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.