Single and Dating
About the Guest
Would you like your son or daughter to have the same dating experience as you? Ben Stuart, pastor of Passion City Church in Washington, D.C., talks about the dating culture and practices on today's college campuses. As former Executive Director for Breakaway Ministries at Texas A&M, Stuart remembers his own initiation into the campus traditions, as well as his dating missteps. Describing his dating life like "a dumpster fire," Stuart tells how he found a faith community where he belonged and, eventually, found love.
Would you like your son or daughter to have the same dating experience as you? Ben Stuart talks with Dave and Ann Wilson about the dating culture and practices on today’s college campuses.
Single and Dating
Bob: Ben Stuart remembers when he started thinking differently about being single.
Ben: I remember, when I was in college, guys would be like, “Hey, I’m writing a journal to my future wife and I’m just telling her, ‘I’m thinking about you tonight.’ I remember trying to do that once; and I’m like, “Hey, you may or may not exist; and this is dumb,” and I quit. [Laughter] I put it away; and I was like: God doesn’t owe me a wife!”—like He doesn’t owe me one. That started me going: “Well, I don’t know if I’ll get married or not; so what am I doing here? If singleness isn’t about getting married, what’s it about?”
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Wednesday, June 5th. Our hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson; I'm Bob Lepine. The Bible says singleness is a gift; but if you’re single, be honest: “Don’t you think of it as kind of a white elephant gift?” We’re going to talk more about singleness today. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. I just wonder how many people—if you took a random survey—and said, “Would you like to share your story of going from singleness to married, just from the beginning to the end—all the details—you’d like to have that be a book that everybody in America would read?” [Laughter]
Ann: I wouldn’t like that to be my book!
Bob: I’ve been in audiences with parents; and I’ve said, “How many of you would like your kids to have, as their experience during their teen years, the same thing you had as your experience during your teen years?”
Dave: No, no, no.
Ann: Have you asked that?
Bob: Oh, yes.
Ann: Does anybody raise their hand?—a few?
Bob: Maybe two of a hundred.
Bob: And then the question is: “What do you do, as a parent, to try to keep your kids from having some of the damaging experiences they had?” We have the answer today; what you do is—you give your kids Single, Dating, Engaged, Married by Ben Stuart. [Laughter]
Ann: Yes! Thank you for writing this book.
Ben: Absolutely. [Laughter]
Bob: Ben Stuart joins us on FamilyLife Today; welcome back.
Ben: Well, thank you!
Bob: It’s been awhile since we’ve been here.
Dave: Ben’s laughing; he likes that intro. [Laughter]
Ben: That’s great; that’s great!
Bob: Ben is the pastor at Passion City Church in Washington, DC—for years, gave leadership to a ministry at Texas A&M called Breakaway. Writing this book really comes out of all of those years of working with college students and young adults, who were trying to figure out, “What’s the path we should be on to where we want to go?”
Ben: Yes; yes.
Bob: Because most of them want to go to marriage.
Bob: But you make the statement in the book: “Kids today see marriage as the end of the journey that they’re on rather than the beginning of the journey.” Explain what you mean.
Ben: Yes; that’s been a shift in the culture. Marriage used to be something you would jump into really early, and I think there are varying degrees of why this happened and different factors; but part of it is, I think, the fear of failure in marriage. I think there’s also a popular presentation of: “You have to get your career on point before you figure out your relationships.”
But yes; I wrote the book—I never set out to be: “Let’s be the dating guy. Let’s try that out.” [Laughter] I mean, there are people, who knew me in college, that they are like: “Ben wrote a what? [Laughter] You have to be kidding me. That guy was a train wreck.”
But yes; I sat at Texas A&M—I mean, when I got there, Facebook® was just coming out. I mean, students were like: “This is nuts. You can get online and ba-ba-bum, and do this stuff…” So my ten years there/twelve years were the twelve years when the iPhone® was coming out, carrying around the World Wide Web. I watched that huge technological shift have an incredible impact on how people interact with each other, just social interaction.
