I sat down in church on a recent Sunday, flipped through the bulletin, and saw that the readings for the day were about marriage: Genesis 2:23-25 and Matthew 19:4-6. I groaned. After a still-fresh breakup with a boyfriend, the last thing I wanted was to sit through another sermon on the joys of matrimony. That sermon might apply to the 9 a.m. service, I thought, but here at the 11:45 service there are lots of single professionals.
To his credit, my pastor tried to make the sermon relevant to those of us who weren't married. And as I listened, I became persuaded that maybe I had something to learn. After all, I'm not a thief, but I can usually find something valuable in sermons about stealing. He spoke about the responsibility of the community to support people's marriage vows; I could sign on to that. But then he veered: "This is not only germane to those of you who are married," he said, "but also to those of you on the marriage market who are looking to be married."
He could have stopped there, but instead he added, "Though, frankly, if you're single and Christian and you want to get married, you're in the wrong city—unless you're male. It's the same demographic story in all the churches in New York City. We have many bright, interesting single women and not too many single men." He was trying, I think, to be funny. He failed. All the single women in my pew cringed. A single man across the aisle smirked.
I know what you're thinking: Another article by a single Christian kvetching about how the church is so insensitive—how her needs aren't being met, how she's not being respected. Another single Christian demanding to have it both ways—"Please fix me up with your cute nephew, but while you're at it, validate my singleness, and, whatever you do, don't make me feel like there's something wrong with me because I'm not married."
I hope this isn't another "beat up on the church" session. Not that I don't think there are areas in which the church could improve its outreach to single adults. Sensitivity to single people is a problem that we should take seriously, if only because many single Christians report they've stopped attending church because of jokes like the one my pastor attempted.
"The church is mostly unaware that there's even a question to be asked," says Debra Farrington, author of One Like Jesus: Conversations on the Single Life (Loyola). "Churches have unconsciously bought into the belief that being single is being miserable. They might pat singles' heads and say it's okay, but they don't really believe that."
For starters, we should give some thought to language. Farrington, for instance, wonders why we call 20s and 30s fellowship groups "pairs and spares." Judging by their vocabulary, many churches make unmarried Christians sound like an afterthought. Our words matter—not only what we say, but what we don't say.
"The church doesn't realize how many people avoid services because they are too focused on families and alienate singles," says Lana Trent, the 37-year-old coauthor of Single and Content (Word). "It doesn't take much to throw in an example about singles. You can talk about someone's roommate instead of their spouse."
But sensitivity is not the main question. The main question is, How do we think about singleness? Do single Christians have special needs? And, if so, how does the church go about meeting them?
Redefining Singles Ministry
When I moved to New York, I visited churches for a year. One of the reasons I settled at the church I joined is that it doesn't have a singles ministry. No one asked me to serve on the worship team of the singles service or teach in the singles Sunday-school class; my pastor instead asked me to serve on the education committee. And no one invited me to a singles mixer; instead, I mingle with married friends, engaged friends, widowed friends, and other single twentysomethings at the church suppers on Sunday evenings.
I didn't want to be part of a singles ministry because the majority of my needs don't have anything to do with being single. I need prayer. I need to serve others. I need to be held accountable for my sins. And I figure married people need those things, too. I don't want to be segregated with people who, superficially, are just like me. The eye cannot say to the hand, after all, "I don't need you."
Lots of single Christians don't agree with me. Indeed, a lot of my Christian friends, who go to different churches, say they chose their church precisely because it offers a vital singles ministry. Singleness, they say, does come with special needs, and thank God the church is recognizing that more than it did 20 years ago and is responding.
Sue Nilson, singles ministry pastor at Ginghamsburg United Methodist Church, a large seeker-sensitive congregation just north of Dayton, Ohio, has worked with single Christians for almost 15 years. Good singles ministry isn't a holding tank where single Christians wallow in those issues, she says; it is "a place to process them so that singles can then go on to be great leaders for Christ, in the church and the world." Those issues include "defining success in one's life." Sometimes the world defines success as marriage, children, and a time-share in Florida. Single Christians have to think about retooling their dreams in a way that doesn't leave them "bitter," says Nilson, and the church can, should, and in many congregations is helping them do that.
Nilson, a single parent of a teenager, has become popular nationally as a seminar and conference speaker. She is not so much interested in helping people celebrate their singleness as discovering their gifts. She believes that all people can be a "Michael Jordan" at something, and it's just a matter of providing them a stage for their talents to emerge. Nilson was hired in 1998 to start a singles ministry at St. Mark's United Methodist Church in Lincoln, Nebraska. (She recently left there to take the Ginghamsburg position.) She says the ministry "grew like wildfire" in the 4,000-member church and, within a few years, the singles ministry had an outreach to the entire southeastern region of Nebraska.
