at a younger age today. I think it's much more complicated than that.
FARMER: Cindy Novinska of Wisconsin happened to pass through a Baptist marriage convention in progress, so I stopped this bystander to get her thoughts. She and her husband, Kenneth, are Catholic. Both are divorced.
KENNETH NOVINSKA: The lady I married was way too young.
FARMER: One of his daughters also married right out of high school only to split up. His son, on the other hand, waited until his late 30s.
K. NOVINSKA: They had jobs. They knew exactly - they want to have children. You can just see their marriage is very strong.
FARMER: Novinska believes it pays to wait. Even for Baptists, it's case-by-case.
A. BLUME: We have a son who has not gotten married yet.
FARMER: Here's Allan and Pam Blume again.
Is that something you prod him to do or is it...
P. BLUME: No. I would not ever, you know?
FARMER: The marry-young mantra gets complicated as it hits closer to home, but generally, Baptist leaders say marriage should be considered a foundation for adult life, and right now it's often seen as the high point. For NPR News, I'm Blake Farmer in Nashville.
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