This book, for me, came out of a heart of compassion, pastorally. To watch a lot of these cultural shifts over the last few years really brought a lot of stress, anxiety, and confusion in the young people, particularly, in how they meet each other; so dating’s being delayed; marriage is being delayed—and a lot of confusion/anxiety came into the mix. So yes; this book, for me, was a place of just trying to help some young people I really love.
Dave: You started at A&M as a student; right?
Ben: That is correct; yes.
Dave: Yes; I mean, reading the beginning of the book—that whole story, which, you know, I’ve never heard of anything—like going to the stadium to practice your yells.
Ann: Yes; tell us about that.
Dave: Yes; what in the world is that? [Laughter]
Ben: A&M’s a special place, man. [Laughter] Instantly, you jump in; you go, “This is a place of traditions, man.” They’re pretty amazing traditions; one of them is—
Bob: In fact, there are folks, who have whooped, since we have started talking—
Ben: I guarantee you they have.
Ann: Oh, really?
Bob: —because, when you say the word, Texas A&M, you get people who just whooped because they heard it.
Bob: But that’s one of the traditions, and then the stadium tradition—
Ben: Yes; so you show up the night before, midnight, to practice the yells; because we don’t just cheer—you lean forward to maximize the dynamics of your voice/get full lungs—and you all yell the exact same thing in unison. Then when all that’s done, we turn out all the lights and you make out with the person you brought.
I remember when they said that—my roommates—I thought they were joking! And then they were like, “Well, if you didn’t bring a girl,” which I obviously didn’t, “you hold up a lighter”—and that would be your phone—“and someone finds you, and you kiss them.” Now, it’s like not everyone would do this—especially now, there’s so much fear around that.
Ben: But yes; that was the expectation, and it was just full-on anxiety for me.
Bob: So did you go? Did you go to yell practice?
Ben: Yes; I would go to yell practice. Whenever that moment came, I would just get low—just duck/just try to get out of the way. [Laughter]
Dave: You didn’t hold up your little light?
Ben: No; man, no! That’s risky! That’s a risky endeavor!—you know what I mean by that? [Laughter] That could put you in a lot of different zones, and I just wasn’t ready to be there.
Bob: You went, like a lot of college students—you’re a single guy; you’re thinking, “It’d be nice to find a girl at college,”—weren’t you thinking that?
Ben: Yes; I mean, it was interesting. When I was in college, there was a lot of people that thought that way, like, “If I don’t meet my wife here—
Bob: —“life’s over.”
Ben: Yes—“what now?”
You know, I’m not that old, so the shift has been pretty marked in the last ten—really, since the iPhone® came out. If you think about it, 2007 was a real breakpoint for people in social dynamics—how they treat each other. Being on the campus, as a minister, I watched it happen. I would watch people on my staff come and go: “Man, what is the deal? Have you noticed, when people come and talk to you, they say really awkward, inappropriate things?” or “…a lot of them are having trouble making eye contact with you?” or whatever.
I said: “Hey, look, we can get frustrated about it; but I think part of our job, now, is socialization. We have to help some young people—not just help them know who they are in Christ and help them know who Jesus is—we have to help them figure out how to look in the eye, and talk, and have social interaction—
Bob: —have a real relationship.
Ben: Yes; because most of it’s tech based now rather than conversational, and it messes with social dynamics. You can see where that can begin to domino into dating.
Bob: Yes; and your point here—and I think it’s profound—is that singleness in 2019 is way different than singleness was, even, a decade ago.
Bob: The dynamics of what interaction looks like between singles—I mean, this is the “swipe right” era/this is the era of texting—and it changes the dynamics of what meaningful relationship looks like.
You had a girlfriend your freshman year; right?
Ben: Mmm; yes.
Dave: What’s that mean?!—“Mmm; yes.” [Laughter]
Ben: Well, I was one of those guys that left high school and was still sort of dating the girl that didn’t go to your college with you.
Ben: You know, I would meet those kids, as a minister [later], and they’d be like, “Well, I have a girlfriend; she’s back home.” I’m like, “Oh, alright; well, that will probably end soon,” just because you’re entering such a different zone, relationally; and it’s hard for those to make it.