"Eventually the church statistician notified me that our overall church membership had become 50 percent single adults," she recalls. "Singles were chairing the administration board, filling the churchwide committees for missions, music, education, everything—as well as leading the many facets of the single adult ministry itself."
Not everyone is as enthusiastic about singles ministry as Nilson. Terry Hershey was once one of the country's leading singles ministers. In 1981 he joined the staff of Robert Schuller's Crystal Cathedral in southern California, and he cofounded the now defunct National Association of Single Adult Leaders. His books and seminars established him as an authoritative voice. But in the last 20 years, he's done some rethinking on the singles issue. "Churches should never be divided along gender or marital or generational lines," he now says. "As soon as we ghettoize people—Oh I'm glad you're in our church today; are you single? Then go to room 207—then we've done something wrong. The mistake we made 25 years ago, when churches were first getting into singles ministry, was to assume that every church had to have a singles minister and a singles program."
Hershey now believes churches don't need singles ministers as much as singles advocates. And advocacy, he says, "has nothing to do with instituting a program. It has to do with how we help provide childcare for single parents who are in our church. It has to do with how we plug people in who are single adults so they know they can serve here and have support here. That's singles ministry. The churches that are doing that don't have a program—they don't have a class of 200 singles."
Missing: A Theology of Sex
There is one area where single Christians are stuck wrestling with an issue that is specifically related to their singleness: it's not community or ministry; it's sex. While all Christians are called to chastity, for married folks that means forsaking all others besides their spouse. For the rest of us, it means forsaking sex, period. This is tough enough when you're 19 and single. It's an even greater challenge if you're still single—or single again—at 32.
As more Christians are single longer and longer, we need to think about sex. The issue is not whether we want to cave into cultural pressures and toss the church's teachings about sexual morality out the window; instead it's why many single Christians do not give those teachings the time of day, and what we can do to help people live chastely after, say, college. "It's difficult sexually to keep on keeping on as one year stretches into five," says Julia Duin, 44, assistant national editor of The Washington Times and author of Purity Makes the Heart Grow Stronger (Servant).
Debra Farrington agrees. "Sex is a complicated question, and we just don't speak about it. There should be an opportunity for conversation in the church, but the church is too busy seeing no evil and hearing no evil, so singles hang out alone."
What we need, it seems, are at least three things. First, we need venues for frank communication. A single Christian ought to be able to sit down with her pastor and say, "My boyfriend and I are finding it harder to only go as far as kissing, and I'm not sure what to do about that," without fearing that he'll never again take her seriously as a committed Christian.
Second, we should not act like sex outside of marriage is the unforgivable sin. A sin, indeed, but one of many that Christians struggle with. It is likely that more Christians ignore the biblical prohibition against gossip than are engaging in premarital sex, but the church is more exercised about the latter issue than the former. When we place too much emphasis on one sin, we risk not only hypocrisy, but we also make it harder for those guilty of that sin to come openly to the church for help.
Finally, we need to do more than just point to a couple of verses in Paul's epistles that warn against fornication; we need to present single Christians with a whole theology of chastity and sexuality. "We lack a sexual theology in the church," says Ben Young, coauthor of The Ten Commandments of Dating (Thomas Nelson) and the singles pastor at Houston's Second Baptist Church. Sex inside marriage, he says, is a mere shadow of the higher reality of oneness in the Trinity—but you don't hear a lot about that on Sunday mornings. "If we want people to give up premarital sex, we've got to do more than just getting into the pulpit and saying, 'No, don't.'"
Steve Tracy, a professor of theology and ethics at Phoenix Seminary, has spent years counseling young adults on relationship issues. He believes the development of a holistic "sexual theology" is deterred because evangelicals tend to segregate sexuality into something that only married people should be thinking about. "We need to think of it as the whole of what we are as a man or woman," Tracy says. "All of it belongs to God and should be developed under the lordship of Christ." He adds that the church should not send the tacit message that single people are somehow not sexual beings because they shouldn't be having sex. Instead, he says the church should encourage single Christians to "celebrate the whole of their maleness and femaleness in healthy, nonerotic ways," such as spending time in coed fellowship groups where single people can experience the opposite sex in real, uncontrived situations. "It won't erase the sexual pressures that they face, but it puts things in a positive framework."
Building a Better "Meet Market"
When I start railing against singles ministries, my other unmarried friends often look at me like I'm crazy. Not only, they say, do singles groups provide them with a sense of community with others who are wrestling with their unmarried state; the groups also provide a place to meet potential dates.
