Think about the last time you saw a church offering a class on marriage. It shouldn’t take you very long. It’s one of the church’s favorite topics. Celebrating and saving marriages is something most churches focus a lot of attention on.
Now, think about the last time you saw a church offering classes for singles. I don’t mean some kind of Bible study that emphasizes singles meeting other singles; I’m talking about classes that encourage and celebrate single living. Most people will probably have a hard time remembering ever seeing such a thing.
The truth is that the church is a hard place to be for singles. One single friend of mine told me that she’s constantly having to watch her attitude because even though she committed to the church as a concept, it’s one of the loneliest places. She’s not alone.
It’s an issue the church is going to need to really address if it truly wants to minister to everyone.
Here are 10 ways that churches are alienating singles:
1. We’re too focused on marriage
I became a Christian in 1991. Between church, retreats, conferences, and personal devotions, I’ve listened to well over 2,000 sermons. I can’t begin to tell you how many of them were related to marriage. If I was able to make a word cloud of topics I’ve heard about in church, marriage would be one of the most prominent words.
But there’s probably been less than 10 messages focused on singleness. And of those, many were really about saving oneself and preparing for marriage.
What message does that focus communicate over time? A church never has to explicitly say “marriage is the most important part of the human experience” to communicate that point. It’s said clearly by what we choose to emphasize.
2. We shove them into singles groups
Long before there was Tinder, there were church singles groups. The only problem is that you can’t swipe left on the people in a singles group. The same people are still there next week.
These groups are probably not intended to be about dating, but seriously, why else would they exist? Is there enough single-specific scriptural content to warrant a special group dedicated to single living? No.
The problem is that almost every other group in the church becomes a married group. Because singles often feel like they’re seventh, ninth, or eleventh wheel in any other church settings, churches offer singles groups especially for them. But it ends up feeling like the island of misfit toys.
Have you ever been to a small church youth group? Sometimes there’s not enough kids to warrant separating them by age, so you end up with 5 kids aged 13–18. I don’t need to tell you that there’s a world of difference between a 13-year-old kid and someone who’s 17. It becomes a really awkward weekly affair for everyone involved.
The same is true for singles groups, except the age span gets even wider. Your church might have the best intentions for a singles group, but reality of the situation makes it so incredibly strange.
If it’s all twenty-somethings, singles in their late thirties are going to feel uncomfortable and unwelcome even though the group is supposed to be for them, too. This only increases their alienation.
On the other hand, if you’re a 24-year-old woman who is looking to study the Bible and have fun with other singles, you might end up trapped in a group with a 38-year-old guy who’s cycling through the women hunting for a mate.
Awkward all the way around.
3. We place too much emphasis on roles
If you attend any church men’s or women’s group, the focus is going to be on the roles they fill. Men are husbands and fathers and women are wives and mothers.
So much of the Bible’s narrative relates to all people in any role. When we focus on the how Scripture to speaks to our common humanity, we’ll each discover ways that our spirituality applies to our individual roles.
Imagine you’re a lawyer visiting a church that was started out of the local plumbers and pipefitters union. Every scriptural discussion is focused on how the Bible applies to plumbers. How long would do you think you’d keep going?
What makes me a stronger Christian should make me a better husband and father. My understanding of who I am in Christ should inform the specific roles in my life. When we start every discussion with our roles as the focus, we’re excluding those whose roles are different.
4. We make marriage life’s whole point
It’s time for everyone’s favorite game show: What Does the Bible Say? I’m going to give you two sentences from Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, and you tell me which one was talking about marriage.
- “Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do.”—1 Corinthians 7:8
- “Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?”—2 Corinthians 6:14
If you answered number one, you’re correct. The second verse is about setting oneself apart in general. And while we do need to wrestle with its marital implications, it’s application is not strictly about marriage.
Now, for extra-credit points, which of those verses gets used most when talking to singles about marriage? If you answered with the second verse, you’re right again.
Paul definitively says that singleness is the preferred state of being for Christians. But I have never heard that suggested from a pulpit in my life. Because Paul follows it up with “But if they do not have self-control, let them marry; for it is better to marry than to burn with passion,” it’s as if the previous sentence is entirely negated.
The church views singleness as an anomaly to be fixed. I’ve heard the words “called to be single” as if being single is some strange ascetic lifestyle that God foists on a strange, but chosen, few.
