Monday, December 26, 2005

Adult Christian Singles - How the Church Sees Singles


The attitudes of local churches toward single adults vary widely. Some congregations embrace singles and some have a “church within a church” – where singles have their own services, etc. Others seem indifferent or content to send singles somewhere else.
Many churches have developed strong, vibrant singles ministries; Willow Creek in the Chicago, IL area, Saddleback Church in southern California and Calvary Church in Grand Rapids, MI. Where churches have made a focused effort to reach single adults, their efforts have been rewarded.

In churches that have not made that effort, many singles feel that the church sees them as the “second-class citizens” in the bride of Christ. Discovering why does not take long.

Marriage is “Better”

“Unmarried America” (UA) was formed as a secular political action group to “seek fairness for unmarried employees, consumers, and taxpayers…” (Unmarried America). This organization wants “federal and state legislation to counter the many laws, regulations and policies” that it alleges “unfairly discriminates against people based on their marital status.” Executive Director of UA, Thomas Colman believes that federal and state laws and private employment policies designed to encourage traditional marriage constitute “discrimination” against those who cannot or choose not to marry (Johnson).

In response, Director of Social Research and Cultural Affairs for “Focus on the Family”, Glen Stanton says, “Married people engage in less risky behavior, [and] they’re more responsible. They tax the healthcare system less for any physical or emotional problems, and when they do suffer from these problems, they recover more quickly and successfully. Pick out any imaginative ‘well-being measure’ that you can think of, you’re going to fnd that, relative to marital status, married people do better” (Johnson). Stanton, in this quote, makes no attempt to determine whether the single and married people are divided into “churched” and “unchurched”; educated or uneducated, with or without children. Any of these factors might be a much of an indication of “responsible” or “irresponsible” as simply being “single”.

Speaking for myself, I am a single parent. I have held the same job for eight years; I have a mortgage and a car payment. My family moved 2 ½ years ago and before that, we were at the same address for 12 years. My family has been attending our current church for three years and we were members at our previous church since my son (now a freshman in college) was in first grade. I am hardly the portrait of instability that Mr. Stanton paints of single people. Too many single people I know are parents, PTA members, teachers, engineers, IT professionals and more – I cannot take Mr. Stanton’s comments lightly and easily.

Wendy Wright, senior policy director of “Concerned Women for America” adds, “Unfortunately, they appear to be rather selfish and narcissistic and don’t recognize that family life benefits not only the individuals who are involved in that family, but also all of society. It’s the foundation of a healthy society” (Johnson).

When single adults and especially single parents hear representatives of major Christian organizations making statements like these, they can easily get the impression that these organizations believe that all singles are selfish risk-takers who are a burden on society.

Myths About Single Adults

Myths abound about single adults, both inside and outside the church:
  • Single people are less whole than married people

  • Single people have more time than married people

  • Single people are less committed than married people

  • All single people are hurting

  • Something is wrong with married people

  • All singles are sexually frustrated

  • Singles live a glamorous life (Kamstra 1:1)
Most people can look beyond these myths. A single mother struggling financially (or a single father choosing between paying rent and paying child support) shatters the myth that “singles live a glamorous life.” Some of the myths, however, remain very real strongholds.

Sometimes the attitudes of church members only imply that singles are not whole; that there is something wrong with them. The church may try to fit singles into their pre-existing programs, leaving them feeling like the proverbial “square peg in a round hole,” rather than help them find the peer support that they may need as singles. When singles seek support in meeting their spiritual, emotional or fellowship needs, their unique needs may be treated as “damage”.

Many times, a single adult may be referred to a counselor, rather than encouraged to seek the support and advice of other singles. His or her perception may be that the church (or at least the small corner of it that he or she is speaking to) sees singleness as brokenness, in need of counseling, not support.

The myths remain and until they fall it will remain difficult for single adults to feel fully embraces as “spiritual siblings” within the church.

Divorce and Remarriage

The issue of divorce and remarriage posts a major point of friction between singles and the church4. The attitudes and doctrines of churches vary widely, depending not only on the circumstances of the divorce, but also by denomination. Policies range from not allowing divorced and remarried people to attain leadership at all to tolerance and accepting divorce for any reason. Three examples are the Assemblies of God, the Christian Reformed Church and the United Methodist Church.

