It’s easy to idealize marriage. A few short weeks after their wedding, Miles and Aimee Matias (’16) realized just how true this was, as they began to encounter their own selfishness in its ugliest form.

“We thought that marriage was there to benefit us as individuals and not to challenge us as a couple,” Aimee said. “We were no longer living to serve one another, but to serve ourselves.”

The couple found themselves at each other’s throats, struggling to communicate and constantly bickering. At their wit’s end, they decided to look for help, and Aimee, then a student at Biola, remembered a new resource available to them — the Center for Marriage and Relationships. They attended their first marriage conference in October of 2016, and met with Chris and Alisa Grace, the directors of the center, to discuss how they could better communicate as a couple.

The impact was almost immediate. Miles and Aimee began to practice the techniques they had been given, and noticed a significant change in their relationship.

“Our communication skills have drastically changed for the better,” Aimee said. “I’m happy to say that because of it we are able to love each other more fiercely, and push each other to walk humbly for our God ... In each other, not only have we fully discovered the love and grace that God bestows upon us, but we have also found our best friend.”

Relationally Minded

Since opening its doors in July of 2014, Biola’s Center for Marriage and Relationships (CMR) has had a simple but powerful mission: relationships as ministry. And after three years of stories like Miles and Aimee’s, the success of this center has become a testimony to the relevance of its central idea.

At the helm of the center are Chris and Alisa Grace, a husband and wife team respectively serving as director and consulting director. For these two, the creation of the center was not a revolutionary idea, but the result of a lifelong interest and passion for God-centered, healthy relationships and marriages.

The pair have been involved in marriage ministry for over 25 years, and the opportunity to create a center devoted to the topic seemed to come at just the right time, at a university that was primed to embrace it.

“Biola has always been committed to relationships,” said Chris Grace, a longtime Biola administrator and professor at Biola’s Rosemead School of Psychology. “We’ve just been able to bring together some of the key ideas and thoughts and energy and do a center that way. ... I think we’ve just tapped into something that’s pretty important and big, and we have great resources here at Biola.”

From the start, the Center for Marriage and Relationships has set its sights on reaching the broader culture — not just Biola’s students and campus. While providing in-house services like drop-in relationship advice, premarital referrals and counseling, relationship retreats and conferences, marriage mentorship and training opportunities for influencers, mentors and pastors in the area, the center has also actively worked to extend its reach.

Working alongside Tim Muehlhoff, a communications professor at Biola, the minds behind the CMR have worked to bring these resources to the wider community through conferences and talks held both on and off campus.

“Relationships cut across all humans and spectrums, because we all want to be connected and emotionally together with somebody,” Chris Grace said. “So when we go talk about how to communicate well and do relationships well, everybody wants to hear about it.”

Most recently, the center has started expanding its platform to secular campuses. In October, Grace and Muehlhoff gave an open lecture at UC Berkeley sponsored by Cru (formerly Campus Crusade for Christ) titled, “How to Communicate and Be Successful: Tools for Growth in Relationships.”

The event was a huge success. According to UC Berkeley’s Cru directors, it was the largest turnout they’d had in recent history.

“One of our biggest challenges at Cal is ... finding events that spark interest in the spiritually non-interested,” said Dan Goodson, Cru director at Berkeley. “This presentation saw the largest number of non-Christians we’ve had at an event in the past three years, and we’ve been able to share the gospel with a number of them during our follow up.”

The team has since been scheduled to present similar events this fall at UC Irvine and Yale University.

A Universal Need

According to Chris Grace, the topic of relationships is a powerful ministry, both in Christian and non-Christian settings.

“It gets the gospel to people. I think it hits people at the heart,” Grace said. “They want to be listened to and heard, and when they are, they realize that what we’re doing is sharing the secret of how to know our Savior — his redeeming, caring love for us, and that’s timeless. ... Start with your relationship with who God is, and it’s going to minister to your marriage and to your relationships.”

After holding a conference last year for firefighters and their spouses, six people came to Christ. And it didn’t stop there. In the last six months, 12 people have come to Christ through the center’s conferences on marriage and relationships.

“Marriage and relationships are the vehicle we use to get the gospel out there, because it’s so needed,” Alisa Grace said. “And I think the ultimate idea is, if we can help couples have a healthy, robust, satisfying, God-honoring marriage and relationship, that would be a winsome testimony to the world. And that would give them a platform of credibility to stand on to share the gospel with nonbelievers.”

As the center continues expanding its ministry to Christians and non-Christians alike, the Graces hold that their goal remains the same: to meet a universal need.

“Our heart is to reach those who aren’t traditionally reached by good, biblically centered, foundational relationship advice and skills,” said Chris Grace. “The need is so great that people really seek wise voices, and we want to be that biblically centered wise voice, whether we present it to a Christian audience or a non-Christian audience.”

One of the center’s most recent initiatives is its “Neighbor Love” conferences. Intended to take the center’s marriage conference sessions and resources to places where the need is greatest, the first “Neighbor Love” conference, titled “Marriage: Fan the Flame,” was held on Feb. 18 in Detroit, Mich., in partnership with Evangel Ministries and five local churches. The center’s speaking team was joined by Crawford Loritts, senior pastor at Fellowship Bible Church in Georgia and a FamilyLife conference speaker.

“We want to do this in different settings and locations,” Chris Grace said. “It’s for people who don’t have access. The issue isn’t only about economics. It’s about those who are least served. There are populations of people in our country who don’t have access to information about healthy relationships, and that includes Berkeley students; that includes inner- and outer-city folks; that includes those in the suburbs or in a penthouse. And we want to go there.”

A Growing Voice

As the center seeks to expand its influence via conferences and lectures around the country, it continues to project its voice from Biola’s campus through its many online resources, including a podcast recorded and hosted by Chris Grace and Muehlhoff.

The podcast, a biweekly series in which the two discuss hot-button topics regarding marriage, relationships and spirituality, has received an overwhelmingly positive response.

With episodes like “Navigating the Ambiguity of Dating,” “Cohabitation: Why Not Live Together?” and “4 Ways Culture Impacts Relationships,” the center reaches a wide online audience, averaging more than 1,000 downloads per episode, with the most popular episodes reaching more than 1,800 downloads. Through the podcast, the center’s team has been able to gauge not only what topics Biola students are interested in, but which questions people all over the country are asking.

Beyond the podcast, the center has strived to provide an abundance of resources for dating, engaged and married couples, as well as relationship advice for singles.

The center grew from ministering face-to-face with upwards of 2,500 people in their first year to over 5,000 individuals and couples in the next, via marriage conferences, marriage mentoring training, one-on-one counseling, Biola’s Christian relationships class, drop-in hours for relationship advice and various speaking events.

Included in these face-to-face ministering opportunities was the center’s first Marriage Mentoring Training Conference in the spring of 2015, featuring a new 72-page marriage curriculum book co-written by the Graces and Muehlhoff, with over 150 local leaders and pastors in attendance.

As the minds behind this growing force for healthy relationships and marriages within the Biola community and around the country look to the future, they firmly believe the work they’re doing has an eternal impact, and one which has only succeeded because of its root in Christ, they said.

“That’s what we hope to do for the next few years: push the boundaries,” said Chris Grace. “Because we believe in what we have. When you have a biblical foundation of wisdom and God’s truth that speaks into relationships, and you do that with good, healthy science and relationship skills and healthy perspectives from respectable academics, and you combine those in a practical way ... it’s a powerful package.”