Bob: So this ended; this break-up—this long-distance relationship—did you break it up?
Ben: Yes, I did; I did. It actually did kick-start my friendship with my best friend, though—it’s the weirdest thing. When [she] and I were kind of not working out too well—we had a summer—she came back from one of those mission deals, where you go fix up houses. She just kept talking about this guy that she worked on a roof with, and they built a roof. He was so selfless, and served people, and was so amazing.
I remember, after a week of this, I was like: “Hey, so that guy? I hate him,”—just so you know—[Laughter]—“Like super friend buddy?—like I can’t stand him. If I ever meet him—punch him in the face! [Laughter] I can’t hear another sentence about this guy!” You know, that’s where I was like, “Alright; our lives our growing apart; we’re going a different path.” [Laughter] So, you know, I broke it off, just like, “This obviously isn’t working.”
But it was the funniest thing, because I still had her picture up in my room. [Laughter]This guy came over to my house and was like, “Do you know”—and said her name. I was like, “Yes; I know her.” He looks at the picture and he goes, “Wait a minute,”—he goes—“Yes; [she] and I built roofs together,”—whatever.
Dave: No way!
Ben: I was like, “You’re the guy!” He’s looking at the picture, and we’re holding hands in the picture—and literally, both of us looked at each other and were, “Wait a minute.” I said, “You’re the roof guy?” and he was like, “You’re the boyfriend?”
I said, “Excuse me?” He goes: “Dude, the whole week on that roof, I’m trying to hit on this girl. She was going on and on about how amazing you are, and how selfless, and how amazing…” [Laughter] I was like, “Dude, she came back and wouldn’t shut up about you!” I was like, “I’ve been waiting to punch you in the face!” [Laughter] We just both started laughing; and still, to this day, are best friends. [Laughter]
Ann: So that became your best friend.
Ann: He was a good guy!
Ben: Yes; he turned out to be a pretty good guy. [Laughter]
Bob: Your sophomore year—you started dating somebody else?
Ben: I didn’t date a lot; I mean, I was a train wreck. A lot of it, for me, was I didn’t have the emotional maturity in college. I realized Ben and God weren’t right; so anytime I started a we—when I really didn’t have much insight into me—the we always went sideways.
Bob: There was somebody you broke up with and, then, kissed right after you broke up?
Ben: Yes; that was a little later in college—didn’t learn a lot in college, Bob! [Laughter] That was kind of later in college.
Bob: Do you want to explain how that happens? You break up and then you—[Laughter]
Ann: It was their first kiss; wasn’t it?
Dave: Hey Bob, I can tell he doesn’t want to go there. You keep pressing for this.
Ben: This is great; I thought we were going to talk about statistics—[Laughter]—this is great.
You know what’s great, though? I will say about that girl—yes; she was amazing—we actually did it right. I felt good about that relationship with her, because we—
Bob: The one you broke up and, then, kissed?—you feel good about that one?
Ben: Not about that moment; [Laughter] but I feel good about this element of it, Bob—is we had talked about, when we first said, “Hey, let’s try out dating,”—[I’m] like, “Okay; what are some things you feel comfortable with and don’t feel comfortable with, even physically?” She had some ground rules of: “I really don’t want to cross these lines, physically. We just don’t know where this relationship’s going to go, so let’s not go across these lines.” We really—we really did that pretty well.
Bob: —honored that.
Ben: Yes; so I met her husband, later on. Unlike some other relationships, I didn’t feel awkward looking him in the eye.
Bob: You said something that I think is at the core of the first part of this book, Single, Dating, Engaged, Married. You said you weren’t right with God and you weren’t right with you, as you were entering into some of these relationships. If you had one message to singles, that would be it; wouldn’t it?
Ben: Yes; it was pretty profound for me; because I realized, at the end of college, “My dating life is just a dumpster fire. I can’t get these right, and I don’t know what I’m doing.” So I just took a break in my early 20s—23.
