How the church can love and honour singles
There are a lot of Christian singles in our churches today. Increasingly, these are older, never-married Christian women in their 30s, 40s, or beyond. Statistics bear this out. The gender imbalance between men and women is great: in the US, church attendance is on average 61% female, 39% male; in the UK, acccording to a 2007 survey, 65% female, 35% male.
It's way beyond the scope of this blog to try to address why this gender gap exists, or how churches can fix it. It's simply enough to recognize that in our churches, there are large numbers of singles, mainly women. Often a glance around the congregation on a Sunday morning is enough to see this.
Given this gender gap, it's a statistical reality that many Christian women who desire marriage and children will not be able to achieve this, at least with a man who shares their faith. Many will wait years, only to remain disappointed. For the many for whom dating or marrying someone outside their faith is not an option, singleness may well be part of the cost of following Jesus.
God is, of course, capable of providing. I know several Christian women who found spouses in their 30s, 40s, and even 50s. Given the overall societal trend of later marriage, it's not surprising that this trend finds its way into the church as well.
However, how does the church love and minister well to those who are still waiting, those who may never marry, and those for whom singleness may be a calling (a nearly lost concept in the modern church?)
I've seen a few blog posts lately asking these questions, and here are some of my thoughts.
1. Stop telling people that they will find a spouse one day
People (usually married) who interact with singles and observe their frustration at not being married often react by assuring them that they are sure they will find someone one day. This is very well-meant and intended to comfort and encourage. However, I believe it is misguided.
No one has the ability to predict or promise that anyone will find a spouse. It's a very human reaction to want to respond to someone's suffering by offering hope. But it has the effect of denying the person's struggle in the here and now, and it's something God hasn't guaranteed. It also overlooks the fact that some percentage of singles are so by desire or calling. Instead of whitewashing someone's struggle by making unfounded promises, how about walking with them through it? How about learning what it might be like for them to live in the wait, and how you can support and love them?
As Christians, we have faith in God. We believe he does miracles, and that he provides for his children. But we also know that we live in a fallen world where suffering and sin are all-too-present realities. Let's mourn with those who mourn and realistically acknowledge the brokenness of this world and how it affects us (not just singleness). Let's grant one another the gift to be real about hard things without offering magical, brush-it-away answers. Let's be honest about the fact that following Jesus involves real cost, and may well involve the cost of singleness.
2. Don't assume you know why someone is single, or how they feel about it
There are a myriad of reasons why someone might be single and a myriad of reactions, from chosen singleness to people who are desperate for a spouse and children. As with any other life circumstance, singles and their reasons for being so and their feelings about it are many-faceted.
Some “hidden” reasons people may be single are mental illness, the fallout of past abuse, or same-sex attraction. Some may be single after an unwanted divorce. Some suffer the pain of unfulfilled longings for parenthood, whereas for others this is not a factor at all. Some singles are parents. To love and minister well to singles, get to know them. Look past superficiality and seek to understand the underlying realities.
3. Don't offer “helpful” advice about how not to be single
I've heard as much bad advice about how to find someone in the church as I have outside of it, and unfortunately, these answers are often exactly the same in the church as outside (with some added God-dust). I once had someone tell me that when you stop looking, you find someone. This was a person who decided to stop dating when he was about 20 years old, and the same day literally had his future wife turn up on his doorstep. At the time he told me this, they'd been married for about 10 years. I was 30 and single and had never looked for someone.
The wrong thinking behind this is that there is a fixed order to the universe such that if you put the right results in, you get the right results out. If you are getting the wrong results, there must be something you can do to fix it. As Christians, we should know better. See the book of Job.
Your situation, how God worked in your life, someone else's situation, received wisdom you've heard: none of this is a magic formula for finding a spouse. And it's extremely discouraging for someone who has tried the things you suggest and remains single. As with not assuming you know why someone is single or how they feel about it, don't assume you can offer them advice about dating, even if it worked for you.
If you have a foundation of real relationship with this person and they ask for advice, then tactfully offer suggestions. Please do not present it as the God-ordained way they will find a spouse. You can say “this worked for me” or “this worked for friends of mine”, but do not present it as a guaranteed formula. I'm looking at you, internet dating.
Present your story as just that, a story. Everyone's prone to thinking that their experience is somehow normative. Your story is what happened to you. It is not a life guide for every single person who wants to be married.
4. Churches: stop treating singles only as not-yet-married people
A huge amount of advice I hear or read on singleness, especially from married people, assumes that all singles want to be married and will be married one day. Thus, it speaks to them as potential married people and treats heavily on topics like dating, abstaining from sex, preparing yourself emotionally for marriage, healing from past wounds so you can be a better spouse. All of it is focused on the goal of someday-marriage, assuming that for all singles that is a reality.
As singles, we are so much more than potential married people, who are “on hold” before we get to real life. Also, some of us have chosen to remain single, or simply won't get married despite our desire. Stop assuming that you know what all singles want, and that it is marriage. Stop aiming all advice to singles at finding or preparing for a spouse, as if that was all that was on our minds.
