A few months ago I heard Pete Scazzero discuss leading out of your singleness and realized I hadn’t heard this much wisdom about single adults in quite awhile. His video message, although short, resonated with me.
Despite there being more unmarried adults than ever in the US (see article here), it is the family that is catered to within the church. Many single adults struggle to find a voice, place or program geared toward their demographic in most congregations. “Single adult” is a vast, broad and diverse demographic. Many churches find it cumbersome to address the needs, so in many cases the needs go unmet.
When most think of singles they think of young adults freshly out of college trying to find their way. Yet, the face of single adults in America is ever changing. I spoke with a Pastor in NY who told me 53% of his congregation is single, predominately never been married. Most are over the age of 35. Besides wanting to purchase a ticket and visit, I wanted to hear how he addresses the unique needs of his congregation. One distinct way is he purposefully chooses a diverse leadership team and staff including various marital statuses. He doesn’t view single adults as a sub-culture of the church. He allows singles to lead in various leadership roles.
Single adults have stories about their church experiences. One common story we share is our experience in visiting churches. In many cases church members don’t greet us. If you are visiting a church that is more family focused, they tend to unknowingly overlook the person who has come alone. Some singles have even resorted to borrowing a friend’s child or visiting with other singles just to fit in! Another shared experience is hearing Pastors address the congregation in the framework of marriage. Singles make up about 51% of the population, so why aren’t we 51% of the church? I believe many singles are not attending a church. Maybe we are waiting to get married? Maybe we see church as something families do? Or maybe we feel so uncomfortable we just quit attending?
Coming from an African American church background, it’s rare to see people marry in college or immediately after college. African Americans tend to marry later in life (see article here). In the predominantly AA church, I never felt marginalized. Not being married was as normal as being married. I was, a single adult who attended church, just a regular church leader with no stigma, who did life with other members. After leaving, I was faced with this new awkward feeling of marginalization due to my marital status. The feeling of otherness or alienation caused me to dislike the church shopping process.
I’m not sure if I can properly express all the conversations I’ve had with other singles over the last few years. I realized in preparing for this post, I’ve never written anything on singleness. And I say that like it’s an obscure phenomenon. I’m trying to find a way to address the concern in about 1200 words. In my conversations, singles feel like an add-on to the church. Many of the needs that single adults face are not addressed by the local church; with the exception to “just stay celibate”. But the needs of single adults are more complex than a single statement. It’s not a one-size-fits-all solution. Honestly, I believe many churches don’t know how to address the changing demographic.
Most single ministries are led by married adults who haven’t been single since they were twenty-two. Single’s Ministry leaders find it difficult to address or relate to the changing face of the single adult. I think the task is daunting. Many churches have had to reimagine and create a new vision in how singles are included in the church body. Some churches have ignored the population all together. With many churches cutting singles ministries or having no focus on the group at all, many singles are forming their own support system outside of the church building. Some are deciding to leave the traditional worship gathering altogether. I understand that church is far more than a building but it’s the people. I don’t find the meet-up groups and the community bible studies wrong. It’s our way to find community and meet a need. I believe groups are beneficial and kingdom-minded. The other side of the transition or as I call, “The Great Escape”, many are finding it uncomfortable to attend a local church gathering on a consistent basis. In Austin, many singles float from church to church trying to find a place. I note that these patterns of alienation follow us into our Christian Para-church organizations. Personally, I have chosen to stay away from single groups since leaving a church staff position in 2009. I don’t like being a subculture of the church; I like being a part of the church as a whole.
What I’ve noticed is there’s not one answer or solution. But I want to advocate for something I once experienced! In my church history or background married and singles did life together: we served together, played together, attended small groups together. Our family series always included a perspective from a single adult not only spoken by married adults. Singles had a voice. We were all leaders and ministers.
I often wonder why married adults are speaking on behalf of single adults. Do we not have a voice? We can speak for ourselves. Remember some of the greatest church leaders were single. Paul called being unmarried a gift in 1 Corinthians 7. I believe there is a lot of context to Paul’s statement and the spiritual persecution he was facing. Despite the details, Paul was affirming his undistracted devotion to God as a gift. It shouldn’t take marriage before I’m considered a valued leader and contributor to the local church body.
Here are a few suggestions that may help the church struggling to minister to the ever-increasing single population.
- Have a vision for inclusion that incorporates all people. Family-friendly churches are great, but how do you create family for a group in which family looks different? If you are a family-church, think about your programming, are you considering the times you offer programs? I know single and working moms who would love to attend a bible study or MOPs, but can’t because they are offered during work hours.
- Stop looking to singles as your workhorses. Singles have lives, businesses, careers, and families too. We are more than volunteers, but ministers and leaders. We are willing to serve but don’t box us in and create a glass ceiling of our service.
- Singles are valued by God and should be valued by the church.
- There are all types of women in the church and not all married homemakers. Incorporate all stages of life in your men and women’s ministry.
- Men can lead without being married. I may be stepping way out there – but in my personal African American church experience, I saw everyone leading singles (men and women), the young and the old. I don’t see this as much in predominately white churches.
- Marriage is not the mark of maturity where you can begin to lead and people take you serious. I know many spiritually mature singles.
- Invite singles to the table. Pastors can’t know it all and we don’t expect you to know it all. Listen and learn from the single adults in your church.
- Understand that the programs that worked 10-15 years ago may not be the solutions now. Maybe we need to revision church and its ministry to all people groups. Segregation may not be the answer. Don’t be afraid to explore and try something new and different. Oh yeah, don’t forget to invite singles to the table.
- Remember the single population encompasses many categories: young adults, never been married, single parents, divorced and widowed. We are the church too. Think about this as you hire staff and equip ministry leaders.
- Diversify your friendships. Do you have any single or unmarried friends? Are the only voices you hear like your own? When was the last time your family hung out with a single parent? This relationship is not always about mentoring. I personally have mentored moms and I have no children of my own.
- Do you only hire Pastors or leadership that are married? Ask yourself why, when more than half the population is single.
- I am not a single in waiting. I’m a mature woman with purpose and vision. If the Lord desires for me to enter into marriage – great! If not, I’m still a whole and complete person that God desires to use for His Glory. Whatever that path I know it will ultimately be for my good and for His glory.
The next time you see a single person visiting your church, greet them. Give singles the opportunity to lead. Remember we are half the population. Singleness is not an anomaly. By the way, I’m a children’s Pastor and I don’t have children of my own. I am single but I am simply human. I have a story. Get to know my story before you began asking my martial status.