The Stigma of “Single” in the American Church

I was thirty-two when a frog kissed me and I magically turned into a single person.  All of a sudden the veil of married person apathy lifted and I saw all the stuff that whizzed past me before –namely how church wasn’t all that much fun when you’re flying solo.

It really hit me the first time I had to go church all by myself.  With my new single vision goggles I realized how intimidating it is to even walk in the worship center a la carte.  If you stand at the door for more than a minute it becomes apparent you are missing half of your species.  It reminds me of Noah’s Ark.  In the couples go, two by two, a pair of every kind. 

And there you stand, all awkward with a cup of coffee grasped like a lifeline, so you have something cool to do –like sip, pretending that being alone is a choice and not a condition.

Once in the sanctuary I would sit and listen to a sermon geared towards a nuclear family –now it might be a dysfunctional nuclear family, but spiritual metaphors were generally culled from a conflict with a spouse, teen angst or making amends with a cranky neighbor. As a single mom in a condo, just trying to survive and get my kids to school on time without losing my marbles…it was a little tough to relate.

The pastor would generally poke at the singles over thirty.  He would remind us we were too picky, not that awesome of a catch anyway, and urge us to get our “sparkly act” together (i.e. get in shape, smile more, and stop being weird).

Strangely enough, church wasn’t a safe place when I was single.  It made me feel even more lonely and sad.  And single is such a strange description these days for an unmarried person because people under thirty do not consider themselves single –they identify themselves as young with options.  It’s the over thirty folks who wake up one day and says “Jinkies, I’m starting to get old and I’m still alone.”

And this is when you realize you are single.

Ironically over half the church population is unmarried and I would reckon many of these people feel like the unwanted step-children at their church.  This isn’t a blanket statement and I know there are vibrant, single people who flourish at church, but I hear the hearts of many more singles that are floundering and can’t comprehend why the church seems to turn its back on this group.

I have a few theories –though I imagine there are a multitude of reasons. 

Most Sr. Pastor’s Can’t Relate

First, most Sr. Pastors and pastors in general marry young.  And even though I agree with the theology of marrying young and growing old together, it doesn’t happen for everyone.  People make mistakes, we have broken “pickers” and divorce happens, even to good Christians.

Our culture has deceived us into believing we need to postpone marriage until we have our lives figured out –money in the bank, a big house, and a great job. But when the lure of having it all together evades us due to job loss, college debt and a bad economy, we are left with shattered dreams and without the proper tools to move dating relationships towards marriage.

Most Sr. Pastor’s  do not understand what it’s like to walk in the shoes of a thirty something perched on a stool at Starbucks waiting for their thirty-fourth date from E-Harmony and hoping…praying, maybe, just maybe this is the one. 

Preaching to the Bread and Butter

This one might bite but I’m going to say it anyway.  Generally speaking, singles do not have a reputation for tithing as much as married people do.  The Barna Group in a recent study on Trends in Tithing and Donating revealed only 1% of single unmarried adults give money to the church.  So, if I’m a Sr. Pastor trying to keep the doors open, I would probably direct my time, resources and metaphors to the married couples.  Sad but true.

The Church is Aging

There is a new initiative in church circles to go after the younger twenty-something generation because the church population at large is aging, waning and turning grayer by the minute.  But this younger generation does not consider themselves to be “single,” –remember?  So, the thirties and forties “Singles” groups are being discarded to make way for this “attract the Christian youth movement.” 

It doesn’t help that young people are turned off by single references, they perceive singles ministry to be lame, and despise any reference to the fact that they are alone (because they are young with options).  And the savvy churches who don’t want to go extinct are going after this younger group with a passion.  Which unfortunately…leaves the single thirties and forties high and dry.  

The Lost Generation

Singles Gen-X’ers somehow got lost in the middle.  It’s a sandwich demographic that has been usurped by aging baby boomers and a push to be relevant to the hipster post-post modern generation.  Many churches are getting rid of their single ministries for the very reasons I stated above.  In the “Simple Church” model we are all one church ministering to each other as a community and I believe this to be true in parts –through Sunday worship, volunteer service and outreach to the poor and needy.

And while we don’t want to recreate life stage ministries that take away from this united church community, it still doesn’t take away the desire for new mommies to want to connect with new mommies and not talk about menopause with the hot flashers, and couples who want to engage with other couples, and most importantly –the unmarried population, whether they recognize they are “single” or not who want to meet and connect with other people in their life-stage.

