5 Ways Churches and Their Leaders Can Love Single People Well

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Recently I published this apology on behalf of myself and my fellow pastors, church leaders, and staff members for the way we have unintentionally damaged single people within our communities as we have served them.

I wanted to follow that up with some nuts-and-bolts ways that we who affect the direction of those faith communities can begin to remedy some of the mistakes of our individual and collective pasts; ways we can really love single people in our midst well.


1) Stop treating Singleness as an illness or temporary setback. 

Marriage is simply not a longing, calling, or inevitability for all people within our communities. Frequently our teaching, our programming, and our unspoken philosophy is that everyone under our care is consciously and passionately pursuing marriage. Far too often we implicitly make lifetime singleness seem like a spiritual consolation prize. This places a terrible pressure on those of a certain age to have already “paired-up” and it leaves a great deal of unnecessary residual shame for those who remain unmarried for the duration of their lives. We have to rethink the ways we reinforce this damaging mindset that overvalues marriage above singleness, and how this bias flows through everything; our cultural language, our programming choices, even the imagery we use to represent our communities.

As I’ve said previously, being single is not an illness people need to be cured of, or a sad fate they need rescuing from. Single is sacred too.

2) Pursue truly multigenerational ministry.

One of the most unhealthy and unBiblical things we’ve done over the past few decades of the Church’s history is segregate our communities along lines of age and life stage: Put the kids here and the teenagers here and the single folks here and the old folks over here. This is the easiest, quickest, but also the most flawed way to serve people. As a 17-year veteran of Student and Family Ministry, I’ve seen it firsthand and I’ve all too often perpetuated the problem. In the times when the events of the Bible transpired, spirituality was a multigenerational experience for life. It was a truth woven into the fabric of their faith journey. In our modern church culture we’ve largely lost the blessings of the shared wisdom and the deep relational richness that happen when we come together to intentionally celebrate and mine that diversity. Certainly there is value to peer connection, but it is not the only connection we need to help people make. Single people need to be continually pulled into the larger community, for their benefit and for the benefit of those who will grow by knowing them.

Be brave and daring as you program and plan. Take the longer, more complex, more difficult path. Get your people out of the ministry ghettos.

3) Recognize the great diversity of Singleness.

It’s easy to subconsciously view our communities as consisting of two distinct kinds of adults: Single (waiting to be married), and Married. However we know that there is a great continuum of solitude in the people we rub shoulders with every week; single people without children, those raising children, people who have weathered divorce, those who have lost spouses. Each of these groups has an entirely different set of needs, hurts, challenges, and perspectives. When we lazily lump all non-married people into one big ministry box, we’re shortcutting our service to our people and we’re missing the opportunity to be good shepherds to some of our most vulnerable, yet strongest people. Our complexity of care needs to mirror that of the community we serve.

Leaders, challenge yourselves to remember and respond to the vast experience of the singles you serve.

4) Teach “Community” as much as “Family” from the pulpit.

So often our sermon series and our teaching from the worship platform swings like a pendulum, from messages targeted to individuals, to those addressing “Families” (This is often religious code word for “Married people and their children”).  As well-meaning and as necessary as our instruction on how Christians can have healthier marriages can be, these teachings almost always come at the expense of single people who end up being an afterthought; getting a “throw them a bone” moment somewhere in the message or sermon discussion guide. A much richer and more unifying approach is to teach more from the pulpit about Biblical community, which in fact the Bible speaks more clearly to and more often about than marriage. While we can find a small amount of insight into the marriage experience in Scripture, we see a much greater depth of teaching about how to live like Jesus and to follow him in community with others.

The Body of Christ isn’t a biological family, it’s a spiritual family. We need to remind our people of the Oneness we have in Jesus, and lift that up as a true treasure as often as we can, especially as we preach and teach.

5) Really see and hear single people.

Unmarried adults are the most underrepresented group in most churches because they are so easily rendered invisible and silent. The loud, quickly identifiable needs of Children, Teens, and Married Couples/Families will always rise to the foreground of our attentions because they often have staff and whole ministry teams advocating passionately and consistently for them. That isn’t a bad thing but we as church leaders, like Jesus, need to strain to see the ones who are pushed to sidelines and relegated to the shadows; those lone sheep who are in critical need of care. If you can’t allocate more human resources to attend to those single folks in your communities, then create venues for them to be heard and seen, and to assist in creating and supporting initiatives that can happen without paid staff or budget increases (though maybe that should happen too).

