Pastors Dennis and Sharon Young can claim responsibility for an uptick in marriages in their little corner of inner-city Syracuse, N.Y.
In the last five years, the Salvation Army captains have conducted 32 weddings. The church they pastor, the Syracuse Citadel, has become known as "the marrying church."
"The word around Syracuse is that if you want to get married, you need to join [our] church," Dennis says with a laugh. The rush to the altar has come not because of an influx of young people but because the Youngs state in bold terms that "shacking up"—or living together before marriage—is sinful behavior. So the church has acquired another nickname too.
"This is the 'tell-the-truth' church," says Gwendolyn Stokes, who recently married her live-in partner, Philip.
The Youngs say that when they confront, they are careful never to talk down but to always uplift. Still, the message is delivered plainly, in street language people can understand.
"Jesus was able to reach people because he spoke the language that people understood," Dennis says. "That's what my wife and I do. We speak their language."
"They really put it in layman's terms," Stokes says.
"Nobody is ever going to walk out of this church and say, 'You know what? I didn't understand that,' " Dennis says. "Nobody's ever going to scratch their heads and say, 'What was he talking about?' Nobody is ever going to have to go home and look up something in a dictionary. It's in words and a vocabulary that they understand."
Dennis preaches that it's important for couples to get married not just to stop sinning but also to stabilize their children's lives.
"Part of what families need to be stable is security, that there's a husband and a wife," Dennis says. "When a couple is shacking up, there's a sense of insecurity there. The child doesn't know whether or not the couple is going to be together. Marriage gives people a sense of permanency. That began to be the foundation for our ministry."
The Youngs' "tell-the-truth" approach might not be popular everywhere, but it's attracting people to this church. In the six years they have been at Syracuse, Sunday attendance has grown from 10 to 250.
The Youngs began their marriage campaign by instituting one-day retreats for singles and unmarried couples who were living together. Each person who attends must sign a certificate saying he or she is committed to getting married.
No one has ever refused.
"Everybody has signed it, and everybody has gotten married," Dennis says. "I make it clear—and in no uncertain terms—that you [aren't] going to shack up forever. If you want to be a part of this church, then you [are] going to get married."
Some people complain that the pastors apply "too much pressure" to marry. The Youngs are unapologetic; they say that they consider it their job to "correct and rebuke" as well as encourage, as the Apostle Paul says (2 Timothy 4:2).
"That's part of the church's responsibility," Dennis says.
Couples don't always marry right away after a retreat. Sharon says she especially likes it when people who have been living together come home and decide to live separately until their marriage.
"It's awesome to see them grow spiritually and in their relationship with Jesus," she says.
Jeri and Al Burnett say they didn't get married six months ago just to satisfy the church or the Youngs.
"We were new Christians," she says. "We knew we needed to do what was right." One result, they say, has been better communication as a couple. "We're happier now," she says.
Each couple to be married attends nine pre-marriage counseling sessions to discuss topics such as communication, handling conflict, money, sex, and making Christ the head of the home.
That last one is the most important principle.
The Stokes, who have been married for less than six months, understand that they must "put God first in every area of our relationship," Gwendolyn says.
"After we got married, it was better because we had God in our lives," says Martin Hand, who married his live-in partner, Pamela, after he heard a fiery sermon from Pastor Dennis. "That sermon convicted me," he says. "It set me free."
Once couples take their wedding vows, they continue to receive help so that they will develop healthy marriages. The church hired Gary Schwartz, a family counselor, to work with couples.
"The pressure and strain of everyday life takes a toll on a marriage," Dennis says. "I think one of the things we've been able to teach ... is what unconditional love really is. You have to love your wife unconditionally. You have to love your husband unconditionally. That means no conditions."
Dennis explains what that should mean, in practical terms, to the partners in a marriage.
"I don't stop loving you when you lose your job," he says. "I don't stop loving you because you drink too much. That's conditional loving. Whenever you put conditions on love, it becomes an imperfect love. Imperfect love will always lead to imperfect relationships, and imperfect relationships will always break down."
The Youngs themselves have been married for only six years—the same length of time they have been pastors at this church. They met at the Albany, N.Y., New Hope Corps, a Salvation Army church for people recovering from addictions. When they married, Dennis was 48; Sharon was 41.
They know that their marriage is on display. Dennis says he and his wife "open up our lives" to the congregation and "use our own marriage as an illustration."
"We're honest with [our congregation]," he says. "We have arguments; we don't see eye to eye; and she gets mad at me, but it works. There will be differences and that's OK, but you must be able to communicate and sit down and spiritually work it out.
"They look at us and it makes me want to thank God when they say, 'I want a marriage like the pastor and his wife [have].' They watch us. They watch how we interact. They watch how we talk to one another. They watch how I treat her and how she treats me."
"When couples see that marriage can work ... it gives them hope," Sharon says.
Dennis adds, "I tell them the same God that's doing it for us wants to do it for you."
He also is fond of quoting Philippians 4:13 ("I can do everything through him who gives me strength") to people who are struggling in a marriage or who come from a failed marriage and don't think they have the strength to do it again.
"I tell people, 'God can give you the strength to make this marriage work. God can give you the strength to weather the storms that will come against your marriage. Your strength is not to rely on you, your strength comes from God.' "
Sharon says she likes to quote 1 Corinthians 13, the Bible's love chapter.
"Love covers everything," she says.
In addition to supporting and promoting marriage as a biblical injunction, the Youngs emphasize that in Genesis 2, God ordained the family, led by a married man and woman, as the building block of society.
"I'm a strong believer that if we're going to stabilize neighborhoods, we've got to stabilize families," Dennis says. "If we're going to stop this cycle of violence among teens and [stop] drug use, then families need to be stable."
So the Youngs have set about not only to convict adults to marry but that they should do everything possible to build up their families. At Syracuse Citadel, Thursday night is family night, designed specifically to forge togetherness.
"We sit down and fellowship at dinner, then we break up into groups," says Sharon. "The whole family leaves home together, and they come down here and eat and fellowship together. It's a family atmosphere."
"Our true passion is to have a family-style church," she says.
"We want a church that preaches family values," Dennis says. That's what Jesus preached: Family is everything."
And that's the truth.