I remember, when I was in college, guys would be like, “Hey, I’m writing a journal to my future wife and I just tell her, ‘I’m thinking about you tonight.’” I remember trying to do that once; and I’m like, “Hey, you may or may not exist and this is dumb,” and I quit. [Laughter] I put it away; and I was like, “God doesn’t owe me a wife!”—like He doesn’t owe me one. I realize, “I do want one, but He doesn’t—I don’t want to get to a place where I’m like, ‘And You will give me one,’ because He doesn’t owe me that.”
That started me going: “Well, I don’t know if I’ll get married or not. So what am I doing here? If singleness isn’t about getting married, what’s it about?” That was really this personal thing I went on when I got out of college—having Ben’s existential crisis—“What am I here in the world for?” I started trying to figure that out. It was really mind-blowing for me, reading Paul, when he’s talking about his singleness being a gift. He says, “I’m not saying this to shackle you”—he said—“but so you might pursue an undistracted devotion to the Lord.” Then he starts talking about the hassles of being married.
But that phrase grabbed me—I’m like: “That’s what this singleness is for. The primary relationship for me is me and God,” and I understand that. I think every human being longs for a sense of purpose in life—that, to me, was, “My singleness has purpose.” That was so deeply satisfying, and I wrote this treatise to myself about: “This is what my singleness is about; this is what it’s going to be for…”
I remember, years later, I got invited to speak at a singles’ deal; and it was all these thousands of singles. They’re like, “What do you want to talk about?” I said, “Singleness”; and they’re like, “Don’t do it, man.” They were all expecting me to say, “You just have to wait by the well and be strong,” you know? But I got up there and was like: “Your singleness has a purpose—not to pursue distraction/not just career ambition—it’s to really know God. You have all this free time that you can leverage in His Word/in His work—make a difference in the world.”
It was just coming out of me because that was my life. It resonated with people a lot. I realized, “This helps people, when they’re single, because they’re all wondering what to do with the time.” Over the years, as I’ve done it, you really see people go: “Man, this helps me get a handle on, ‘I have purpose in this time.’” That’s a great message to give people.
Then the ancillary benefit is—as you get to know God more, you get to know yourself more—you become more like Him. You just become a healthier person when a relationship does show up.
Bob: You still have two things, in the midst of this being devoted to God and—I’m thinking of, at least, two things—one is, “I’m lonely for companionship/for somebody who knows me well; it’s a longing in my heart,” and secondly, “I’m frustrated because I have urges and desires that are outside of what God wants for me.”
I’m just thinking of the singles, who are listening, going, “Yes; okay, I get ‘devoted to God’ and ‘really pursue Him hard’ and ‘you have all this time—it’s undistracted; it’s great.’ What do you do with lonely?” and “What do you with those desires?”
Ben: This was an interesting thing for me—this was also coinciding with the first time I was really a part of a church. I had attended church; but you know, I graduated college—my plan was to wander the earth in pursuit of adventure. [Laughter] I just did not—I’m like, “I don’t even know what I’m doing.” Someone was like, “Man, have you ever thought about helping to plant a church?” I had never even heard those words! I showed up there; and they were like, “Hey, we heard about your passion for youth.” I’m like, “My what?!” [Laughter]
But I trusted this leader—I was like, “I can learn a lot from this guy.” I said, “Yes, I can work with youth; that’s cool,” and just jumped into this deal. Suddenly, found myself on a staff with—there was a single girl; the pastor was single/he was engaged; there was a married worship pastor—and he would invite us dudes to go sit on his back porch every weekend and hang out. Suddenly, I was surrounded by this community—there were older people, younger, whatever. I realized there are sexual longings—that was part of your questions—but there are also communal longings, that we assume are going to be met in that marriage zone, that can really substantially be met in this kind of familial church community.
So for my wife and I—like fast forward to when we got married—we always have an orbit of singles in our world. They regularly come up and thank us for just—like: “Thanks for letting me be a part of a family. Thanks that your kids know me, and…”
Bob: What does that look like, practically—that orbit of relationships with single people?
