Why Traditional Singles Ministries Often Fail
- by Virginia McInerney, excerpted from Single Not S Copyright Christianity Today International
- 2006 15 Nov
Several years ago some singles in my church approached me about getting more involved with our church's singles ministry. I was torn because I saw great need, but I also felt that the traditional singles ministry model wasn't the whole answer because I knew many singles who were not attracted to singles functions. Yet, I didn't have any alternatives to offer.
I earnestly sought God in prayer for answers—surely the God of the universe had a plan that would work. As I sought the Lord, ideas started to come. Among those ideas, a key one was that instead of ministering to singles separately, God wanted to minister to singles by blending them more into the church community. He wanted to bridge the gap between singles and couples, and He wanted to heal the wounds caused by this separation. I truly believe that the changes I'm calling for are borne out of God's heart.
Before going further, I need to explain what I mean by a "traditional singles ministry model." Typically, various types of functions specifically for singles are offered through a singles ministry. Usually this includes Bible study groups or other types of small fellowship groups, a variety of large group functions, which often include purely social functions, and a range of other programs for and with singles such as planned outings, annual conferences or retreats and service projects. Some have the objective of raising up leaders from amidst the church's singles. While many of these types of functions are good, the model through which they are offered does not adequately meet the needs of all singles and should not be viewed as doing so. It may work for those in their early twenties, but it holds problems for those beyond.
Although this traditional model, in some ways, truly can address and provide for some needs of singles, it has certain inherent flaws. We need to reevaluate this model, extract from it what is helpful and let the rest go. We also need to supplement the model with new approaches that more effectively reach the diverse spectrum of singles in today's church, especially singles beyond their early twenties.
We need a paradigm shift, not merely a program shift—a whole new approach, not a whole new program. This requires a new way of thinking, not merely a new way of doing. As hard as this might be for some to recognize or acknowledge, I believe we need to lay aside the idea that a church can adequately minister to all singles through the traditional singles ministry model.
As with all steps of faith, it is risky to suggest something new. It is also risky to explain why the existing model does not work for all singles. I think many people tiptoe around this issue because they don't want to offend anyone. I sincerely don't want to offend anyone either. People with great intentions and hearts of gold have worked sacrificially to put together singles ministries in their churches. Those who have done so have a heart for singles and are to be blessed, honored and commended. The paradigm shift I'm suggesting is not meant to take away from what they have done and are doing, but to come alongside them.
We want to reach the same end objectives—for singles to be cared for, to be blessed and to be a blessing. What I'm calling for should complement the work of existing leaders. If your church has a great ministry going, that's wonderful! But many churches do not have a vibrant and dynamic way of ministering to singles, and even among those that do, there are singles who do not feel comfortable in their church's singles ministry. They too need to feel like a true part of the church and should be valued and cared for whether involved in singles ministry or not.
It is not my intention to cause division by bringing this up. My goal is unity. By getting this issue out in the open, I think singles can become more unified. We won't have to distinguish ourselves as singles who support the singles ministry vs. those who do not involve themselves. Instead, we can be singles doing our unique part, whatever it may be, to serve and unify the whole church. It is tragic if we wound or discourage each other as if we are on opposing sides just because we have a different perspective. My sincere hope is that those who are devoted to the traditional singles ministry model will simply be open to my explanation regarding the perspective of other singles in the church.
I believe this perspective is needed by singles ministry leaders—especially those who have felt discouraged or hurt due to low turnout or what they perceive to be little support by others. Assumptions are sometimes made that the low turnout is a statement about the program, or worse, the leaders. Some leaders have been frustrated or disillusioned, believing low turnout to indicate apathy or lack of commitment on the part of the singles in their church. While these factors likely have some role in the attendance rate, they are not the only factors.
Low turnout should get our attention, though. When only a small percentage of a church's singles regularly participate in its singles ministry, the leaders should be asking, "What's wrong?" I hope what I'm about to share helps answer that question and also soothes some of the frustration and hurt leaders have experienced. Lack of attendance is not always a statement about the leaders, the program or the commitment level of the singles. Other factors arise from the model itself, with its inherent flaws that cannot be overcome no matter how great the leaders or programs are, or how committed the singles are.
There are several reasons why a single may not find singles ministry events attractive. One reason is that a single may feel like he or she is going to a lonely heart's club, no matter how great the people are who attend the singles event. Why? Because let's face it—singles want fellowship. Some crave it. And we all know it.
Some singles are uncomfortable because by attending they think people will perceive them to be lonely. Whether the people attending actually are lonely is practically irrelevant; it's the perception that matters. The perception arises from the fact that the function is specifically for singles. While we wish this perception did not exist, we have to be realistic—for now, it does. The changes I believe God is bringing about will allow this perception to fade gradually. But for now, it's there, and we just can't get away from that.
Some singles feel very uncomfortable attending a singles event because they believe most attendees go with an underlying motive of finding a mate. Although nothing is wrong with having this motive (it's natural if you want to get married!), the underlying awareness of it, which you can hardly ignore, can easily make you feel like every man or woman there is checking you out.