Assemblies of God churches discourage divorce even in the case of adultery and consider remarriage after an “unbiblical divorce” (for reasons other than adultery or abandonment by an unbelieving spouse) to be adultery. In Assemblies of God churches, people that are being considered for pastors and church leaders “should be those who have not been the guilty party in initiating a divorce.” Thus, even those people who are guilty of initiating a “Biblical divorce” should not be considered for leadership. The doctrinal statement by the Assemblies of God church says that even leaders who have been unwillingly divorced and not at fault may not remarry because of their “role as moral examples” (Assemblies of God (USA) Offical Website). Thus, even people who have been divorced against their will – even by unfaithful spouses – must either remain alone or disqualify themselves from leadership in the Assemblies of God denomination.

The Christian Reformed Church says, “Since failure to keep the marriage covenant is sin, the church must exercise a ministry of reconciliation and call marriage partners to cnfession, forgiveness, reconciliation, and renewed obedience.” They know that some marriages fail and do not clearly prohibit remarriage after divorce, choosing to look at each case individually, offering full forgiveness and restoration (Christian Reformed Church of North America).

The United Methodist Church says that divorce is a “regrettable alternative”, and goes on to say that “Divorce does not preclude a new marriage. (United Methodist Church)
Many churches do not take a stand at all, leaving it to each couple to discern whether or not they can remarry and tending to discourage (but not prohibit) any divorce and remarriage.

Indifference Toward Single Adults (Do Singles Really Fit?)

The perception that singles are not seen as whole reflects only one small piece of the puzzle. A larger piece may be that the church sees any conflict between the married church and single adults as a non-issue and singles perceive that the church appears largely indifferent to their unique needs as singles. In spiritual lives, this indifference may have eternal consequences.
Elie Wiesel, a holocaust survivor, is quoted in a speech to President Ronald Reagan:
I have learned the danger of indifference, the crime of indifference. For the opposite of love, I have learned is not hate, but indifference. Jews were killed by the enemy but betrayed by their so-called allies, who found political reasons to justify their indifference or passivity. What have I learned? When there is obvious injustice and principles are violated – when human lives and dignity are at stake – when your allies find reasons to justify their silence or indifference, neutrality is a sin (Dupont 38).
The startling scarcity of ministry resources for singles may demonstrate the indifference of American churches toward singles. A local publication company, CRC Publications publishes a catalog of church resources that offers no resources for singles ministries (although they do have one Bible study for single adults). They offer resources for ministering to homosexuals, alcoholics and drug addicts, but nothing for a focused singles ministry.

Family Christian Bookstores at Cornerstone College, in Grand Rapids, MI has a section set aside for children’s ministries and a larger one for youth ministries. The section for marriages fills an entire wall. At the time of this writing, they do not have even one book on singles ministries, much less an area set aside. For a person seeking to start a focused singles ministry, it becomes very discouraging to walk out of that store with nothing but a package of breath mints. There are many books about how to be single (many of them consisting of “this is your chance to minister to married people), but there are few on how to effectively minister to singles.
If the resources available for singles ministry can inversely measure indifference, the indifference must be great indeed.

Wendy Widder says, “I’ve been single my whole life and I’ve been associated with the church my whole life. I know, along with many of you – singles and church leaders – that bing single in the church is a little like being a dill pickle in a fruit salad.” (13)

Together, all Christians make up the body of Christ. Not just the married couples, not just the youth, not just the ministerial staff – all Christians should be valued and treated as part of the same body. The church must encourage all members to realize their full potentials as Christians. Equally important, every church member must see the value of every other part. The body of Christ suffers when the body as a whole feels indifference toward any one part, just as the whole human body suffers when one part is neglected.

For just as we have many members in one body and all the members do not have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another (New American Standard Version; Romans 12:4-5)

A while ago, in a Sunday morning sermon in my church, the final point was about prayer; who should pray and who they should pray with. Married people should pray together, and pray for and over their children. The pastor went on to exhort married couples in the congregation; their marriages are the cornerstone of society and the powerhouse of prayer. The next point was that friends should pray for and with each other. Grandparents should pray for their children and grandchildren. Would the pastor include single-parent families somewhere (anywhere)? Would he exhort single parents to pray with and over their children? No; single parents were never mentioned. This did not feel like abuse or neglect…merely indifference, a non-issue. At that moment in time, to this single parent in the congregation, singles did not appear to represent even a blip on the PowerPoint screen. As a single parent, I am not included in this “powerhouse of prayer”.

Many singles do feel that their local congregation accepts and fully embraces them. Judy, single for over 15 years, feels loved and accepted by her church, and she feels no desire to change her corner of it. However, she was established in her current church for many years as a married person. When she became single, she explored other churches with singles ministries, but ultimately decided that she did not want to leave the church where she had developed ties while she was married.

