News Articles

Church helps couples learn how to be ‘Radically Married’

EDITORS’ NOTE: The following three stories focus on ministry to families -– families working to stay together, single-parent families and stepfamilies.

DEL CITY, Okla. (BP)–“We are known as the church to go to if you DON’T want to get a divorce.”

Peter Livingston works to make those words a reality at First Southern Baptist Church in Del City, Okla., where he is director of family ministries.

Twice each year, Livingston and his wife, Debbie, lead 40 to 50 couples through a 16-week “Radically Married” course -– a major outreach of the Oklahoma City-area church, because 60 percent of the attendees have no local ties to a congregation.

“There is a huge, crying need — a real desperation in our world and our communities,” Livingston said, “with people wanting to know, ‘How can I make this thing called marriage work?’”

The Livingstons began grappling with that question in 1987 when they struggled to save their own marriage and family. “I love to work,” said Livingston who, as CEO of a public biotech firm, spent little time with his family. “I traveled Monday through Friday. I was essentially an absentee father,” he said, “but more than that, I was an absentee husband.”

One day Debbie announced, “I want a divorce. God has brought me a new man.”

The news that she had been having an affair shook Livingston to his core. “I literally fell on my face and asked God to turn my life inside out. To show me how to restore my family.” Peter realized he had been giving his family the leftovers. “Debbie, of course, takes full responsibility for the choices she made,” he said. “But I also knew what a very bad choice I had made. If I had been doing my job, then the other wouldn’t have happened. A man who keeps watch over his family rarely leaves them vulnerable to such choices.”

God worked through Peter and Debbie for three years to restore their relationship. They began to open up about their struggle in 1990, first in teaching Sunday School, helping other couples learn how to build and rebuild their marriages. After 25 years in the business world, Peter sensed God calling him out. He turned in his resignation, not knowing what would come next. But shortly thereafter, Tom Elliff, his pastor, asked him to take on the family ministry at First Southern.

“The most challenging, enjoyable years of my life have been from 1999 until now,” Livingston said. “In my life, I’ve been a CEO. I also coached high school football and went to the state championship — lots of things the world would call success. But the greatest thing I’ve done is work with families.”

Asked his opinion about Barna Group data showing that the divorce rate is as high inside the church as outside, Livingston said he agreed, adding, “But the real issue for churches isn’t the divorce. It’s the dysfunctional families we have in our churches. In the church there is peer pressure to stay married. Outside, there is no peer pressure.” Thus Livingston is led to the conclusion that if, with peer pressure, some unhappy Christian couples stay married, there are even more dysfunctional families in churches. “That is a frightening reality,” he stated.

“The family is the greatest tool for evangelism in the church today — worldwide,” he said. As an example, he told of time he and Debbie presented the Radically Married conference in Asia. While there, they did some shopping. A clerk in one store went from garment to garment, trying to sell them something, but with no success. Finally, in a last attempt to keep them in the store, she asked, “Why are you in my country?”

“To talk about marriage,” Livingston said.

Finally the clerk stopped trying to sell and made her first eye contact with them. She approached them, coming very close, and said, “You know how to have happy family?”

“The Bible does,” Livingston answered.

“Relationship is what people want. We spend precious little time teaching people in our congregations [how to achieve it].” Livingston uses the Radically Married course to show that all of life’s deepest questions are answered in Jesus.

Michael and Tracey McCoy are among the many couples who have found answers they needed through First Southern’s family ministry. “Our story is so similar to Peter and Debbie’s — our marriage was really put to the test,” Michael said. He and his wife began searching for a new church and came to First Southern via the Radically Married class. “The first thing we heard was Peter and Debbie’s testimony, which was so transparent. We finally heard what we wanted to hear — that God works in families and wants to make them whole,” Michael said.

Especially meaningful for Michael were what he called “the marriage ABCs for men.” He learned that God is the umbrella over the man, and the man is to be the umbrella over his family. He learned about his responsibilities to pray for his wife. He also learned about his responsibilities to her in their physical relationship.

The course doesn’t sidestep “the important things we need to know,” Michael said. “It was so refreshing to see them all spelled out in the Bible. I got a whole set of relationship tools I wished I had a long time ago.”

The McCoys, who have been married for 20 years, are now passionate about being transparent to other couples like the Livingstons were for them and have been involved in First Southern’s family ministry for seven years. They now serve in the church’s “Marriage Ambassador” ministry, a mentoring program to come alongside other couples and provide support and examples of God’s plan for marriage.

