One of the greatest unmet ministry needs in our country today is that of widows. Not the traditional widow, but single moms. Nearly 40 percent of all American families are now headed by a single parent, mostly mothers, and the majority live below the poverty level. Even more concerning is the spiritual poverty these families experience, yet less than one percent of churches in America have a single parent ministry initiative in place.

For the Church to be relevant to our culture, we can’t continue to overlook this widow epidemic. Tragically, the American church fails to see single moms as widows for several reasons. First, because our definition of widow has evolved to mean only a woman whose husband has died. However, in biblical Greek the word for widow, chera, was a much broader term meaning “bereft of a husband,” indicating that the woman could have been left alone for any number of reasons, including divorce or desertion, which were common problems even in Old and New Testament times. Second, there is the issue of single moms who have never been married. In 2013, half of all babies born in America will be born to unmarried single moms. Do these women count as widows too? Is the Church required to care for women who have been sexually promiscuous or irresponsible in the same way they would care for a woman who was faithfully married for many years and whose husband died?

While these are questions that a discerning church must examine, I think it ultimately comes down to an issue of compassion. If it was your daughter who got pregnant out of wedlock and chose to preserve the life of her child, or if she had left an abusive relationship seeking a safer, healthier environment for her kids to grow up in, how would you want a church to receive and care for her?

Having stepped into the lives and listened to the stories of countless single parents, and being ‘widowed’ myself due to my spouse’s addiction and violence, I can say that a single mom’s common experience with the Church is that they feel invisible, marginalized and neglected. They don’t fit in marriage ministries or singles ministries and usually their time and financial restrictions prevent them and their kids from participating in retreats, camps, lifegroups and other events that would involve them in the community they long for. When they get desperate enough to finally approach a church for help with an unexpected expense, a childcare need, or a housing crisis, they find that the church mostly has no vision and no plan for how to care for them, so they just get redirected to a state agency. Is it any surprise that most single parents do not attend church after being told by the church to go find their hope somewhere else?

Today’s widows don’t want handouts. What they want is protection, supportive community, mentorship and redemption for themselves and their children. Is your church fulfilling God’s call to meet these needs? To answer that let’s look at the model set forth in the book of Ruth, where Boaz, the kinsman-redeemer representing Christ, ministers to Ruth, a widow.

1. Ruth comes to Boaz’s land, seeking refuge. Is your church a refuge for single parent families? When desperate single moms show up at your church hoping it’s a safe place to rest and be protected are they embraced or left wondering if anyone is going to help them? Ideally, the church should respond like Boaz: “Stay right here with us when you gather grain; don’t go to any other fields…May the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge, reward you fully for what you have done.”Ruth 2:8, 12

2. Boaz shows Ruth kindness and favor. Do single parents who come through the doors of your church get recognized or ignored? Is God’s heart and vision for widows and orphans spoken of in weekend services or is their plight “invisible” to the church at large? Boaz does not let Ruth remain on the fringes, but approaches and speaks to her face to face, lets her know she is welcome in his field and that his intention is to make sure she is cared for properly. “Ruth fell at his feet and thanked him warmly, ‘What have I done to deserve such kindness?’ She asked. ‘I am only a foreigner.’”Ruth 2:10