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Are Single People the Lepers of Today’s Church?

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In an age of rising singlehood, why are many churches still focused on being family ministry centers?

There are the well-meaning ladies who ask you about your husband and children and, when you say you don’t have any, suddenly run out of things to say to you.

There are the women’s Bible studies scheduled on weekday mornings, because aren’t all church women married homemakers?

There are the sermons and activities directed exclusively at families.

There are the pastors who fault the single men for not getting married, even if they’ve tried, and who seem to think that singles are marked out for some terrible fate.

There are the Christians who tell you that life doesn’t start until you’re married. Or that you can’t really understand what love is because you’re single and childless. Never mind that this goes directly against the Christian faith, which teaches that God is the source of all love and that everyone — regardless of marital status! — can know that love.

Churches are so committed to the idea of a family-centered church that they’re just not sure how to handle rising rates of singleness.

There are the people who talk about singles in the church as a problem. There are the people who say you’re “too picky” if you have any standards at all. There are the people who hint that you couldn’t get a spouse because you’re not spiritual enough or because God is trying to punish you for something. And then there are my favorites: the people who helpfully point out that there’ll be no one to look after you in your old age. (Thanks for reminding me once again of that topic that has so often kept me lying awake into the small hours!)

In a nutshell, there are a lot of nice, well-intentioned Christian married people who say cruel, insensitive, or misguided things to and about single people.  Popular Christian blogger Jon Acuff once did a post on “Surviving church as a single,” and the comments came flooding in from single Christians who had experienced all these things and more:

“I find the ‘Family days out!’ excruciatingly painful and lonely . . .”

“. . . I still remember the mom of one of my youth group students exclaiming to me in shock (the first time we met, no less), ‘What, you own a house? But you’re single!’”

“. . . Many churches will not even consider me as a pastoral candidate because I am still single.”

Not everyone goes as far as Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Albert Mohler, who infamously argued at the 2004 New Attitude Conference that delaying marriage is sinful (leading to an outcry that made him clarify his position). And I’m not saying that there’s some sort of deliberate conspiracy to make all Christian single people feel about two inches tall.

I do think a lot of Christians are simply confused. They’ve become so committed to the idea of a family-centered church that they’re just not sure how to handle rising rates of singleness.

The apostle Paul — who was single and resolutely committed to remaining so — speaks of the church itself, not marriage, as the means God uses to bring us to spiritual maturity.

Mohler’s speech — as columnist Camerin Courtney pointed out in a rebuttal — heavily emphasized that today’s church focuses on marriage as the institution that God uses to make us mature and holy. So without marriage, what are we? The implication seems to be that we’re just a bunch of permanent adolescents drifting aimlessly and uselessly through life.

Married couples with children need and deserve support — but so do singles.  We’re practicing celibacy in a culture that can scarcely comprehend the concept. We’re struggling with the idea that, thanks to various cultural factors and trends, our desires for marriage and children might never be met. We’re trying to ward off loneliness and live good, responsible, fulfilling lives. And in the midst of all this, we’re dealing with the misperceptions I’ve described above.

This is where the church should be a lifeline for us instead of an anchor weighing us down. Contrary to the Reverend Mohler’s emphasis on marriage, the apostle Paul — who was single and resolutely committed to remaining so — speaks of the church itself, not marriage, as the means God uses to bring us to spiritual maturity. (See Ephesians 4:11-16.)

But in too many cases, today’s church is not doing this. It’s set up as a sort of family training center, which means that everyone who doesn’t fit the nuclear family model is pushed to the margins rather than welcomed and included. Nothing could be further from the teachings of Jesus Christ, who called everyone to come and follow.

Take a look at your own church and ask yourself some hard questions: Are single people naturally integrated into the life of the church? Or are singles expected to stay in their own group, like lepers in quarantine? Is there support for single Christians who might occasionally need assistance with various tasks, as there is for, say, the elderly? Do you have single friends? When was the last time you reached out to a single person in your church?

If you haven’t, are you willing to try?

The need for churches to attend to their single members is more pressing than you might realize. Journalist Julia Duin, in her book Quitting Church, talks about the treatment of singles as one of the major reasons that Christians walk away: “Many would do anything for some support. . . . The culture tells them they have missed out on life’s greatest experience, while at the same time at church, not one word of encouragement comes from the pulpit or even their friends.”

Personally, I have no intention of quitting church any time soon. I take seriously the biblical command that we are not to “forsake the assembling of ourselves together” (Hebrews 10:25). And I know firsthand that the church at its best is a help and comfort like no other.

But in recent years, the church has not always been at its best when dealing with its single members. It’s time to drop the expectations and start to see single Christians not as problems to be solved, but as people to be loved.


By Gina Dalfonzo

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