Singled Out: How Churches Can Embrace Unmarried Adults

 Note: This is the 4th part in an ongoing series called Beyond Multiethnic, in which we’re talking about ways that we can honor the image of God in diverse people. Please see part 1 for context. alone_in_the_crowd1

A couple of summers ago I visited a Dallas-area church. It was a hot day and the temperature in the church building was almost unbearable.  But I wasn’t distracted by the heat because the pastor (who is quite the scholar) gave a profound, rousing sermon on the beauty and holiness of marriage. Even as a single person, I was inspired by his sophisticated, lovely depiction of a Christ-centered marriage. It was that good!

At the end of the 40 minute sermon, the pastor looked up from his notes and began to ad lib: “I know that over 40% of you are single, so I should probably say something about singleness as well.”

My ears perked up. Since this pastor was such a scholarly guy and since he had just given an exceptionally thoughtful sermon on marriage, I just knew that his brief thoughts on singleness would be equally profound. I leaned forward.

“Here’s what I want to say to all you single people: Don’t have sex before you get married. Then when you get married, make up for lost time. [wink, wink]”

Once the laughter died down, the pastor gave a benediction and returned to the pew where his wife awaited him.

ON BEING AN AFTERTHOUGHT

Married people inhabit most of the pulpits and leadership positions in the Christian world, despite the fact that 44% of adults in the U.S. are single.[i]  It’s unclear what percentage of pastors are married, but one guy assessed his own denomination and found that 98% were married. Further, a senior vice president of a well-known, enormous parachurch organization recently admitted to me that every single one of the 60+ "middle management" staff members he oversees is married. Every. Single. One. And, after doing extensive interdenominational research, Dennis Franck,the national director of single adult ministries for the Assemblies of God denomination, concluded:

“The vast majority of evangelical and Pentecostal churches of any denomination are ‘marriage and family focused.’ That in itself is not a bad posture. Most Christian leaders understand the importance of marriage and the church’s role in strengthening the family unit. The unfortunate reality, however, is that our marriage and family emphasis many times does not include single adults. This is not necessarily by design but is often by ignorance and neglect.”

Since married people are the ones calling the shots, they remain central to the life of the church.  Meanwhile, single people are relegated to the margins.[ii] Whether this is intentional or not, this "married people monopoly" results in a Christian world in which single people are often misunderstood, ignored, overlooked for leadership positions, caricatured, equated with immaturity, and little more than a punchline or an afterthought. To me, it makes sense that churches and Christian organizations have a poor track record when it comes to honoring single people. How can pastors/leaders who got married in their early-to-mid-20s possibly understand the complexities of singleness or how to honor the image of God in single people?

After interacting with the church, many singles start to wonder:  Is there something wrong with me? Is God working in my life? Am I as valuable (to God, to the church) as married people?  Does God love me as much as he loves married people? Does God have good things in store for me as a single person?

The church has done such a number on single people that one singles minister knew that before he could even begin to address God’s call to single adults in his book God’s Call to the Single Adult, he needed to debunk the widely-believed myth that “singles are half a cookie.”

In a Church that was founded by a single guy, singles are terribly marginalized. There’s something wrong with this picture. So without further ado, here are my tips on how church people (pastors, leaders and other influencers) can turn this barge around and begin to create communities that honor the image of God in single adults.

6 TIPS ON HOW MARRIED CHRISTIANS CAN EMBRACE SINGLE ADULTS

(Note: Since many pastors, church leaders, and readers of this blog are married, these tips are written for that audience. The irony that I’m writing a blog post about singleness for married people is not lost on me. :))

1. Admit that singleness is complex and that you know little to nothing about it. A lot of people seem to think that singleness is to marriage as junior varsity is to varsity. As a result, married people sometimes mistakenly believe that they know something about singleness when in fact they don't. Singleness isn't a junior varsity version of marriage. It’s an entirely different sport – and if you haven’t played it, you haven’t mastered it.  The average marrying age is 29.8 years for men and 26.9 for women. If you got married before these ages, then it makes sense to acknowledge that your experience as a single adult is below average. In other words, you don’t know a lot about singleness. This calls for humility.

Like marriage, singleness is complex. The challenges and joys of singleness are equal to but different than the challenges and joys of marriage.

I talk regularly with a white pastor who got married when he was 21. Most of the time, we talk about our racial differences and how we can build bridges across them. But recently we struck up a conversation about how my experience as a single person in the church differs from his experience as a married person. As I was sharing my experiences, it occurred to him that my singleness is just as foreign to him as my blackness is.  He said, “Wow! Our conversation about singleness and marriage is just as cross-cultural as our conversations about being black and white.”

Yep.

Treat singleness like you would treat any other cross-cultural exploration. Listen. Read some books. Don’t even think about preaching about singleness if you don’t actually have substantial and meaningful experience with it. Or, if you do choose to preach on the topic, enlist the help of an actual single person (like Greg Boyd did a couple of years ago when he asked me to team-preach this sermon with him.)