The numbers of single adults that withdraw from the church gives the impression that this woman is an exception; singles that walk into a church for the first time will not have the history that this woman enjoys at her church. Many conversations with singles reveal this as one of the more significant differences between “newly single” people and those who have been single for a greater period of time. New singles tend to feel a desire for peer support and a targeted singles ministry; those who have been single for a while or who have never been married are more likely to have settled in and become comfortable with the type of relationships that they have.

Many single adults already have the feeling that they do not quite fit into today’s church and what they find at many churches does nothing to change that. If the church offers no established singles group, singles often have to make their way past advertisements of marriage retreats, “date nights” and other family oriented events into a sanctuary filled mainly with couples.

Today’s Christian culture has a passion for families that eclipses nearly everything else. The family bears the label “cornerstone of society” and family values legislation targets holding marriages together at any cost. Widder says, “In a Christian culture that idolizes marriage and focuses on families, singles are oddballs. It doesn’t matter how many times well-meaning churchgoers (or leaders) have tried saying otherwise, nobody is really fooled.” (13) The discrepancy between words and reality creates a tension between singles and the church.

“But what do you think? A man had two sons, and he came to the first and said, ‘Son, go work today in the vineyard.’ And he answered, ‘I will not’; but afterward he regretted it and went. The man came to the second son and said the same thing; and he answered ‘I will, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of the Father?” They said, “The first.” (ESV; Matthew 21:28-310

Churches that pay only lip service to embracing all members of the body of Christ are like the second son; singles are not listening to what the church says. They are looking at what the church does.

Part of the responsibility rests with the singles. The United States operates on a consumer driven mentality. When singles come to a church with a consumer attitude, looking for instant gratification, the church cannot deliver. In a country where we can often drive down a street and find 10 or more fast food restaurants within a mile of each other, singles (especially those without children) can “shop” for a church week after week, never finding satisfaction. Until they realize that their relationship with their church must be a symbiotic one and that they must serve the church just as much as the church should minister to them, they will not find that satisfaction. They appear unstable, unable or unwilling to make a commitment to stay with one church.

Part of the tension also lies at the feet of the church. “Today’s evangelical community is so consumed with preserving and enhancing the traditional family,” Widder says, “that an accurate understanding of that other family, the family of God, is virtually impossible. Such an intense family focus has resulted in the denigration and dishonoring of singleness” (30).

The focus that the church has on the nuclear family is another reason for the tension: marriage is accepted as the norm, singles is not. The list of “family oriented” activities seems endless and unless a church makes a focused effort to include singles, the trend of “all family, all the time” will continue. The church may say that they see singleness as an equally valuable way to serve God, but in many churches the actions, attitudes and even words say otherwise. Subtle implications that singles may not have quite the value of marriage include:

  • “You’re a nice girl; why aren’t you married?”

  • Perceived meaning: Perhaps I’m not as nice as I appear.

  • “It’s time for him to get married and settle down.”

  • Perceived meaning: I am not a full-fledged adult until I am married

  • “God has somebody special just for you.”

  • Perceived meaning: If I don’t get married, God has let me down.

  • “I hope you meet someone; I really want you to be happy.”

  • Perceived meaning: I can’t be happy without a relationship.
(Widder 177-178)

Other statements, spoken or not, include such things like a cassette offered by “Fatherly Advice to Singles: Get Married” by Al Mohler Jr. After the original broadcast of this show, Dennis Rainey – one of the hosts – explained how excited he was when his sons proposed to their respective girlfriends, “Because now I knew that life was about to begin in earnest!”

These statements give the impression that earnest life does not begin before marriage.
Until the value of singleness is truly understood and accepted by the church, singles will continue to feel about as accepted as a sixth toe.

But I say to the unmarried and to widows that it is good for them if they remain even as I. But if they do not have self-control, let them marry; for it is better to marry than to burn with passion. (1 Corinthians 7:8-9)

Single adults share many needs with married people, but also have unique needs and desires as singles. Until today’s churches recognize that Christianity is not “one size fits all,” that people need to be ministered to in a variety of ways, the perceived indifference of the married church will continue. Julia Duin writes, “Why churches push away singles is a puzzle, as people living alone are one of America’s fastest growing demographic groups. The two-parent family with kids and stay-at-home mom is a shrinking demographic. I know church leaders have the latter model as the ideal Christian family, but they are chasing the wind.”


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