Every church has at least one. You know—the sweet and well-intentioned elderly lady who is always telling you about her grandson or neighbor’s daughter. She genuinely wants to see you settled down with a “sweet girl” or “good ol’ boy” and to watch you experience the joys and blessings of marriage and family life. The truth is, you may want that experience too, but you are just not there yet. This dear woman represents an unspoken attitude of the larger church: there is a problem with being single.
From Disney to youth group messages, we have heard the “someday my prince will come” line. We have been taught to seek God’s face and pursue our passions until that time. We are taught by pastors and parents to wait for that one “right” person. The only trouble these days is the expectation that we will find him/her by the time we are 22. So what happens for those of us who don’t? What does the Church, culture, and Scripture have to say about our love lives and relationship statuses? Plenty. Let’s take a look.
Churches are operating under a fix-it model; floundering to create and keep up a ministry for the twenty-thirty something singles. Too often these groups get lost in well-intentioned programming that isolates them from the larger body and misses the bigger issues. The usual result is a crashing cyclical ministry: start, failure, and restart.
Let’s start by examining the Church’s view on singles. If you look back to the 1970s-80s, you will find singles ministries were common, almost a staple at many churches. Today, we are living in a post-singles ministry era and the attitude of the church has shifted to viewing singles ministries as a burden and a problem. On multiple occasions pastors and other leaders have expressed sentiments of marriage as a necessary “prerequisite” for ministry and a “full” life. The irony of this message is they do not realize what they are communicating with their statements. The discouraging truth is the discord between the messages the church teaches adolescents and the messages communicated when those adolescents “graduate” the youth programs and enter into the “adult” ones.
On one hand, we endeavor to teach our teens and children how their lives are full and complete in Christ; then we undermine this very valuable message as soon as they are at an age where they are discovering their individuality and selves the most.
A secondary contributor to this “problem” is that we have seen a major shift in society and culture. For one, the stages of adolescence have been prolonged into the late twenties, and a part of this is evidenced by the fact that many are now waiting until their late twenties and thirties to marry and start a family. This trend has allowed for some beautiful things: space to pursue dreams and goals and time to decide what one really wants in life. The church however, has not experienced this shift in the same way. The church often treats singles in this age group as if there is something innately wrong with them, and seems quote unprepared for those who have committed to celibacy and singlehood for life. Therefore, the church’s reaction has been to create a singles ministry: with the dual purpose of creating a space for this group and also a place for them to “meet and marry.”
This brings me to the third point: singles ministries are failing because of their structure. Anytime you take a group and isolate them from the rest of the body of Christ you can expect to encounter some pretty big issues. Ministry in the fullest sense is always experienced best when a group is multigenerational, multiethnic, and socially diverse. My suggestion is to take a good look at the unspoken attitudes behind singles ministries and trade in the old structure for mixed small groups, service teams, missions, and discipleship.
Where does Scripture factor into this conversation? Let’s look first at the obvious, Paul. Paul addresses celibacy in 1 Cor 7:7-9. He affirms that people are called either to marriage or celibacy and gifted likewise. His warning and exhortation was against unrestrained sexual desire, although he deals with several subjects in these chapters. Paul acknowledges those who are unmarried have a great capacity to serve God in areas those who are responsible for a family could not. He does not declare one experience greater than the other. Often we get caught up in the great experiences we have had and desire or expect others’ to be similar. Perhaps that is what the church is experiencing regarding the celibate and unmarried. Being single is not a problem or an issue in any way.
Being single and entering into ministry in and of itself does not decrease individual value, diminish effectiveness, or devalue giftedness. Mixing singles with married couples of various ages creates a beautiful and mutually enriching environment. Singles need to be affirmed and accepted for who they are, and their giftedness should not be evaluated based on their relationship status. Likewise, married couples need to be cherished for their individuality as well as their commitment to family life. Scripture affirms both the single, celibate, and married in the body of Christ and expresses the need for both while also exhorting each to trust in God, wait on Him, and actively seek Him.