Week after week, as LeRoy Sullivan looked out from the pulpit of his church, the 200-member Bread of Life Outreach Ministry in Kansas City, Kan., the number of unmarried co-habiting couples, some with children, troubled him. Unable to remain silent, he began preaching about the value of marriage. He also invited couples to attend classes that would prepare them for married life.
"I challenged them," says Pastor Sullivan. "I told them to look at what's best: Change your lifestyle for your children's sake and also for the betterment of your own life."
Today, five years later, the view from the pulpit in his largely black, working-class church includes the flash of wedding rings. Among Sullivan's initial group of seven cohabiting couples, five have married.
Sullivan's challenge to churchgoers could become more common in the wake of a growing national effort to strengthen marriage. Last week, leaders of nearly 50 million evangelicals sent a letter to President Bush, asking him to set a national goal to cut the nation's divorce rate in half over the next decade.
Some churches are requiring marriage preparation that lasts four to six months. Clergy are pledging to hold annual retreats to strengthen existing marriages. They're also creating stepfamily support groups and courses for those who are separated.
Felix and Kimberlye Bernard are two who agreed to attend Sullivan's marriage education program. "It worked great," says Mr. Bernard of the 13-week program.
Because he has a daughter from a previous relationship, the couple carefully considered the challenges a blended family can face.
They also learned to think long term. "You don't just bail because things don't go the way you think they should," says Mrs. Bernard. "You stay and work it out and pray through it."
Another church member, Eddie Butler, admits that before he wed five years ago, he, like many men, was nervous about marriage. But attending the classes, which cover everything from finances and child-rearing to religion, helped him and his wife reaffirm their desire to get married.
"We knew in advance what we were in for," Mr. Butler says. "We weren't caught off guard when issues came up."
Sullivan uses a mix of books, classes, private counseling, outings, and seminars. Married couples in the church mentor those who are considering marriage and those already married who need help. The approach is based on Marriage Savers, a national community-based effort.
But not all couples have a church affiliation. About a quarter of all weddings are civil ceremonies. Reaching these couples for marriage preparation can be hard.
"The marriage movement has primarily been targeting engaged couples through a faith-based context," says Bob Tures, program director of Strong Families Flagstaff in Arizona. He uses childbirth classes as a way to connect with unmarried couples.
In Grand Rapids, Mich., several judges require couples choosing civil ceremonies to attend a three-hour class, taught by a social worker, before they can marry.
"The response has been very positive," says Mark Eastburg, director of Pine Rest Family Initiative in Grand Rapids. About 500 couples have taken the class, which he describes as "nonreligious, inexpensive, conveniently located, and held at convenient times."
The classes, Mr. Eastburg adds, reach couples who tend to be lower income, have less education, and are ethnically diverse. Many of the women are pregnant when they marry. Statistically, these couples are at a higher risk for divorce.
Whatever the approach - religious or secular - Sullivan defends efforts to shore up marriage and reduce divorce.
"The news media get it wrong," he says. "They think we're trying to force people to get married. We're not. We're just offering a viable alternative to a different lifestyle. They can choose."