Ben: Yes; it’s different in different seasons, and my wife is great at this—I mean, so for her—she just knew: “I’m doing life, but I’m always going to grab someone and bring them with me; so if I’m going to the store, ‘Hey, why don’t you all come do this?’”
I remember, when we moved into our first house, she’s like, “I want to fix this fence.” My wife’s never like, “So I’ll go do it.” She said: “I want to fix this fence. I’m going to call these four girls to come fix the fence.” These girls are like: “Fix a fence! What are you talking about?” So she’s teaching them something/teaching them a skill, and they’re doing it together. They’re having a shared experience/making a memory, and these girls still talk about it. Then, she’d have girls over and teach them to cook; so while she’s cooking, they’re cooking with her.
Ann: She’s discipling as she goes through life.
Ben: —just as she goes along.
Ann: Yes; right.
Ben: So as we had kids, it was like, “Alright, it’s a little less of building this and that; now jump in and help me raise these kids,”—now, jump in in this element. So sometimes it’s babysitting, kind of that structure here while we’re out, but if often flows into, “Hey, stay for dinner,” “Hey, come with us as we go do this thing together.”
Ann: Did you guys purposely look for singles at church?—because I’m thinking of our listeners, thinking, “They’re surrounded at churches by single people that may feel that loneliness and would probably love to be scooped up.”
Ben: You know, I don’t know if we ever sat down and said this, like: “That’s the treatise of the Stuart family. We will…”; but people did that for me. I was the last of my friends to get married—like all my groomsmen were already married; they’re holding their kids exhausted, you know; [Laughter] and I finally just got married. I was the single guy; and she was the single girl at her church, in a lot of ways. We had these communities really surround us; so yes, I just think it was normal for us to think like that.
Now, you look at the culture and—what is it?—45 percent of adults are single. You better figure out how to adapt singles into your world, because they’re everywhere. Many of them are living alone and don’t have a social orbit. You know, when we started the church in DC, we started with these community groups. They’ve exploded; because people are lonely, man; and people—lonely and struggling to know how to connect with people in a way that’s healthy.
Bob: I’m hearing out of this: “If you’re married/if you have a family, bring the singles into the orbit of your life.
Bob: “Be intentional; be purposeful about that. If you’re involved in a local church, help the singles, who are a part of that community, have some community and some relationship. Sometimes, that can be really awkward and clumsy.” I’m thinking of the singles at our church—and if I said, “Hey, why don’t you all come over?”—they’d be like: “What is this? Is this supposed to be a matchmaking thing?”
Dave: —a project.
Bob: Yes; right.
Bob: So that can be awkward, but work your way through the awkwardness and figure out how to make it work in your church. Have them all come over and say, “Look, let’s be about kingdom work. What should we be doing, here, in our city?”—right?
Ann: Well, and I think, as married couples, often we think: “My life is a mess. I have these little kids…” or “My kids are older, teenagers, and I don’t want this single to come in here; they’re going to think I’m a mess and they will never want to get married.” [Laughter] You know what I mean?
I just think that’s good—to open our eyes/to think: “This would be great. It’s discipleship; it’s mentoring; it’s community/friendship.”
Bob: And then the last thing is: “If you’re single and if your relationship with God is not what it ought to be—not strong/you’re not walking with Him regularly—if you have a lot of internal issues and stuff, you’re at the dumpster fire that Ben was talking about—probably, not the right framework to go say, ‘I should go find a boyfriend…’ or ‘…a girlfriend right now,’ if those other things are true about you.
Bob: “So get that working well before you get out there and try to find a relationship.”
Ann: Did you know you were in a dumpster fire? [Laughter]
Ben: Yes; and so did everyone around me. [Laughter] Yes; it was fairly obvious that “Something’s wrong with the boy.”
But yes; you know, it was interesting—I remember my roommate in college would go out—his family lived in West Texas—and [he was] like: “Man, every Friday was this community dance. You would invite a girl, and we would all do this dance.” I’m like, “Your parents and everybody?” “Yes.” I was like: “Dude, that’s like the weirdest thing. What are you talking about?” He said: “Yes; this is normal. You go up in Garner City Park, and there is a big dance on Friday. You invite a girl and go.” I’m like, “Okay.”
