From the pulpit, the typical pastor can see all kinds of people whose ears will burn during a sermon about what used to be called "living in sin."
There will be a few young adults who are cohabitating, as well as many moms and dads whose children quietly share street addresses with their significant others. There will be smiling couples the pastor married without asking many personal questions. There may be one or two divorced deacons with skeletons in their closets.
Few ministers have the courage to risk offending these people, said Scott Stanley of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver. Pastors are afraid that if they preach on cohabitation many people will get mad and that some will hit the exits.
"Pastors are getting very gun shy when it comes to issues of marriage, family and sex," he said. "Certainly, cohabitation would be right at the top of a list of these issues, along with premarital sex. They are so tired of getting beat up because they have hurt people's feelings.
"So they just give up and what you hear is silence from the church. All people are hearing are the 'Go!' signals from the media and the culture."
This silence seems to be having an effect, especially with women, according to a study by Stanley and his colleagues Sarah Whitton and Howard Markman.
The researchers found -- as expected -- that deeply religious men are much less likely to cohabitate before saying their vows. But, to their surprise, they learned that religious women are just as likely to move in before marriage as non-religious women.
These religious women probably think they are being cautious and "testing" their relationships. They may be convinced that they have to cohabitate in order to compete for love in this day and age. Some may believe that they will eventually be able to convert their live-in lovers to a traditional view of faith, marriage and family.
"Truth is, a woman gains nothing" by cohabitating before marriage, said journalist Michael McManus, author of "Marriage Savers: Helping Your Friends and Family Stay Married." Whatever their rationalizations, these women "are just being fools. ... Too many women today are allowing themselves to be used as playmates," he said.
Some church leaders, said McManus, have fallen silent on this issue because they no longer believe that sex outside of marriage is sin. Their silence is understandable. It is harder to understand the silence in so many congregations -- Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox -- that still affirm centuries of Judeo-Christian teachings on sexual morality.
Yet that silence is real. The "Marriage Savers" network (www.marriagesavers.org) is active in 163 cities and towns in 39 states and, wherever he travels to speak, McManus said he never sees more than one or two hands raised when he asks, "How many of you have ever heard a sermon on cohabitation?"
McManus is convinced most pastors simply do not know that 5 million unmarried Americans are living together. More than 60 percent of couples cohabitate before marriage. Pastors do not know that these women face higher levels of depression and lower levels of communication and commitment. They are more than 60 percent more likely to be assaulted and their children are endangered, as well.
Data from the University of Wisconsin provides a painful bottom line: couples that cohabit before marriage increase their odds of divorce by 50 percent. Researchers found that only 15 out of every 100 cohabitating couples were married after a decade.
The goal is not to attack couples with these numbers, said McManus. The goal is to warn them and to offer them mentors, in the form of married couples who understand the challenges that are ahead. The church needs to reach out to young people while they are dating, before the pressures built to live together. Parents need this information, too.
"We need to set a high standard, but we can do that in a loving way," he said. "What the church has done is collapse its standards. The modern church is -- by its silence -- giving young couples nothing to aspire to. They need a higher goal."