Combating these issues isn’t boiled down into one easy fix; it’s a battle we all must engage in.  First –the church is responsible for speaking and ministering to the needs of the single person (51% of the population) and moving towards them with care and compassion, second –singles need to recognize the lure of the world doesn’t lead to “happily ever after,” and third, we as a community of Christ followers need to encourage, embrace and stand up for marriage –and give singles a reason to even want to move towards this relationship.

Comments

  1. Sam, I totally agree with you. Sr. Pastors are largely clueless (it seems) on modern dating culture, they got married decades ago, and yeah, it’s about money. Sorry for the “essay” but a few thoughts…

    Singles need:

    1. a way to connect in a “couple’s world” but so they don’t feel so alone

    2. A LOT more discussion about why we single men, the initiators, should get married (or re-married). We need to hear why it’s worth going through all we have to go through to make it happen. To go the distance, deal with as many bad dates as we have to find a good catch, and take a huge step of faith – and commitment. Love her like Christ loved the church – seriously?! I’m supposed to basically “die” for her – really?! (And what woman will inspire me to do this…? I’d like to see that woman!) Where’s the message on that, Sr. Pastor? Yeah, “be the right man”. Can someone please explain Matt. 19:8-10 – like that’s supposed to help?

    What do us single guys hear 24/7 in the media, movies, and music?
    Sex any time with anyone you want to is acceptable as long as you’re not “hurting anyone”, “hook” her with your impressive job or whatever to reel her in (apparently a lot of OC women need you to show them you’re making zillions like daddy did), move in together (lots of free sex with no commitment), don’t respect women – use them (courtesy of the rap music industry), if you’re not getting want you want, dump her and start over.

    What do we hear from divorced guys and about half of married men?
    A constant stream of angry, bitter, anti-marriage messages. I once heard a married guy tell me, “Stay single as long as you can. When I was single I had sex all the time. Now that I’m married it’s hardly ever!” A few years ago I’ll never forget a neighbor who confided in me that his wife lets him have sex only twice a year – on New Year’s Eve and his birthday! How unbelievably cruel. At the time I was sleeping with my girlfriend on a very regular basis and I thought, “Wow, why get married? My girlfriend wants me all the time now – but could marriage turn into prison?”

    Us guys – we’re the ones taking the initiative and leading in relationships. It needs to be talked about a LOT more. Why isn’t it? The world has radically changed since most Sr. Pastors got married – it’s a totally different ballgame – a very post-Christian dating world.

  2. "Bookish B" says:

    Hey, Sam and Steve,

    Sam, your essay, as usual is well thought out and beautifully nuanced.

    Steve, my heart breaks as I read truth in every sentence of your response.

    However, I would like to focus my response to those Boomers / Married people who are seriously missing one of the great, enriching life experiences you can have in the modern (post-modern?) church today.

    As often as we can afford it, my wife and I have a single person from our church over for a simple meal and conversation. (Nothing programmed, no intended ministry, no agenda…)

    What we have discovered is that there is a richness of insight, depth of discernment, and solid edification to be had, simply by listening to these amazing single-with-options people attentively.

    SURPRISES IN STORE FOR BOOMERS
    Because these generations, X’ers and Y’ers, have not been pounded into the world of non-stop working / paying bills / doing diapers / boiling bottles / keeping up with the Jones, they have more insight than we, Boomers, ever had at comparable ages. Their sharpened insight comes from a level of alienation plus more time to think. They can and do go out a lot and have more disposable income than we ever knew. (Yep, they generally have nicer “stuff.”)

    But, among the most important things in life they are a little out of pocket.

    Conversation that treasures their ideas is not a routine aspect of their lives, yet they have so much that is good to say! They love freedom to be themselves without worrying about how they are coming off or how they are perceived. A meal they did not have to cook, clean up after, or pay for has a value to them far beyond price.

    These “people with options” will enrich your life in ways you can hardly imagine. In the company of these amazing people, my wife and I have been profoundly encouraged and deeply moved to become better people, ourselves.

    We may have started inviting singles into our home longer ago than we care to admit (our marriage has had more “birthdays” than most of our single friends), but, we cannot stop. These people are such a blessing! Plus, there is a wonderful sense of closure when you see someone you have cried with and prayed for come down the aisle and change forever their “Facebook Status.” They also trade an old set of challenges for a new set.

    Boomers! Get out of the Boomer Ghetto and into relationships with X’ers and y’ers!