Then, when my wife and I traveled in France, we stayed in this little village in France. They are like, “Hey, do you want to come with us Friday night?” We were like, “What are you doing?” “The whole village goes in this big deal and we put on a dance.” I’m like, “Wait; what?!” It was interesting—to be like that wasn’t just a weird West Texas thing—it was like a human thing.
Then, when I was researching for this book, I saw it in some secular resources. They were like, “In the past, the church saw that as part of the way to help singles,”—they would host dances. Literally, churches would host dances or, sometimes, they would just create avenues, where marrieds and singles sort of did it together. You had a community around you.
Ann: The only place that happens now is wedding receptions.
Bob: —or country and western bars on Saturday night.
Ben: We’ve outsourced it now. If you look in the statistics, it’s in bars and online are the primary places; and churches—it’s not. I think that’s a loss. I know my wife and I benefited from having these communities around us in our churches.
Bob: Do you think, if I got singles at our church together and said, “Let’s all go through this book together, Single, Dating, Engaged, Married,” would that be weird?
Bob: You think they’d be into that?
Ben: I think so; yes. I mean, your church may have an avenue for them, but some may not. That’d be a normal way to do it. I think, especially, if you come in—inquisitive, not with all the answers—you know what I mean?—if you come in like: “How’s this experience for you?” “What’s it like?” “How does this go?”
Ann: —wanting to know them.
Ben: Yes; and then they’ll hear about your experience and be shocked by it, you know.
I read an article in The Atlantic recently, where this woman was in her 30s; and she just did this—just interviewed singles/talked to them. They asked her, “How’d you meet your husband?” and she explained: “We worked in the same office, so we’d always see each other. He just came up and said, ‘Hi.’”
She said, “It shocked me that they were shocked.” [Singles asked] “He just came up and said, ‘Hi,’ like a stranger?” “Yes; because we would see each other a lot.” They were like, “No—like we don’t—I would, instantly, think that was a stalker.”
Ben: You see the social dynamics have changed so much that even starting a conversation with a stranger feels weird.
Bob: Well, for those who are interested, we have copies of your book in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. They may just want to read it on their own—like, hide it in your house so that nobody knows you’re reading it—[Laughter]—but it may be something that you want to get together with other folks and go through and just say, “Does this match up with your experience?”—especially—again, I’m thinking, “Married couples, get together the singles; invite them over to your house and say, ‘Let’s go through this together,’ and ‘We’ll be here to just tell you our story and where we messed up, and hear your stories, and just help you think about all of these things.’”
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You know, I think, no matter how you slice it, in what we’ve talked about today, being single is challenging. David Robbins, who’s the President of FamilyLife, is here with us; and you’ve worked with a lot of singles—on the college campus and as you were living and working in Manhattan—it’s hard to be single.
David: Yes; I mean, there is this desire for many singles to be married/to be in a relationship. There’s a frustration of the dating game and just a settling of “I guess this is what it’s like.”
The thing I’ve enjoyed, in being able to journey alongside people with that longing, is watching those moments, when they break through and go, “I still have that longing, and it gnaws at my soul some days; it’s a deep longing.” Yet, when they break through and experience Jesus as the lover of their soul—not in a trite way/not in a token way—but when the fullness of us being the Beloved and being able to focus our purpose and our passion around Him—I watch those breakthroughs happen for people; and sure enough, in a few months or in a year, they’ll be processing the longings again, if God hasn’t provided a spouse; but it has proven to me, time and time again, Jesus is a worthy lover of our soul.
Bob: It reminds me of what Augustine said, in his Confessions, when he said, “Our hearts are restless until we find our rest in Him.” That’s true, whether you’re single/whether you’re married—wherever you are in life—right?
David: Yes; no doubt.
Bob: Thank you, David; and thanks to those who have joined us today.
Tomorrow, we’re going to continue our conversation with Ben Stuart about singleness, and dating, and engagement and marriage—a lot more to unpack. Hope you can tune in for that.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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