Conversely, if you attend a friend's wedding, go to a church softball game or attend a conference, because you're in a mixed crowd, you don't feel overtly checked out. These are natural settings in which to meet others. The discomfort produced by the unseen yet felt awareness of underlying motives is absent. A singles event, in contrast, can feel contrived and awkward.
We can remember ourselves back at a high school dance when the primary thing on everyone's mind was trying to make the right maneuvers to get someone interested or to keep someone interested. While that may have felt normal in high school, to many it does not feel normal at twenty-eight or thirty-six or forty-two.
Yet many single Christians feel compelled to put themselves in this situation because it seems to be one of the only avenues they have to meet someone. If we are not going to do the bar scene, and if we are limiting our dating options only to Christians, well, where do we turn? I'll address that question later. For now, I just wanted to explain this aspect of why some singles avoid singles events.
Another problem created by the known underlying motive is that it heightens the potential for some to feel rejected. If you frequently attend singles events yet no one expresses interest in you, after a period of time, you can start to feel really rejected. You go home feeling badly and wondering, What's wrong with me?
An additional reason some singles avoid singles ministries is that there's something about joining a singles ministry that can make a single feel he or she is resigning to never be married—and most singles do not want to resign themselves to this. Perhaps one reason for this perception is the fact that some believe singles ministry represents a group of people who feel called to remain single. I suspect another reason is because most people join groups that are relevant to an enjoyable aspect of their lives that they desire to be ongoing. However, singles groups are comprised of people who share something in common that almost all of them wish to change.
If a single really dislikes being single, then he or she may not wish to belong to a group that constantly reminds him or her of the very thing he or she wishes not to be. For example, some people attend infertility groups. They long for the day they no longer need to attend the group because they are holding a baby in their arms. It's kind of a love-hate relationship. You may love the people and support, but you can't stand being reminded of that aspect of your life. You'd much rather have resolution to the issue that originally propelled you to join.
Some singles don't involve themselves in singles ministry because they are very busy doing other ministry work in areas where God has called and equipped them. For example, they may be highly involved in evangelistic efforts, children's ministry or ministry to the poor. These singles may feel they don't have enough time or energy to serve in another ministry. They should not be made to feel something is wrong with them because they are not involved specifically with the singles doing "singles ministry" but instead are active elsewhere. Unfortunately, I've seen this attitude conveyed by some singles. It's problematic when people look upon the singles ministry as something in which all or most singles should be involved.
Some singles feel that by joining singles ministry, they would be cutting themselves off from the larger life of the church, which is unappealing to them. They may desire relationships with a variety of people and do not want to be perceived as desiring to associate with singles only. Thus they avoid singles ministry so as not to be misperceived.
The traditional model not only generates these factors that can make singles ministry unattractive to some singles; it also can generate some problems.
Ever-changing group dynamics
There is an inherent instability in singles ministry caused by changing group dynamics as couples form, start dating and then leave the group. This can be especially challenging when the singles ministry leader is the one who begins dating and leaves the helm. The very nature of single ministry fosters this ongoing revolving door. People come with the hope of finding someone, and if they are successful, they leave. The singles who remain have to reshuffle themselves. If this happens too frequently, it can be heart wrenching for the ones who remain.
Eventually, the singles who have experienced this over and over find it difficult to open up and allow themselves to get close to newcomers and others, fearing that they too ultimately will leave. This is tragic when it happens, and it can be detrimental to singles in particular because they often don't have the rootedness couples generally enjoy. Stable and ongoing relationships are needed all the more in the life of a single, and yet this ministry model can foster the exact opposite. Singles who are aware of this inherent instability may shy away from involvement to avoid the potential fracturing they fear will occur.
A subgroup of singles
Another pitfall inherent to the model is that a singles ministry will often take on the character of a subgroup of singles. By so doing, it no longer attracts or represents all singles. Because there are many different stages of being single, each with its own unique set of issues, a "one-size-fits-all" type of singles ministry is ineffective.
Here's what can happen even though it is not intentional. Let's say a man in his mid-thirties begins to lead a singles group. It is not uncommon, then, for other thirty-something singles who attend singles events to be attracted to this leader due to his age. Pretty soon, this "singles ministry" looks like a mostly thirties singles group. If a single in his or her twenties or fifties shows up, that single may feel like a fish out of water. Consequently, you may find yourself in a church that has a "singles ministry" you don't fit into, and yet, you find others in your church expecting you to get involved. This can be very frustrating and can leave singles feeling as if they don't fit in anywhere in the church. They don't fit in with the singles ministry and they don't fit in with couples. Where are they to go?
A separation mentality
The current model also can foster an ongoing separation mentality in the church. If a church takes great effort to promote its singles ministry, it may communicate a church philosophy that asserts singles should be involved with the singles ministry. It sends a message that the church's leadership believes that this is the primary place where singles ought to get "plugged in." Not only singles pick up on this, but couples do, too.
Many couples assume most singles want to be involved with singles ministry and that the singles ministry successfully addresses their issues. Not being single, not having attended singles functions and not understanding the kinds of things I am explaining here, it is natural that they would assume this. But this assumption is often wrong. All the more, then, the church leadership needs to be clear in its message. If a strong and clear message advocating the integration of singles is not expressed, then by default, the mere existence of a singles ministry tends to separate the singles out. This is sad when what singles need so much is to feel welcome and included in all respects.