America's megachurches draw huge numbers not just because of the laid-back atmosphere and contemporary worship; large, bustling churches offer single Christians greater opportunities to meet other single Christians. Indeed, the church is doing more now than ever before to help Christians find suitable partners, which, if you aren't marrying your Christian college sweetheart, can be tough.
Most of us single Christians spend the bulk of our weeks living and working in non-Christian settings. Meeting someone who is kind, intelligent, and charming is difficult enough (my non-Christian friends complain about the dearth of interesting partners, too); add "Christian" to the list of requirements, and the pool shrinks even more.
The world has changed. As people become more mobile, they move increasingly farther from their community of origins—the networks that existed in our grandparents' day to pair people up with acceptable mates are, at best, frayed. Today, people meet at work, they meet at health clubs, they meet on blind dates. Perhaps one of the reasons the church has gotten serious about helping pair its single members up is 2 Corinthians 6:14—"Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common?" We all know we're not supposed to be unequally yoked, and most of us don't want to be, but when the majority of the available folks you meet are pagans, what's a girl (or guy) to do?
Julia Duin, for one, does not date non-Christians ("I've had bad experiences," she says), but she speaks of a good friend who has decided to look outside the church. "All the Christian men she dated were jerks, and this nominal Catholic treats her like a princess. I have several friends who will compromise on a man's spirituality; they figure a woman controls the home anyway."
The church—or at least a few creative individuals with an entrepreneurial streak and a burden for single Christians—is realizing that, if we want Christians to marry, and we want them to marry other Christians, we're going to have to do something more than throw a mixer in the church basement.
In 1999, Sam Moorcroft, a Toronto businessman, founded an online matchmaking service called ChristianCafé.com. Today, the site has about 25,000 members. "There's tremendous pressure to meet and get married," he says, "but no help on how to do that. There are thousands and thousands of Christian singles in Toronto, but the Christian singles events tend to be 'loser fests.' They just throw you in a room together and say, 'Go to it.'"
Moorcroft, who is single, confesses to using ChristianCafé.com himself. He hasn't met his future wife yet, but he estimates that about 200 people have gotten hitched using his site. He admits that online matchmaking isn't perfect. "A lot of women over 50 are having trouble meeting people on the site because men over 50 want thirtysomething women. That social stigma of men dating older women is still there, even among Christians." Still, he says, the church needs to get creative in helping people meet other Christians, and his site is a step in the right direction.
Kim Hartke says the problem isn't just meeting people but also knowing how to conduct yourself once you've met them. Hartke was a middle-aged single woman when, as she puts it in jogger's parlance, she "hit the wall." She was so discouraged by her lack of marital prospects that she verged on depression and was worried that she might be losing her faith. She even dropped out of the children's drama ministry she led.
Hartke's story ended happily—she married at 40, and shortly thereafter, in 1997, she founded True Love Ministries, a parachurch organization in the Washington, D.C., area that helps prepare single Christians, especially women, for marriage. Hartke, who describes herself as an advocate for the older, never-married single Christian, believes that most women want to get married; indeed, she believes that most women are called to marriage.
The problem comes, she says, when women take their dating cues from Cosmo and Elle rather than Scripture. In True Love Ministries, Hartke undertakes what she calls "feminist deprogramming." The Bible, she says, is very clear that wives are to be subject to their husbands. "You're not subject in a dating situation, of course, but allowing the man to be the leader in the dating dance is a very good idea; it sets up the pattern for marriage."
Hartke swears by The Rules: Time-Tested Secrets for Capturing the Heart of Mr. Right, Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider's controversial and much-maligned 1996 book that tells women—secular, Bridget Jones-style career gals—that the way to hook a man is to let him lead. Scripture, says Hartke, bolsters those rules. "A lot of church retreat leaders say that it's okay for women to ask men out—something that is directly contradictory to Christianity. But because that's part of the culture, we've accepted it."
Taking Paul Seriously
I'm glad Kim Hartke wants to help single Christians get married, but I'm troubled by her gender politics. I've asked men out, and I don't see anything in Scripture that suggests it's displeasing to God. But, more important, I'm troubled by her assumption that God calls almost all Christians to marriage. Paul's comments in 1 Corinthians 7 are not the most ringing endorsement of marriage: "Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I am. But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion."
Hartke says that Genesis offers a general call to marriage to the entire human race, and only "a very few people are called to lifelong celibacy." For Protestants, she says, the call to celibacy is generally a secondary call, subordinated to a primary call of full-time evangelism, missionary work, or other ministry.
She may take a more extreme stand on this than most, but Hartke's contention is not that different from what most evangelicals seem to believe implicitly. Never mind how much we intone that singleness is great, the general attitude is that marriage is better. Indeed, as I was working on this article, a good friend who works at an evangelical organization told me that he thinks people cannot be "fully mature" until they marry: "I know that's unpopular and not politically correct," he said, "but that's what I think." He spoke of the demands that marriage and parenting put on him, forcing him to grow up.
