In an attempt to combat the disturbingly high divorce rates in the United States, some religious groups have begun to advocate "covenant marriage," a process by which a couple renews their marriage vows and thinks about their marriage in light of a sacred covenant instead of a civil arrangement that can be easily broken. Dennis Rainey, the founder of the popular Christian covenant-marriage group "I Still Do," recently spoke to Beliefnet about his movement.

How did the idea of "I Still Do" come to you?
Our daughter was about to get married, and I was working on this editorial piece for USA Today. The piece was about how we've become a culture of divorce with barely a whimper of resistance. Suddenly, I pushed back the typewriter, and it was as though the thought flashed through my mind: Quit worrying about the nation and start taking care of your family.

My wife and I decided to give Ashley and Michael an unusual wedding present. We purchased a piece of paper, a piece of 100% pure Egyptian cotton paper that we paid $50 for. Then we had a calligrapher use permanent ink to create a wedding covenant, and we bought pens with permanent ink for signatures. We asked Ashley and Michael's permission to do something special after they said their vows. We would ask the wedding guests to do two things. Number one, pray for them. Number two, witness and sign the covenant, saying "We will hold you to it [the vows]." Our wedding gift to Ashley and Michael was to frame it.

I went over and stood by the document while people were witnessing it and signing it. One person said, "Man, they're really serious about this." And these are people of faith! Another said, "Now look and see what they've gone and done." Of course--they've gotten married! These people of faith ought to be the ones with a lofty view of the marriage covenant. Instead, they viewed it with a degree of cynicism.

I believe that people need to sign a marriage covenant, hang it in their home, and keep it there as a sign of their commitment. More than 100,000 people have attended "I Still Do" events since we founded the organization in May 1999.

Can you describe a typical "I Still Do" experience?
It starts at 9 on Saturday and lasts until 5 p.m. We start out with energetic singing and entertainment. There are five speakers. We have basically broken the marriage covenant out into five components:

  • I Take You: Commitment
  • To Be Your Husband/Wife: Job Description
  • To Love, Honor, and Cherish: Confirm Resolution
  • To Have and to Hold: Sexual Intimacy
  • Till Death Do Us Part: Love for a Lifetime
    There's singing, a message, then a little project. For example, a project might be talking about what you've just heard, then thinking what's one thing you think you could do better in your marriage. Our organization is really very practical. It's not a lot of spiritual discussion that people can't relate to.
  • After lunch, Paul Overstreet entertains and sings a song called "I Still Do." It is cool. It is way cool. A great romantic song. Then there's an old hymn, "Be Thou My Vision." It's a classic Christian hymn, but we have rewritten that song so the first stanza has the traditional words. The second stanza has the husbands singing to their wives, ending with the words, "I Still Do." The third stanza has the wives singing to their husbands, ending with the words, "I Still Do." The last stanza has the couple singing to each other, "We Still Do." We conclude that message by having couples stand and face each other and recite their marriage vows. It's quite a sight to see many of them saying it with meaning for the first time in their lives.

    Do "I Still Do" events have staying power in people's lives?
    We're getting stories back. Here's an example.

    There was a woman whose plumber was flirting with her. She pointed to the covenant, which hung in her bedroom, and said, "My marriage is sacred to me. We can't relate to one another. You're fired."

    What is the biggest problem with marriage today?
    I don't have answers to what's taking marriage and families apart other than pointing people to God. We need something bigger than ourselves to help us overcome our selfishness, because that's what wrong with marriage today. I believe that if God designed marriage, he knows how to make it work.

    I think that God created man in his image, and marriage was the first institution God created. It wasn't an afterthought. God loves us and made marriage for humankind. The problem is, since the beginning of human time, man has chosen to reject God, has rejected God's plan, has chosen to go his own independent way. Marriage works best when the people trying to make the institution work are in the hand of the Creator, rightly relating to him and rightly relating to one another.

    I believe that marriage was created by God with a transcendent value; I believe it's much bigger than two people. I believe God's reputation is at stake with every married couple. I believe God wanted man and woman together to reflect who he is in his character, his love, his forgiveness. There is no other human relationship on this planet that has been divinely commissioned with such responsibility and privileges.

    So why do people hold back from viewing marriage as a transcendent institution? I think we equate love with a feeling. We don't see love for what it is--a commitment. Love is "in spite of." No marriage or family will be any stronger than the covenant that formed it. That's why two people promising to remain with one another for a lifetime is so important. That's what the culture doesn't understand--marriage was not created by man, it was created by God.

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