2. Recognize that as a married person, you are privileged. Married people run the Christian world. For example,

  • Since many pastors, board members, and organizational leaders are married, the married perspective is well-represented in the Church in ways that the single perspective is not.
  • Married people are much more likely to get hired as pastors.
  • A quick search at Amazon.com reveals that for every 1 Christian book on singleness, there are 298 Christian books on marriage.
  • Just for getting married, friends and family members buy married people expensive gifts like Kitchen Aid mixers (a mark of privilege if there ever was one).
  • Marriage is the norm, the gold standard. If you don’t adhere to it, people ask questions. Case in point: I’m out-and-about in the Christian world a lot these days. As a result, I meet new people all of the time. The fact that we’ve just met doesn’t stop Christians from asking me why I’m not married. Out of the blue, and with a quizzical look, they’re like, “How come you’re not married?” It’s my most frequently asked question. Seriously.

When married people recognize their privilege, they can work to restore balance by:

  • Listening well
  • Being an advocate and raising questions (e.g., How can we make our “family camp” relevant and inclusive for singles?)
  • Inviting single people to the table (hiring, boards, preaching, conference speakers, etc.)
  • Making sure that issues that are pertinent to singles are raised in meetings, from the pulpit, while vision casting, at retreats, at conferences, etc.
  • Reframing policy, values, and expectations so that married people are no longer the gold standard.

3. Affirm that marital status isn’t correlated with godliness or maturity. Many single people feel that they are often automatically stereotyped as spiritually immature, morally dangerous, and unsuitable for leadership simply because they're single.  I've even heard pastors unapologetically and explicitly discriminate against single people: "I don't want to hire a single woman to direct the worship arts ministry because she'll probably end up sleeping with all of the guys in the band." This is both hurtful and wrong.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote that financial independence is not a fruit of the Spirit. Well, marriage isn’t a fruit of the Spirit either. Married people aren’t more holy or godly or mature than single people. Married people haven’t “arrived” in a way that single people haven’t. Married people aren’t even “on track” in a way that single people aren’t. I can see why people are confused about this though. There are plenty of (married) Christian leaders who teach that married people are better candidates for holiness than single people. For example:

“In heaven, is the crucible of our saint-making going to have been through our jobs? I don't think so. The Scripture makes clear that it will be done largely through our marriages.” – Dr. Albert Mohler

I disagree with Dr. Mohler. I don’t believe that Scripture makes it clear that marriage is the primary route to holiness. (And Dr. Mohler doesn’t offer any scriptural basis for his assertion.) But, I can see why the married people (like Dr. Mohler) who run the Church are more inclined to believe that God makes saints exclusively/primarily through marriage. Research shows that humans intuitively trust people who share their life experiences.[iii]

When I meet another single Christian woman in her 30s, I automatically envision how God has used her singleness to teach her wisdom, selflessness, self-control, joy, patience, and faith because that’s what God has done in my own life. I can’t easily envision the same for someone who is married, so I’m less inclined to trust that God has used marriage to produce similar fruit in her life. But I can’t let my inadequate imagination limit my view of the Holy Spirit’s work in her.

The Holy Spirit isn’t boring; it doesn’t have a cookie cutter plan for how it brings forth fruit in people’s lives. Marital status isn’t correlated with godliness or maturity. John 15:5 says that we bear fruit when we are connected to God. Period.

4. Celebrate single people. If you get married and/or have a baby, Christians will pull out all the stops to celebrate you. That’s a good thing! But Christians should also recognize that many single adults never get celebrated with such fanfare. We might not be walking down the aisle or gestating a baby, but God is doing some amazing things in our lives -- from the “monumental” (such as helping us obtain degrees, launch ministries/businesses, pay off college loans) to the “mundane” (such as helping us serve our neighborhoods, pray for each other).

We must celebrate what God’s doing in people’s lives, whether it’s similar to what God’s done in our own lives or not. So, find reasons to throw big parties for the single people in your community. And if you have the resources, feel free to buy them expensive gifts as well. Single people use Kitchen Aid mixers too :)

5. Recognize that you need single people to show you what the resurrection is really all about. Rodney Clapp (and Stanley Hauerwas) said it best [iiii]:

“Without children, the Israelite fears the single’s name will burn out, sift to ashes and be scattered and forgotten in the winds of time. But Paul has seen the arrival of a new hope. Jesus has risen from the land of death and forgetfulness, and so someday shall all who have died.  And Jesus has inaugurated the kingdom, a kingdom most fundamentally known and seen not among brothers and sisters in kin, but among brothers and sisters in Christ. Thus Hauerwas says of singles, ‘There can be no more radical act than [singleness], as it is the clearest institutional expression that one’s future is not guaranteed by the family, but by the church. The church, the harbinger of the Kingdom of God is now the source of our primary loyalty.’”

6. Invest in the single people around you. If you want to know how to honor the image of God in single adults, get to know the single adults around you. The singles-marrieds divide in many churches is just as powerful as other cultural divides. Be intentional about crossing that divide. It’s only then that you’ll begin to understand how to love single people well.

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Singles are a wonderfully diverse group of people -- ranging from never married to divorced to widowed, spanning all age groups, and with very different experiences, desires, motivations, and fears. No blog post can possibly cover all of the complexities. Feel free to chime in below if you have more tips on how Christians can love singles well!


[i] Frank, D., Reaching Single Adults: An Essential Guide for Ministry

[ii] It's worth noting that this is also a problem outside the church, as social psychologist Bella DePaulo describes in her wonderful book Singled Out: How Singles are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After

[iii] Pinel, E., Long, A., Landau, M., Alexander, K., & Pyszczynski, T. (2006). Seeing I to I: A pathway to interpersonal connectedness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90, 243-57.

[iiii] Clapp, R., Families at the Crossroads: Beyond Tradition and Modern Options