The number of single adults in the United States is growing fast. The US Census Bureau reports that in 1990, 40.4 million, or 22.2 percent, of all adults had never been married; by 2009, that number had jumped to 59.1 million, or 26.1 percent of all adults. When you add in those who are widowed or divorced, 42.6 percent of all adults in 2009 were single. The proportion of married adults dropped from 61.9 percent of all adults in 1990 to 57.4 percent in 2009.
With more than four in ten adults in this country now single, many people of faith are single too. What is it like to be both Christian and single? How can singles live faithfully as Christians? What support can the church offer singles?
Pressure to Get Married
In researching this article, I began by typing “Single and Christian” into an Internet search engine. Of the first ten recommended websites generated, all were about Christian singles and dating. Seven were for dating services, including one stating that its focus is “Christian dating for marriage minded Christian singles,” and another with the headline “Being Christian and Single—FREE Christian Dating Service.” Other recommended websites included one offering “Christian Singles & Dating, Biblical advice, Help, Tips,” and another page from Focus on the Family’s website exploring the questions “Where have all the good men gone? Why are so many Christian women who desire marriage still going through their lives alone?”
The message from the search seems to indicate that Christian singles should seek to become married. Scripture, with Genesis’ encouragement to “be fertile and multiply” (Genesis 1:28), and the church, which often seems focused on married couples and the nuclear family, can often echo that message. The world around us puts additional pressure on Christian singles. “Living in a very secular society, which is saturated with sex and the quest for love, can present many challenges for the Christian single,” writes Lea-Ann Virnig. “Whether you are single by choice or circumstance, our culture is filled with temptations that the Christian single needs to be prepared to deal with.”
“One challenge many single people face is the pressure they feel from family, friends, society and even their church community,” Virnig writes, adding that the pressure to be married is usually greater for those over 25. “Often church communities are family-centric, and a majority of their events are focused on couples and families, leaving singles to feel the need to find a spouse just to belong.”
The Church and Singles
Virnig writes that singles can feel lonely. This loneliness is intensified by the widely held belief that a romantic relationship completes a person. We often refer to someone’s spouse as his or her “other half.” Does that mean that a single person is not a complete person? However, Soozung Sa, who used to work for the General Board of Discipleship, writes that many single people “feel whole. They live healthy, vibrant lives.”
While God designed us to live in relationship, that does not necessarily mean that each and every person must marry, nor does it mean that if we are single we are not being faithful to God. Instead, we are not to live in isolation. We are created as social beings; we are to live in relationship with others. The church, as the community of Jesus’ followers, focuses on relationships with God and with other people. Yet some singles who yearn for such a community feel left out of the church.
Sa believes that the church seems “to be caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to ministering with singles.” Some who are single do not want or need defined singles’ ministries. Others have specific needs they would like the church to meet. She continues, “Regardless of the needs and desires of both the congregation and the single people who find themselves in the pews, there are some things the church can do to better extend hospitality to the single population.”
Sa suggests that one easy way to include those who are single is with the use of language. Instead of promoting a churchwide event as a “family event,” promote it as “for everyone of all ages and stages of life.” another helpful practice is to include single adults in visible ways. For example, instead of having just nuclear families (husband, wife, and children) light the candles of the advent wreath, be sure to invite singles to do the honors one or more Sundays.
Paul argued that it is easier for men and women who are not married to be fully devoted to God; those who do not have responsibilities to a spouse and/or children can focus on God (see sidebar on page 3). Sa agrees. In fact, Sa argues that being single can be a benefit for church leaders. Yet, Sa asserts that single adults do not have more time than people who are married. “They have to take care of themselves and all aspects of managing a household,” responsibilities that married partners can share. Instead, “because single people are free to manage their own lives, they can navigate through the different settings and ministry opportunities more readily. They may have flexibility in their busy schedules.”
Congregations should look to single adults, whether they are divorced, widowed, or never married, as potential leaders. Singles not only may have greater flexibility, but they also have unique and needed perspectives. Do not isolate single adults only as leaders of singles ministries. Their gifts and worldview may be ideal for various ministries.
I graduated from college soon after my twenty-first birthday, and I moved 3,000 miles away from home to a small California town on the Mexican border. I knew no one when I moved to Calexico, and the nearest family or friends were hours away in Phoenix.
I knew I wanted and needed to find a church home, yet I was reluctant. My experience with church, both as part of my home church and in college, was that most churches were very family-focused. I was concerned I would not fit in as a single adult.
To my surprise, I was warmly welcomed the first Sunday I came for worship at Calexico United Methodist Church. In a few weeks, I was invited to come to an evening Bible study. While I was the youngest person in the Bible study, I was not the only one who was single. In fact, many people were single. Some, like me, had never been married. Others were divorced. Some were widowed. One was separated. Others were married. Some spoke only English, and others spoke only Spanish, but most could get along in both languages. We ranged in age from 21 (me) to people in their 70s. Every week, we began with a potluck meal. People could bring whatever they wanted and whatever they were able to make. after dinner, we studied Scripture and closed the evening with prayer.
I was also welcomed as one of the leaders of the church’s youth group. I was asked to teach the high school Sunday school class. I was invited to attend Lay Speaking School and become a certified lay speaker. all that happened within less than a year of the first Sunday I attended.
Calexico United Methodist Church did not have a designated singles ministry. Yet, they welcomed me and other single adults. I was recruited as a leader. and it was as part of that congregation that I responded to the call to pastoral ministry.
I offer my experience, not as the definitive example of how all congregations should support single adults, but as an example of how one small church was in ministry with adults of different marital statuses. I was welcomed, supported, affirmed, and called into leadership; and there are singles in your own community who are yearning for a community of Jesus’ followers, a community of vital relationships.
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