For the McCoys, the highlight of their efforts in family ministry is seeing people enter a relationship with Christ. “Obviously, that is the starting point — to find out where their relationship is with God,” Michael said. “That is the first hurdle to overcome. You can’t talk to them about being obedient if they don’t know Him.” Some who enter the program think they are already Christians, he said, but they come to realize their need for a relationship with Christ.

Then, McCoy noted, “both men and women come to understand that the marriage relationship was created by God, and only through Him can it be what it is supposed to be.”

Jay and Jennifer Porter have been a part of the Radically Married ministry for more than four years and have witnessed the restoration of several marriages — including their own. About four years into their marriage, Jennifer took their three children and moved out on her own. Jay, a binge drinker, subsequently reached a point of despondency over his failed marriage. One night he made plans to get drunk and end his life.

But God had spoken to one of Jay’s Christian friends who called and asked if he could stop by for a visit. Because of his intentions for the evening, Jay refused, but the friend showed up anyway — with guitar and Bible in hand.

That night, Jay accepted Christ into his life. Excited, he went to tell his wife, who skeptically responded, “Right!” But that news sparked enough hope that Jennifer contacted the church to find out about Radically Married.

“We [First Southern] have become known [that] if your marriage is failing, this is the place to come to save it,” Jay said. “Jennifer and I went from passing each other in the hall saying, ‘I hate you,’ to leaving each other notes and really communicating. I went from lying and being mean when I was drinking, to ‘I can’t wait to get home to see my wife!’ The entire [Bible] is an instruction manual, not just for life, but for your marriage.”

Families like the McCoys and the Porters are why building families is a top priority of the whole First Southern staff. In developing a marriage and family policy, it was decided that no staff person could officiate at a ceremony unless the couple has completed five months of premarital counseling, including the Radically Married course.

In their premarital counseling, couples are asked to adopt certain principles as outlined in a church’s document titled “Covenant Marriage: Building Strong Marriages Based on Scriptural Principles,” which can be found on the church’s website at www.fsbcdc.org under the resources link. Principles included in the document are “The Seven Pillars of a Kingdom Family”:

— Honoring God’s Authority

— Respecting Human Life

— Exercising Moral Purity

— Serving My Church

— Using Time Wisely

— Practicing Biblical Stewardship

— Sharing the Gospel of Christ.

Does premarital counseling work? Yes, “if done correctly,” said Livingston, noting that several couples in the premarital program have either postponed their plans or broken off their engagement, deciding they might not be right for each other. “I consider that successful,” he said.

In addition to a marriage and family policy and the wholehearted support of the staff, Livingston believes that a successful family ministry requires lots of fundamental training on the subject of marriage for all church members. Nothing is taken for granted in the Radically Married course. “We assume no one knows the biblical principles for marriage and family,” Livingston said. “People who thought they were saved have gone through it and found they didn’t really even know the Lord.” Even couples with successful marriages are encouraged to ground themselves in biblical principles for marriage and family to equip them to counsel others — children, grandchildren or friends — who will struggle and need biblical counsel.

Livingston noted three top areas of attack on marriage that he sees regularly in his ministry. Especially among younger married couples, he sees what he terms “intimacy distractions.”

“This is not a minor thing. Online pornography and chat rooms — a tremendous number of young men are involved in online porn. But an equal number of women are involved in chat rooms,” Livingston said. He cautions families to “protect the portals of their homes” to prevent “false intimacy” from ever getting in via computers.

A second major area of attack, Livingston said, is ignorance of what it really means to say, “I do,” and a third area wreaking havoc in families today is the challenge of raising children. “More and more parents are trying to be their child’s best friend,” Livingston said. “That’s not what God intended. You will be sorely disappointed.”

Family ministry at First Southern encompasses more than just marriage counseling. Senior citizens, for example, are playing a big part in building connections across generations. “I’ve spent hours interviewing our senior members to help them put the stories of their lives on tape to give to grandkids as Christmas presents,” Livingston said. Seniors also serve in the Marriage Ambassadors ministry as mentors to younger couples.

Livingston is the church’s watchdog to make certain church duties and events do not rob families of family togetherness. As a result, Mondays are blocked off the calendar for any meetings or events. The recreation ministry also is one of his areas of responsibility, with the goal of involving all family members. In some cases, for example, adults serve as the coaches, and youth are the referees, while elementary children make up the teams.

“I’m constantly looking for areas to bridge commonly divided groups to bring a true and strong biblical sense of what a family is and what a marriage is,” Livingston said. “If the families are working, the church will work. If not, there are divisions and financial stresses. Someone has to be beating the drum.”
More information on the Radically Married conference and the family ministry of First Southern Baptist Church in Del City, Okla., can be found at www.radicallymarried.com or www.fsbcdc.org.

    About the Author

  • Kay Adkins