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Wait for sex, or marry young?

When Margie and Stephen Zumbrun were battling the urge to have premarital sex, a pastor counseled them to control themselves. The couple signed a purity covenant.

Then, when the two got engaged and Margie went shopping for a wedding dress, a salesperson called her "the bride who looks like she's 12." Non-church friends said that, at 22, she was rushing things.

The agonizing message to a young Christian couple in love: Sex can wait, but so can marriage.

"It's unreasonable to say, 'Don't do anything ... and wait until you have degrees and you're in your 30s to get married,'" said Margie Zumbrun, who said she did wait for sex, and married Stephen fresh out of Purdue University. "I think that's just inviting people to have sex and feel like they're bad people for doing it."

Against that backdrop, a number of evangelicals are nudging young adults toward the altar even as many of their peers and parents are holding them back.

Couples like the Zumbruns are caught between two powerful forces — evangelical Christianity's abstinence culture and societal forces pushing average marriage ages deeper into the 20s.

The call for young marriage raises questions: How young is too young? What if marriage is viewed as a ticket to guilt-free sex? What about the fact that marrying young is the No. 1 predictor of divorce?

The conversation is spreading from what pastors say is a relatively small number of churches and ministries to the broader evangelical community, with the latest development being a Christianity Today magazine cover story this month titled "The Case for Young Marriage."

The article's author, University of Texas sociologist Mark Regnerus, argues that evangelicals "have made much ado about sex" but are damaging the institution of marriage by discouraging and delaying it.

Regnerus is not saying that premarital sex is OK. But he does suggest that abstinence has its limits, and that intensifying the message won't work. When people wait until their mid- to late 20s to marry, he writes, it's unrealistic and "battling our creator's reproductive designs" to expect them to wait that long for sex.

Statistics show that few Americans wait. More than 93 percent of adults 18 to 23 who are in romantic relationships are having sex, according to the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. For conservative Protestants in relationships and active in their faith, it's almost 80 percent.

Regnerus, a conservative Presbyterian, knocks the "abstinence industry" for perpetuating "a blissful myth" that great sex awaits just beyond the wedding reception. He advises against teen marriage, but argues that early 20s marriages are not as risky as advertised.

"I'll probably get framed as I want people to marry because I don't want them to have premarital sex," said Regnerus, author of Forbidden Fruit: Sex and Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers.

"I think marriage is just a fantastic institution for people who think rightly about it, have realistic ideas about it and put the requisite work into it."

Many young adults today view their 20s as a time for fun, travel, career-building or finding themselves — not for settling down.

The median age for first marriages in the United States is about 26 for women and 28 for men, the highest figures since the Census Bureau began keeping track. Solid data on evangelicals is not readily available, but research suggests they marry only slightly younger, Regnerus said.

At Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., associate pastor Michael Lawrence emphasizes that marriage is a covenant, not a convenient arrangement, and offers advice to young couples on overcoming arguments over money, sex and family.

"We probably haven't served our young people well by on the one hand emphasizing abstinence, but on the other hand telling them to wait to get married," Lawrence said. "It seems to be setting them up to fail."

Like most proponents of young marriage, Lawrence does not set an arbitrary "right" age for marriage. Waiting until after college might be advisable if the alternative is crushing debt or dropping out, he said.

Johns Hopkins University sociologist Andrew Cherlin, who studies families and public policy, said young marriage is a tough sell. A half-century ago, when people married earlier, fewer people attended college, high school graduates could get good-paying factory jobs, women became mothers right after school and families were larger, he said.

"Most evangelicals as well as most Americans realize how expensive it is to raise children these days," Cherlin said. "The most important rationale for early marriage — having a larger family — has disappeared."