His remarks put voice to what many of us really think: Yes, we know Jesus didn't marry. Yes, we know what Paul wrote about marriage. But, let's face it; marriage makes you grow up more than anything that can happen while you're unmarried. Sure, you think you're growing and developing while single, but just wait till you're married—you ain't seen nothing yet.
Evangelicals have made great strides in addressing questions of singleness in the last generation, but we still have a long way to go. We must respond to my friend's comment about the superiority of marriage, and not simply because such remarks might hurt single Christians' feelings. We must creatively develop a theology of marriage and singleness that grapples honestly with the challenging but unambiguous message in the New Testament that sometimes marriage, and not singleness, may be the lesser of two options. My friend failed to entertain the idea that singleness can nurture a type of maturity that married people will never understand. Singleness is sometimes lonely, it's sometimes difficult, and it does not comport with our prepackaged notions of family values. But it may well be where God wants a lot of us to be.
The sad thing is that there is very little space in today's evangelical churches for discerning a call to singleness. Catholics—at least Catholics who believe they are called not just to celibacy but also to religious orders—have something positive to do. They don't fall into a monastery by default. Rather, prayerfully and in community, they discern God's calling them there. Protestants, on the other hand, don't often begin imagining they might be called to singleness until their 35th birthday rolls around. Then they woefully begin to think, Well, maybe I have the gift of celibacy.
Ben Young, whose various singles ministries at Second Baptist of Houston typically draw 7,000 people, says that one of the greatest challenges he faces as a singles pastor is, on the one hand, helping prepare people who will eventually marry to be in healthy relationships while, on the other hand, "affirming that singleness is a healthy, legitimate lifestyle." He wants to make it clear that "some of you are going to be single for the rest of your life, and that is great—you can be fulfilled and never be married, never have sex, never have kids. Singleness may still be an evangelical sin, but it's not a biblical sin. It's not God's will for everyone to be married."
Stumbling Into a New Possibility
I always assumed I was supposed to get married. Since I was 15, I never went more than a few months without dating someone.
I have begun to wonder, however, if that is really God's plan for my life. Not because, at 24, I feel aged out of the dating pool. And not because I think being single will leave me with more time to serve God. (That argument seems laden with strange notions about marriage and singleness—to wit that once you marry you retreat into some sort of cocoon from which you never emerge, or that a single person's daily obligations are not as pressing or legitimate as a married person's.)
I have begun to wonder if I am called to singleness because God, it seems, has been planting new ideas in my head. He has sent me stumbling into contact with new, unmarried people, and into the clutches of new books with more interesting things to say about singleness than the usual jabber.
I haven't drawn any conclusions or sworn off dating, but I am approaching the issue with more openness than I used to. It's not that I think I will be a better minister if I am single; it's that God may be calling me to remember how dependent I am on him—and that no man will ever be an adequate substitute.
It would be lovely if a single person, rather than a man-woman-child trinity, lit the Advent candle at church; if sermons were sprinkled with occasional examples about unmarried people; if my Christian friends would, on the whole, treat me like an adult even though I'm not married.
But lovelier than all those things would be a church universal that took seriously Paul's apparent preference for chastity over marriage. And that, I think, is not a task I can lay at the doorstep of my married pastor, or my friend who said true maturity only comes with marriage. It is a task that has to begin with me. After all, it is I, not they, whom God called—maybe for a season, and maybe forever—to live as a single Christian.
Lauren F. Winner, a contributing editor for Christianity Today, is writing a book for Brazos Press about evangelicals and sex.
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Articles on Christian online matchmaking services, Christian dating books, and an interview with Joshua Harris (I Kissed Dating Goodbye) will appear on our site later this week.
See today's related article, "A Singular Mission Field | There are more single people in America than ever—and they need the church as much as ever."
re:generation quarterly has had articles on singleness and the church, especially in its Fall 1997 issue, which contained Paige Benton's "Singled Out By God for Good" and Andy Crouch's "Extended Family Values."
Bill Haley, publishers of re:generation quarterly, has a 1999 sermon on "thriving single" at his church's Web site.
Christian Single magazine, published by the Southern Baptist Convention's Lifeway Resources, isn't just about being unmarried.
Associated Baptist Press recently noted that though more adults are single, fewer singles are going to church.
Christianity Today's earlier coverage of Christian single life includes
Sex and the Single Christian | What about the unmarried in their postcollege years? (July 7, 2000))
Women Churchgoers 'Face Growing Difficulty in Finding Partner | British magazine says church is out of single men, especially older ones. (June 7, 2000)
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