This is a place to dream big and go deep. Most churches have failed single folks terribly, so don’t worry about emulating others. Find a way to acknowledge unmarried adults in a way that a hundred thousand other churches have never thought of. They’re worth the sweat, prayer, creativity, and difficult conversations it will take.

That’s just a start. There is certainly an infinite number of ways we as caregivers on the Church can love single people well. Feel free to add your thoughts in response, and start having conversations with those you serve alongside and see what happens.

Every single person matters to God.

 

 

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17 thoughts on “5 Ways Churches and Their Leaders Can Love Single People Well

  1. Excellent job John. I think the story of Jesus at age 12 staying behind in Jerusalem and staking out a place in the temple to discuss religion with much older people is a good example of what we should be doing in churches. Black from white is not the only way 11:00 o’clock on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America.

    For my part, I would just like to say that I love all of you single people and accept you “JUST AS YOU AM.”

  2. I like your point 4!
    While I am not single, I find it facfascinating that people do not know how to handle us. We don’t fall in any category as we don’t have children. So we’re not single, not a family, not teenagers, not old folk…

  3. So true. Thanks again John for words that need to be said. However, I don’t think we’ll see that happening in this generation. Youth, teens, and families, both within and without the church, are already so ensconced in “separation” that I think it will take several generations of this knowledge and practice to get to the place of inclusion of all generations and types of peoples. It’s good to know that someone “out there” is aware and trying to make this happen.

  4. I’ve been on both sides of this fence – and we need to keep in mind that not all “marrieds” fall into one big ministry box, either. I’m a middle-aged married, for several years; no children; my husband does not attend church with me, and has no interest in being involved in any way. There is also an 18 year age difference between us. No one knows what to do with that! (With any of that, truth be told.) Thus, I am invisible in every church I’ve been involved in. Focusing on community would be much more inclusive of the true “great continuum…. in the people we rub shoulders with every week.”

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  6. This was really good, but I want to add one thought to point 2, from the perspective of a 32-year old single girl who would dearly love to get married some day. While multi-generational ministry is a wonderful thing, singles sometimes want something JUST for the singles. If we are constantly told to attend the multi-generational classes, and nothing is ever planned just for singles, how will we meet the other singles in the church? After all, don’t a lot of relationships start at church? If we can’t meet other singles, how will we form those relationships? It shouldn’t take a dating app to meet singles at your own church!

    Several years ago, I attended a large-ish church that definitely was on board with the multi-generational ministry thing. Because there was no singles class, I had no way of even knowing WHO was single at church. I knew they were there, somewhere. I just didn’t know how to go about getting to know them. They weren’t in the multi-generational class I was attending, that’s for sure. Volunteering and serving in various areas didn’t seem to help either. I felt like the only single there, though I was sure there HAD to be other singles given that the church averaged 1400 on Sunday morning.

    So yeah, we love being included and not singled out (pun intended), but you do have to remember that we still need ways to meet other Christian singles. Church is the ideal place to do that. If you don’t give us a Sunday morning class, give us a weeknight small group Bible study. Or an ice cream social. Or a coffeehouse mixer event. Or a movie night. SOMETHING, ANYTHING so that we get to meet other singles. It’s hard enough being single, but feeling like you are the only single out there is even harder.

    • Elizabeth,

      Perhaps it hasn’t occurred to you yet, but churches don’t want to become places where singles meet other singles for dating because they think it brings too much baggage. I have actually heard pastors say that they don’t seek out young single men to even attend their churches because they don’t want their women to become prey – better that they come in as married. (Now I don’t agree with this mentality but it’s there.) So the churches speak out of both sides of their mouth – they say we should marry other Christians and marry church going people, but they put up every obstacle to prevent singles from meeting and dating in the church – the very place they would find such people. Many churches don’t reach out to single men to bring them into the church, then they intermingle the few singles in the church into multi-generational classes and events, that dilute their presence even more.

      I’m not sure what the answer is, but I suspect that if the church would just follow the great commission, and reach out to the single men in the community with the gospel of Jesus Christ, more Christian single men would be in the church, and the opportunity for dating would naturally occur without the need for special programs.

      Just a thought …

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