    “Bookish B”

  3. Sam, Bookish B,

    I think singles could benefit (if they’re open) from the advice of Boomers. Singles would gladly trade what little nice stuff we have for the other things we’re missing.

    Not long ago I rededicated my life to Christ – including surrendering my sexuality. It’s insanely difficult and, of course, the minute I do that I’m texted by women from my past. Great! Doesn’t it always work that way?

    Two thoughts constantly weigh on the minds of us single guys: (1) the fear of your own marriage blowing up if you get married – the TONS of relationship wreckage out there is impossible to not see – the divorces my brother and close friends have been through are fresh on my memory (I need to deal with that fear); and (2) the constant temptation that there’s always some woman out there who will definitely sleep with me in a fling if I just say or do the right things with her – it’s really easy, actually – but I’m done with that – ready for the real thing.

    …so, yeah, we need to talk about this stuff more in church – or somewhere.

    Steve

  4. Sam, Bookish B, and Steve:

    I agree that the church today has forgotten about their singles. I have often walked into a new church by myself, feeling alone and insignificant. After all, what does one person matter to the whole? No one will notice if I come back next week or even six months from now.  It takes a considerable effort to meet new people, to find that place to belong, to get involved when you have a partner to join you in the search. But by yourself? It becomes insurmountable and most singles give up. Without roots and without a home, they wander from church to church, observing the Christian community, not participating in it.

    The fault isn’t all with the church, though. Singles can be flighty and extremely selfish individuals. We have the luxury of living only for ourselves, our own schedules and our own desires. We have no spouse with whom to check in, no kids to drive to soccer games, no babysitters to hire just for a night out. We serve no one, so we expect everyone, including the church, to cater to us. That’s not how church works. That’s not how Jesus worked. He did the complete opposite. He served first. He gave every piece of himself to the common people- when he was tired, when he was grieving, when he was threatened. And He did it all… SINGLE.

    Christian singles have forgotten in their zeal for living in the moment or in their desperate search for “the one” that God has work for them to do right now, while they are free, and unencumbered. Jesus was thirty when he started his ministry. His disciples were mostly in their twenties. The work starts now!

    The problem in the church, then, is not that singles don’t have a group to meet each other; it’s that they don’t have support from the community both in beginning their service and in maintaining it. We need guidance, we need help, we need sound, godly advice; because we are flying solo here. Thank God that he fills in every gap in our character and succeeds where we fail. But it’s hard to do all these things and yet still go home to an empty house.

    Bookish B, you are my hero, my mentor, and friend; because you offer advice, care, and support to those that are trying so hard to do the work God has put before them, when otherwise, they would be alone.

    Steve, praise God that a Christian single man is dedicating his life to following Jesus in a very literal and tangible way. Can I offer you some advice? Stop looking for a good wife and look for a good woman. What she does as a single woman is what she will do as a married one. If all she cares about is her hair and how much money you spend on her, she isn’t going to change with a ring on her finger. Find a woman who loves God and is more interested in becoming more like Him and who He has designed her to be as a woman, than in becoming a wife. Honestly, there aren’t many out there, but she will be worth waiting for.

    • Steve, Rebecca, and Bruce,
      I haven’t replied yet because you guys gave me a doozy of things to ponder
      First, I hope I was clear that we are all responsible for singles integrating into the church. Each of us plays a part. My husband has a passion for mentoring young men to date well and it plays out in all we do from having single guys over for dinner to intentional meetings and counseling. I have a heart for purity and promoting marriage as God’s intended relationship between man and woman, Rebecca and Steve lean in and engage as singles, and Bruce mentors, cares and encourages us along the way.
      I believe this is the communal church in action-ministering to each other and loving like Christ loved us.
      Singles groups both help and hurt the church. When they replace this movement they can be harmful. Often times people will go to singles ministry and avoid Sundays. This only hurts. But when the group creates a genuine place of fellowship and ministry it can be beautiful.
      I hear your heart Steve. I remember the struggle vividly. I applaud you for being brave and doing your best to lean into grace and God in an imperfect church.
      Bruce, you remind me to listen with my heart. Thank you…
      And thanks to all three of you for boldly addressing this issue.
      Sam

  5. Great discussion Sam! You echo some sentiments that I too have felt for a long time.

    Just the number of vibrant singles ministries in Orange County tells a sad tale of how overlooked the 50% single folks are, of the 100’s of churches in the area, only Mariner’s and Saddleback are the ones I have heard/experienced that are vibrant. And even then, Mariners this year has pulled money from this local thriving mission field to the unseen other mission fields.