The scenario is exacerbated when the church establishes a specific, high-profile marriage and family ministry. When the congregation sees the church establish the family ministry as its own distinct entity, and the singles ministry as its own distinct entity, a strong separation message is perceived. Overcoming this perception requires a clear articulation that this is not what the church is advocating. Such a message can be successfully conveyed, but few churches are sending that message, probably because they haven't seen the need to do so.
Let's encourage our pastors to enhance the environment for integration by clearly communicating that integration is an important objective. They can communicate this objective powerfully by doing something it seems most people have never thought of—actually linking family ministry with ministry to singles. These ministries need not be totally separate. They share common, related purposes. Let's encourage our pastors to prayerfully consider this.
The bottom line is this: For our churches to promote successfully the integration of singles into the church at large, they need to stop separating singles unto themselves when there is no obvious and healthy purpose for that separation. When singles or couples support the continuation of something that is not helpful to singles, they foster continuing division in the church.
Deal with the real problem; don't skirt around it by fostering an environment that allows it to go unconfronted and unchanged. This approach doesn't help singles or couples. Instead of promoting separation, let's work together to give everyone—couples and singles—the opportunity to experience the blessings that come from involvement with each other. Let's not promote separation out of fear that singles will be left with nothing if we don't at least give them singles ministry, especially if this fear is fueled by a presumption that couples are aloof to the needs of singles. Instead, let's address the real problems.
After all this, you may be asking, "So is there any room left for singles ministry?" I think there is, but it needs to be done in a different manner. The sole purpose should be to address the issues that are specific to singles. Events should be open, not exclusive. This way, all the pastors get involved, not just the singles pastor. Couples with a heart to better understand and come alongside singles are welcome. Thus the door is wide open for interaction. This promotes better communication between couples and singles, from which both derive benefits. For example, never-married singles can be mentored in marriage and parenting, and couples can likewise glean things from singles, like how to lean into God more than their spouse in difficulty.
To successfully shift to a new model of ministry to singles, we need to encourage our pastors and other church leaders to communicate clearly to the church that ministry to singles occurs in this open and integrated type of context, not in the old way. A loud and clear message is needed because the current mind-sets about what constitutes "singles ministry" are so ingrained. Encourage your church leaders to express the church's overall view of singles and their multifaceted involvement in the church. Unless your leaders clearly demonstrate the desire to meet the needs of singles in a variety of ways, when the congregation hears references to groups or events that sound like the old "singles ministry," they'll just assume everything is the same as always. They will not realize that your church has adopted a new approach, one that encourages specific training aimed at singles issues and the overall integration of singles.
We should probably call this new approach something else too, because using the term singles ministry tends to make everyone, singles and couples alike, think that just because it exists, it's the primary place of belonging for all singles, which isn't true. We should use terminology that does not create the impression that it's exclusive to singles—they lead, they teach, they gather, etc. Instead we want to convey that singles are the subject of the ministry but not necessarily the only ones by and for whom the ministry is offered. It is ministry to singles about things they face.
Personally, I almost always use the term "ministry to singles" instead of "singles ministry" because I believe this better reflects the true intent. It might seem like a small change in terminology, but this change helps convey that ministry to singles can be offered by anybody, married or single.
Another benefit gained under this new model is that someone like me, for example, who is involved as a single, can continue involvement even after marrying. This is such an advantage! It eliminates the inherent instability caused by the old mind-set whereby a person disengages from ministry to and with singles after he or she gets married.
In all these changes, your church doesn't have to do away with the fun, recreational types of activities and gatherings that you and other singles enjoy. If you enjoy those types of functions, you can organize those events just as friends normally do with one another! Pick a day, time and event, and spread the word among friends. Make flyers with maps if you want to. Singles, as individuals, are perfectly capable of organizing these types of things on their own and do not need the church to sponsor and arrange these events for them.
If an individual or group of friends plan an event and invite only singles, this is vastly different than when the church does so. We respect the concept of freedom of association. As individuals, we're free to decide whom we want to invite to parties and other social gatherings. But the minute the church sponsors an event and makes it for singles only, it is a different matter altogether. Let's take the church out of it and do what friends do naturally—plan and organize our own social gatherings. This has a wholly different feel to it, and singles who currently disdain singles ministry functions might be more inclined to go to something that instead just feels like a friend's party.
All of these changes create a win-win situation for everybody. The singles ministry leaders who enjoy training can continue on, because we need training. Singles who specifically enjoy singles ministry as it currently exists will still have a variety of events tailored to them. And you can continue your socializing by taking it into your own hands. If other singles do not care to associate themselves specifically with ministry to singles, they can receive adequate training through broader avenues—for example, through sermons—and can continue involvement in other areas of ministry in the church. Additionally, by the church's overall increased attention to singles in general, all singles, both those who minister specifically to singles and those who do not, can feel much more cared for and valued. Everybody wins, and no one has to be left out. Surely this is God's heart.
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