SEATTLE -- Marriage appears to be a dwindling institution in the United States. The number of marriages has dropped 54 percent since 1960.
Michael McManus, founder of Marriage Savers and author of Living Together told CBN News during that same time, the number of couples cohabiting has skyrocketed.
"We had 400,000 couples living together in 1960," McManus said. "And now it's 17,500,000. That's a 17-fold growth."
Craig Gorc, a pastor at Cedar Park Assembly of God in the Seattle suburb of Bothell, wanted to do something to fight for marriage and against cohabitation.
He found out one of the biggest barriers to couples wedding these days is the enormous cost. In the Seattle area, the average cost of a wedding is $26,542.
Gorc realized his large church had all the facilities, talent and financial resources to put together first class weddings and offer them for free as a way to reach out to the community.
'Free Wedding Day'
So Gorc and the congregation at Cedar Park Assembly decided to put on a Free Wedding Day last June. They sent word out through their website, social media, the news media and their senior pastor's email list of more than 6,000 people.
Three couples took them up on the offer and more will this June. "The cost that we're saving them is about $8,000 to $10,000," Gorc told CBN News. "We provide everything you need except for the bride and groom."
That includes beautiful facilities, weeks of pre-marriage counseling, two wedding planners, two ministers, a photographer, music planner and player, flowers and food -- all for free.
One of the main goals in all this was to make sure the couples wouldn't feel judged for their lifestyles or life choices. Gorc realized many cohabiting couples stay away from church because they feel, "Why would you go to the church if you're living together, where still today there's a stigma of 'living in sin' as they call it."
So Cedar Park Assembly did everything it could to make Free Wedding Day a positive experience that would leave the couples feeling good about having a relationship with God and the church.
"Of course, we hope they'll come to Christ in the process." the church's senior pastor, Rev. Joe Fuiten, said of the couples. "But it's really about communicating to people that we're for them and we're willing to help."
Shelly and James' Story
Shelly and James Simenc sure needed that help. They were a Duvall, Wash., couple in their 50s who were planning to get married and had targeted a wedding date.
"Then I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009, and I've been going through that for 27 months," Shelly told CBN News. "So that kind of knocked us off track for a while. James always said, 'Well, we should get married anyway.' And I said, 'I'm not getting married without hair!'"
Shelly jokes about the experience now, but at the time, expensive chemotherapy and surgeries had drained them dry.
But then last summer, both their sets of aging parents were making the effort to come visit from far away. Shelly was recovering and her hair was coming back. It seemed like the perfect time to marry, but they had no money for a wedding.
Shelly was searching the Internet for a solution when she came across Cedar Park Assembly's offer. "So I'm Googling and Googling and then all of a sudden 'Free Wedding Day' appears," she recalled.
"It was perfect timing for us because we'd been going through Shelly's battle and it really helped us out," James said.
The day of the wedding, Shelly said the church went all out and made the couples feel so special. "I can't believe what they gave us," she said. And it left a lasting impression.
"It was amazing," Shelly said. "So we want to get back."
The congregation then followed up with the couples a month later. "They invited the whole wedding party over for a barbecue," Shelly said. "And we had a blast."
"One of the couples actually started attending church and gave their lives to the Lord," Gorc told CBN News.
The Downside of Cohabiting
Living Together author McManus said it's important for churches to join Cedar Park Assembly in its fight for marriage.
He pointed out just a few of the benefits: "People who are married are healthier, happier. They live longer, they have more sex; they have better sex."
And the research shows substantial downsides for many who decide to opt for cohabiting rather than marrying.
McManus said couples often suggest their living together is a sort of trial marriage, but at least 75 percent break up before they get to the altar.
Statistics show they're more likely to have lower incomes, their productivity is lower and they're more likely to need some sort of public assistance.
Couples who shack up fight more than married couples, and the fights are more likely to turn violent. They suffer more depression and suicide.
The negatives get passed to the children in the relationship. They're more likely to end up in trouble at school, in trouble with the law, smoking, using drugs and engaging in teen sex.
McManus said of these children, "They're more likely to drop out and less likely to marry. If they do marry, they cohabit first."
According to McManus, that's a real threat to the marriage. "If they marry after cohabiting, they're 61 percent more likely to divorce than those who play by the rules," he said.
Cohabiting can even affect the lifespan of all involved. "Children of cohabitation will live five years less," McManus said. "Men and women cohabiting will live four to 10 years less."
For churches that decide they want to get involved by having their own Free Wedding Days, there's help available.
"We have a place on our website, FreeWeddingDay.net, that people who want to do it can find resources we put together," Gorc said.
James Simenc said if congregations are willing to put in the same effort as Cedar Park Assembly, "It's a real good way for the Church to reach out to meet other people."