5. We see singles as a danger to marriages
One issue that I’ve heard from singles over and over again is that they they feel like they’re not allowed to get close to married people in the church. Sure, a single woman can be friends with a married woman, but the relationship has to exist as a satellite in the married person’s life. Introducing a single person into a couple’s life is a danger to their marriage.
The constantly reinforced message to Christian marrieds is that everything is a potential threat. Having a single adult as a fixture in your life is like keeping a loaded gun around a toddler.
The truth is that if a married person is going to have an affair, it’s most likely going to be with another married person. The balance of power is more equitable. They both have something to hold over the other’s head. An affair with a single puts the married person in a vulnerable position where they ultimately have more to lose—only one person has the nuclear option.
This doesn’t mean that a single person can’t introduce a threat of infidelity into a marriage. But one seriously has to wonder if the constant warnings about the dangers others represent to a marriage doesn’t actually encourage marrieds to sexualize others more.
6. We’re hyper focused on sexuality
There’s no question that we live in a sexualized culture. In response to that, the church has become extremely sexualized as well. We fight fire with fire, emphasis with emphasis.
I’m honestly not sure that someone who doesn’t struggle with sexual thoughts could spend a couple years at a church without increasing their sexual focus. It is given so much attention—especially among men—that you’d think that 70 percent of the scriptures dealt with sex and sensuality.
It’s like trying to cure a smoker by talking about cigarettes all the time.
The assumption is that everyone is constantly struggling with sexual thoughts—and that stumbling in that realm represents the biggest Christian failure. Therefore, marriage is often presented as a God’s nicotine patch.
But what does that mean for singles?! The emphasis that we place on sexuality means that we can only see singles as unfulfilled sexual beings. It’s no wonder that we see them as potential dangers to marriages.
7. We think life begins at marriage
Without even thinking about it, we raise children to think that life begins when they are finally able to get married. Instead of raising kids to embrace all that God has for them and celebrate the freedom of singleness, we’re encouraging young people to settle into marriages as soon as possible.
The national average for marriage is 29 years old for men and 27 for women—unless they’re Christians. While national averages are increasing for when people get married, evangelicals are still getting married younger.
One article in Australia found that Christian women marry six years younger than their irreligious counterparts. Despite the fact that someone who marries at 20 is 50 percent more likely to experience a divorce as someone who marries at 25.
8. We link marriage and parenting to sanctification
One Christian marriage book’s subtitle is “What if God designed marriage to make us holy more than make us happy?”
It’s a good question . . . for any element of our lives. Unfortunately, we tend to talk about marriage and parenting as if they are God’s primary method for making us better Christians. Most sermon and book illustrations focus on the lessons that Christians have learned from these specific roles in life.
Not only is this a sign of our elevation of the nuclear family as the Christian standard, but it’s a signal that we don’t have enough single people ministering to us.
9. We don’t allow singles to be role models
Most churches use singles as worker bees. We plug them into the most utilitarian positions. They’re our servers, greeters, nursery staff, etc. We typically don’t put them in positions of authority where they can be seen as examples of Christian living.
I honestly can’t think of a pastoral search committee that wouldn’t see singleness as a liability. Our unwillingness to elevate them as ministers to our congregations perpetuates the idea that life (and ministry) begins after marriage.
Someone might argue that 1 Timothy 3:2 demands that ministers have to be the husband of one wife, but if we’re going to interpret that as meaning that they have to be married (instead of not polygamous), we’ve precluded the very person who wrote those words.
10. We assume singles are sad and unfulfilled
If you’re a Christian woman in your mid-twenties, you’re going to start getting a lot of unsolicited questions, advice, and encouragement.
For some reason people are going to assume that you’re single by default. The go-to question will be about whether or not there’s someone significant in your life. If there isn’t, you’ll either be given suggestions for finding someone, or you’ll get a pat on the arm and an encouragement not to worry because your time is coming.
This insensitive and unwelcome invasion is seen as completely natural because singles are seen as melancholy and anxious. Which, of course, communicates to singles that they should feel sad and unfulfilled.
Singleness isn’t necessarily a season
We need to quit treating singleness as the lobby to the much more fulfilling world of married life. We need to quit encouraging people to think of singleness as the pupal stage before a Christian becomes a butterfly.
After all, anyone can be a butterfly.