A few months before Kelvin Evans married his live-in girlfriend, Pa Shoua Pha, in 2016, uncertainty gripped him.
“I had convinced myself that I wasn’t going to have any more children,” said Mr. Evans, 44, the father of two boys from a previous relationship. But his girlfriend, he said, wanted to start a family and “it became a huge sticking point.”
Fortunately, the couple had a support network through the Concord Church, a nondenominational Christian church, in Dallas. Alongside five other cohabiting couples, they signed up for a “step into marriage” challenge and worked out their issues. On Aug. 27, 2016, all six couples, plus 19 other couples who also took the challenge, married in a mass ceremony. Mr. and Ms. Evans now have a daughter, Ava Naomi, who was born this past March, and Mr. Evans couldn’t be happier. “If I was doing any better,” he said, “it would probably be illegal.”
Mr. Evans says he is grateful for the motivation and counseling he received through the challenge. “Agreeing to commit for life helped me move forward,” he said.
Every three years since 2010, Pastor Bryan Carter has issued a call to arms to his 8,500 parishioners at Concord, in South Dallas: Disavow living together and commit to marriage. To sweeten the deal, he throws in a free wedding, complete with white gown, tuxedo, wedding bands, bouquets and a post-wedding reception. Mr. Carter officiates for the couples who make it through the 11 weeks of premarital counseling, which is part of the challenge. The handful that bow out of marriage can receive one month’s rent (up to $ 750) toward a new place to live, so long as it doesn’t include a cohabiting partner.
Mr. Carter believes cohabitation is not the correct lifestyle choice for couples in committed relationships. “We believe marriage builds a better foundation for people than saying, ‘Hey, let me try you out for a few weeks. Let’s live together,’” he said.
At least one researcher backs him up: “By recent estimates, those who cohabited before marriage have an increased annual risk for marital dissolution that is about 30 percent higher than those who did not cohabit before marriage,” Scott Stanley, a researcher in the psychology department at the University of Denver, said in an email.
Some are not so sure living together first is a negative thing: The Council on Contemporary Families published a report last year concluding that premarital cohabitation may make couples less likely to divorce.
Mr. Carter and the couples taking the marriage challenge (currently 50 couples at Concord are prepping for a Sept. 7 mass wedding) are aware of the practical benefits of cohabitation, like testing relationship stability and sharing bills. Mr. Carter briefly lived with his wife, Stephanie Carter, before they married 21 years ago.
“I know the temptations, because I went through them myself before my faith made me realize there’s a better way,” he said. (For him, the appeal was convenience. He had just moved to Texas and needed a place to stay.)
Mr. Carter is also aware of the popularity of cohabitation, especially among millennials and people over 50. According to a 2018 Pew study, 15 percent of adults ages 25 to 34 live with an unmarried partner, up from 12 percent in 2008. A 2017 Pew report found that 23 percent of cohabiting adults are over 50, a 75 percent increase for that age group since 2007. Over all, 18 million American adults are cohabiting, up from 14 million in 2007, Census Bureau data shows.
About 60 percent of couples currently working through relationship kinks at Concord are millennials. Participation is up from 20 couples to 50 since the first installment nine years ago. And the program is spreading. Since 2010, six churches, including one near Atlanta and another in Chicago, have adopted Mr. Carter’s pathway to marriage program for their own parishioners. This is something Mr. Carter wanted to happen, and sort of expected.
“Our hope was that this model was reproducible, because we hear from other churches that they need tools to help people build their families,” Mr. Carter said. “We wanted it to be where we’re not just talking about it and criticizing people. We wanted it to be, let’s help them find a way to honor their relationship and honor God.”
In addition to premarital counseling, which covers topics including finances, blended families and sex, couples who go on to participate in the mass wedding also get a mentor from the church to shepherd them through their first year of marriage.
There are no guarantees, of course. Mr. Carter estimated that 80 percent of the 57 couples he has married through mass ceremonies have remained married.
“We’re not saying marriage is the end-all, be-all,” he said. “We’re saying it’s the best route to sustaining families.”
At Concord, that doesn’t mean that cohabiting couples are looked down upon if they don’t choose to be challenged, he said. “This is not a high-pressure deal,” Mr. Carter said. “It’s more or less an opportunity.”
The opportunity to get married for free is enough to attract some people. Gowns and tuxedos are donated by local businesses, and the rings are sold to the church at a discount. Professional planners, makeup artists and hair stylists also volunteer for the weddings.
Those wanting the spotlight to be fully on them on their wedding day know to check their egos at the church door.
“Most women at the start of our premarital counseling group were like, ‘What?’” Mr. Evans said of the idea of not being the sole bride. “But as we got into the class, we got to know each other intimately. The gloves came off. And being able to share the wedding together made it really special.”
To date, no same-sex couples have volunteered for the challenge. If they did, Mr. Carter said, he would refer them to a different church to be married. Though Concord welcomes the L.G.B.T.Q. community, he said, “our church believes in more traditional model of marriage.”
This is one reason some religious leaders are not so enthusiastic about Mr. Carter’s program. “Research bears the pastor out that stable marriages do support better mental health and stability in children,” said Janne Eller-Isaacs, a senior co-pastor at Unity Church-Unitarian in St. Paul, Minn. “My bias is that I don’t want to be promoting an old-style, patriarchal marriage. As someone who has married lesbians, gays and transgendered folks, making the ritual of marriage available to all people is extremely important to me.”
Rabbi Matthew D. Gewirtz, the senior pastor at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, N.J., also has mixed feelings about the marriage challenge. “I’m not going to reject it out of hand, because the pastor respects God and community and may believe he’s saving the world in this way,” he said. “I’ve learned enough to know that cohabitation has helped a lot of people, and I lose all capital to be able to talk to people about what makes the most sacred and loving connections if I’m just reminding them of what they thought religion always was, meaning hierarchical and judgmental and not in touch with what’s going on in the world.”
Rabbi Gewirtz also wonders if the church’s resources might be better spent feeding the hungry or housing the homeless. “But that’s just a different point of view,” he said.
It is a view Mr. Carter is familiar with. His Twitter announcement of this year’s challenge reached 300,000 people, he said, and most feedback was positive. “But we had a few detractors who said, ‘Why would the church be concerned about someone’s relationship? Couldn’t it do more with that money to feed people?’” he said.
Mr. Evans, who will be a best man in this year’s mass wedding for a cousin taking the challenge, thinks the program does help the community.
“This process has prepared me to be successful in my marriage,” he said. “Now we’re in a place where we can help other people in our community thrive.”