    I believe that the churches that are ignoring the needs of their flock and doing nothing to help prepare their singles to not be part of the 50% divorce rate, will be held accountable for it. It is rotting our churches.

    SIMPLE SOLUTION:
    What I did when I was single, and I would encourage every single to do the same, is simply designate your tithe money for the singles ministry. With half of churches being single, this over time would force the churches to give the singles more of a voice and focus, PROVIDED that the singles are financially supporting the church.

    What church wouldn’t want that problem, what do we do with this huge surplus in the singles ministry!

    May the churches wake up,
    Mark

  6. Hi All, thanks for your encouragement…

    @Sam, thanks for the post on why wait – finally a compelling reason. Rules in of themselves provide zero motivation without a pragmatic rationale to back them up. “Don’t do it because I said so” is weak. I still don’t understand what Paul means by “sinning against your own body”. But hearing a married person or a couple talk about it is helpful – and I’m sure it’s not easy. No one can convince me this is a “self-centered” topic for singles – love, sex, and dating – it affects everyone – either people are dating, or will be, or they’re married and having a lot of sex – and if married couples aren’t having a ton of sex they should start that immediately – I’ll feel better about marriage as an institution just knowing that’s going on – 8 days a week preferably. Before I became a Christian my girlfriend was all over me – it was great – kind of hoping it will be like that.

    Dating in OC is far more entertaining than anything on TV. I’ve been intensely interviewed for the role of “husband”, physically attacked, grabbed (yes, you read that correctly), stranded in LA in a Halloween costume (that’s a good story), verbally assaulted by some by some man-haters, told I was wanted sexually over coffee, dated a clinically depressed woman, sex-crazed divorcees, money- and power-obsessed Christian women, a former stripper, and girls from online I hoped would look better in person (they didn’t). Should I laugh or cry? How can you not laugh? I’ve decided my goal for the year is to embrace Rom. 12:2 – overhaul my thinking – and overhaul my life. I’m going to give a 110% effort to be the right person – to work very hard at dealing with any issues from my past, deal with my commitment fears, and to develop myself to be the best I can be professionally, financially, physically, emotionally, and spiritually – so whoever is lucky enough to date me will feel like she’s won the lottery.

    After thinking this over I’ve decided the best thing the church can do with singles is to (a) get every one of them into a small group – same gender is best, (b) do an annual singles retreat of high quality – make it fun, and (c) get them all involved in service projects – together.

    Sam, please keep up the encouragement and great posts! I know you have a lot of married fans out there, but some of us singles are tuned in also, checking this out like a sneak preview of coming attractions – what’s this thing called marriage really like? …twice a day, twice a week, or twice a year….and why?

    -Steve

  7. Hi Sam, I’m not sure if you know me but I was a friend of Tim’s back in college days. I’ve been a Christian since my early teens, part of churches all that time, and never married. As you say, though, I didn’t become “single” – didn’t think of myself that way – until I was in my 30s. It started when I spent a year, at 31, in a fairly conservative Muslim community where to my surprise nobody bugged me about not getting married because I was, like, 10 years too old for that. Yikes.

    I appreciate your analysis of why churches might be blind to the ways we may exclude singles and I do find it helpful to think of it that way, as a blind spot and not a deliberate exclusiveness. I have this theory that in a medium-sized church a lot of people who come in may stay for a while and leave, a little hurt and disgruntled, when they realize, “hey, there’s not very many people like me here. They don’t do anything for people like me.” And it’s not just singles; unless the church is extremely homogenous, almost anyone could justify saying that on one level or another.

    In a small church you’d have different expectations; in a large one, you might actually find the club for people just like you. When we are part of group that’s of an in-between size, maybe it’s more likely we will bring our sensitivities to it and then get all offended. Makes me feel sorry for church leaders who simply can’t meet everyone’s expectations and will burn out if they try.

    I do find myself recoiling at all the sermon illustrations that are about marriage and family – with a line about “work or school” to cover those of us who don’t have a spouse or kids, presumably because we aren’t old enough yet.

    What about all the marriage and parenting classes, and the little, defensive comments church leaders make about how anti-family and anti-marriage our society is, sometimes that bugs me, too – you know, when pastors and leaders start talking about family as if it’s the building block of society – even the gay rights movement, clamoring for the for the rights married people have, and I wonder, why do they have special rights that singles don’t get to have? Is marriage and family the building block of society? Hmm, yes and no.