Married pastors, if you are going to preach or write to singles, how about talking to a wide variety of them, from all ages and stages of life, to find out what their needs and perspectives are? It is very different to be single at 30-something than 20-something. It is yet different again in the 40s and 50s and beyond.
And please: acknowledge that it is a valid calling for many Christians to remain single. There is not necessarily something “wrong” with someone who doesn't want or seek marriage.
5. Do relationships and life together better
I believe the answer to singleness is relationship within the body of Christ. I believe the church is meant to function as a family, which knows each other, loves each other, spends time together, prays together, holds each other accountable, ministers together, has fun together.
This is about so much more than Sunday morning meetings and Wednesday night bible studies. This is about a culture of relationship which values depth and honesty. This is NOT about groups or social events for singles, although that could be part of it. I've been in churches where there was lots of social activity but little real relationship.
Relationship involves a willingness for things to be messy and vulnerable and broken. It means knowing what's really going on in one another's lives. Allowing others to be their real selves, and being our real selves in return. An understanding of the gospel that acknowledges the presence of sin, the power of grace, and the cleansing of confession. A church culture that is not about keeping up appearances, but which is committed to knowing and loving one another exactly where we are. Confessing sin to one another, praying for one another, counselling one another, holding one another accountable, speaking about what we've learned from God's word, doing life together. Our church friends should be people who matter to us during the week. When these things are in place, real community happens, and most of the loneliness of singleness is mitigated.
I believe that this culture of community is why singleness was such a valid possibility in the early church. Nowadays we expect one relationship, marriage, to meet all or most of our relational needs. This is a relatively modern construct. Earlier societies, including that of the New Testament church, and many non-Western societies today, recognize the value of an inter-connected web of relationships that are just as valuable as marriage. The church can and should be that family to those who don't have a biological one.
Hospitality is a huge part of this. There are many encouragements to hospitality in the New Testament and opening your home can be a great blessing to those who don't have families. Everyone is looking for a place to belong, a place to be comfortable, a place to connect with people who care about them. If you are married or single, and you have a home you can offer, please extend this gift to others. You will be blessed more than you will be inconvenienced by the broken vase or the dirty dishes.
6. Restore singleness to the honoured place it has in the New Testament and the early church; develop a theology of singleness that honours this life position as much as marriage
I'm not sure where the switch happened, but although the NT exalts the value of singleness, we've gone completely the opposite way and exalted marriage to the highest place in the church. It is viewed as the norm and the apex of the Christian life. Singles are viewed as not-yet-arrived, second-class citizens, married-people-in-waiting, not fully capable of maturity, wisdom, leadership, or authority. It's assumed you'll get married, unless there's something wrong with you. This, despite the Founder of our faith (Jesus) and the most influential apostle (Paul) being single.
1 Corinthians 7 actually indicates that Paul views singleness as desirable and to be maintained if you can handle it, as it offers unique benefits for wholeheartedly serving the Lord. Marriage is a concession to our humanity and the reality of sexual desire. I believe the reason Paul, and the early church, had this attitude is that they were far more keenly aware of eternity and spiritual reality than we are.
This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away. (1 Cor 7:29-31)
In light of the kingdom of God, the shortness of life, and eternity, marriage and other earthly realities do not hold the importance that we place on them. As a single person, my singleness is only for this life, as is a married person's marriage. The supreme reality of my life, as a follower of Jesus, is my relationship with him and an eternity where marriage won't exist. The supreme question of my life will not be whether or not I was married. It will be whether I made the best use of what he entrusted to me and if I faithfully and lovingly followed him.
It's time we restored this focus to the church. The biological family, as important and precious as it is, should not be our main focus. Instead, the new family that Jesus created when he died and rose again and put his Spirit within believers will become our focus. In that family, there is no such thing as superiority or inferiority based on marital status or any other factor. There are only equally valuable people following Jesus in different life situations.
Single people are whole in Christ; we are not half-people waiting for a spouse. Many of us have much wisdom, maturity, insight, and godliness to offer. Many of us are gifted in areas of leadership, teaching, and evangelism. Instead of relegating us to singles' groups (something I see as completely unbiblical), why not seek out what we have to offer and put us in positions of ministry in the church? And I don't just mean “singles-appropriate” ministry.
No church would state that they value singles less than they value married people. However, the real value you place on people can be estimated by the extent to which you include them and entrust them with responsibility. If you are excluding singles (or any other group) from leadership, decision-making, social events, and the “inner circle” of the church, you are stating loud and clear that you do not value them as you do married people.
Relationship and purpose: these are what everyone craves, and finding these in the church is what enables Christian singles to live full and satisfying lives, and avoid the temptation to compromise by meeting these needs in other ways. If we did these things well, much of the burden of singleness that many carry would be lifted.