    Then I show up for a women’s ministry event and feel like I’m a really a freak because not only am I single and have no children in my life, but I don’t fit the Christian women stereotypes in other ways either. There are singles in the women’s groups, but most are divorced; happy and busy with grandchildren, they make sure to point out that they don’t really miss being married. But they aren’t going to die alone. Ugh; easy to get a little bitter. Even though I know the church often discriminates against divorced people even more than never-married people.

    So what am I going to do, walk away from the church? Start a club inside it for people like me? Or just recognize that you can find something in common with anyone if you’re open to it? So, I do the small group thing with couples; I make friends with married women (and men). I bite my tongue when they say they want to meet less often because they are so busy with family things. I choose to stop taking offense and accept that I’m just going to have to keep taking initiative.

    It sucks, really, sometimes, though I think it’s harder to be a single guy in the church than to be a single woman. At least that’s what my fiance says.

    Yeah. I’m crossing over. We’ll see how this works out. Not that I’m going to give up if it doesn’t go so well, but I’m not sure what it will be like to be one of the married people. I hope I don’t forget, when I get to go on the couples retreat, or complain about my husband, or say no I can’t get together with you because I have to go to the kids’ swim meet, that these things are alien to my single or single-again friends.

    • Hi Marti,
      Well hopefully you are not crossing over to the dark side 🙂 but to the wonderful side of marital bliss. Congats on your upcoming marriage! What an exciting time. And you won’t forget what being single was like, but you might mourn over the days when you had time to floss your teeth. Life will be different and challenging in a whole new way.

      You are right about searching for the silver lining and integrating into the church at large. I think it was harder for me being a single divorced mom because I gradually got shut out of my entire friend group once my husband dissapeared. I knew the difference and I knew poignantly, exactly what I was misssing.

      I then had to redefine myself as single. Not so much fun. It was easier to be single than divorced/single -it’s like you’re one those opened boxes taped haphazardly back together at Costco that they put back on the shelf.

      But God has a way of redeeming even the opned packages…

      I pray your marriage is truly blessed.

      Sam

  8. I agree the church could do some things better in this area. However, ultimately, at the end of the day we’re all responsible for our own choices and how we spend our time that God has equally given all of us.

    We singles are 100% responsible for our own happiness – for developing our own community and pursuing a romantic relationship of our own that leads to a healthy Christian marriage in a way that honors God. We can’t blame everything on the church or the senior pastor. God will guide us, but we have to make things happen.

    • I agree with you about personal responsability. I wasn’t trying to point fingers, just identify possible reasons why singles feel misunderstood. At the end of the day, the church is us -the people of God and it’s we who need to be proactive and work from within to highlight areas that need to be tweaked for the greater good.
      Thank you for taking a stand for personal responsability. I think all of us need to get the log out of our own eye.
      Blessings,
      Sam

      • Hey Sam, just to clarify – I hear you, I get you, and I agree with you. There is clearly room for improvement. I don’t expect my mega church to be a dating service, but I do expect it to provide at least some **quality** environment for singles to fellowship.

        I don’t know how to work within the church to influence anything in this area. I’m trying to influence what I can and accept what I can’t.

        I’m getting very involved in the church in hopes I’ll meet other quality singles in the process, taking a lot of initiative to meet a lot of singles on my own (outside of church), and visiting other churches.

        I fully appreciate your points about singles in the church. How can 51% be so overlooked and ignored? It’s amazing. I seriously wonder what Jesus would say to singles in the typical mega church – other than stop having sex before marriage.

  9. I have to say that I really appreciated reading this article and especially all of the variety of comments…

    I am recently married myself and I did struggle for a few years of taking the step to commit because of the divorce rates and just the expectations I would have of myself and of my husband. The whole “happily-ever-after” is not realistic and it doesn’t help when media influences you growing up (i.e. Disney movies) and the ridiculous priorities the American world portrays (so-called reality shows & peers in the Orange County bubble). It’s hard to avoid the world’s ideas when you’re at the grocery store and you have to notice the photo-shopped, celebrity-obsessed front-page news while waiting at the cashier check out.

    I have to say it’s a relief that all this struggle on the side of single-hood and married life is all part of God’s plan. The services at Mariner’s have opened my spiritual eyes on how we all tend to avoid/deny all the necessary pains and growth that is necessary to share with others. Life can be wonderful, but we don’t escape the brokenness of it all. And lucky for us, the Holy Spirit is with us to guide us as long as we keep asking moment-by-moment and follow His ways.

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