Alone in the Pew
- Christianity Today Copyright Christianity Today International
- 2008 27 Feb
I'm tired of the church. Although I tried to be involved for years and even held several leadership positions, as I got older, I became more aware of the limited voice single women like me have in the church. In my denomination, we can't teach men or lead worship. And, if unmarried and childless, we're limited within women's ministries as well. Many times, we aren't allowed to use our God–given talents to the fullest.
My love for the church seemed mostly one–sided, or unrequited. However, singles already struggle with feeling unloved and unwanted; they don't need that message from the church as well. I tried to help my last church understand this reality, but my words fell on deaf ears. Church soon became my greatest source of frustration. So I finally decided to walk away from it. Since my last church was large, people there may not even know I'm gone.
Although I'm strong in my faith, I know I need fellowship with other believers. I desire a loving church family with whom I can learn, grow, and worship. But the search for that family has been tiresome and disappointing. I pray for the desire, strength, and guidance to continue searching.
Last week I went to a friend's church and heard the beginning of a series aimed at single people. I'm 38 and never married, and before that morning, I hadn't heard a sermon targeting my demographic! The message wasn't just relatable for 20 year olds, but was practical for any single person.
To me, the church has always seemed aimed at families. I've sometimes had to force myself to continue attending by not thinking of myself as a single person, but as just a person in need of connection with God and community. Sitting in church by myself, or being the only single person at a women's gathering isn't easy. But I continue to do so in hopes of making connections.
I recently moved to Denver and have found a church where I sense true community. The congregation doesn't have many singles, but it has a welcoming attitude. After the service's first song, during five minutes of "social time," people have actually engaged me in conversation! I've been to too many churches where I haven't even felt noticed. I also like that this church's pastor studies books of the Bible, rather than offers theme sermons. So no matter what's discussed, it will apply to me.
I continue to attend church because I know God wants me to. And I continue to hope I'll find real community there.
Two years ago, I started attending a church that's profoundly impacted my faith. The church offers a variety of services (traditional, contemporary, next generation) to reach people of various ages in the community. The pastor addresses family issues, but always relates them to singles as well. Faith–strengthening classes and Bible studies meet throughout the week, and some of these groups are specifically for singles' fellowship.
I began leading a Sunday school group this year, and I'm enjoying the opportunity to teach children. I've met many of the kids' parents, too. Instead of a "What can my church do for me?" mentality, I've embraced a "What can I do for my church?" view. God calls us to praise and worship him together, regardless of marital status. Anyone tempted to drift from the church may just need to seek out a new congregation. Denying oneself the fellowship, lessons, and joy offered by a Christ–following congregation is never wise.
I'm a former pastor who, after my divorce, began looking for a church to attend and couldn't believe how they all seemed targeted to married people and families. Instead of feeling uplifted at church, I felt lonely and disconnected. Then I thought back to my ministry days, and the realization I'd been similarly family–focused haunted me.
Because most church staff members are married, they believe marriage to be the norm. They don't think much about single, divorced, or widowed people, and certainly can't identify with them. Churches identify the needs of children, youth, and other demographics, and believe strongly in figuring out how to reach them. Yet if I suggest to church staff members that single people are also a unique group—distinctly different from married folks—I often receive a blank stare.
Of course, I want the church to strengthen marriage and family. But I want it to recognize and include me in the mix as well.
I spent some of my childhood in Singapore, where married couples under age 30 are unusual. In that culture, people get married after they've attained a career and steady income. So when I moved to the U.S., I was surprised to find myself feeling isolated as a single person on Sunday mornings. Because of this discomfort, I was tempted to leave church until I married.
But then God led me into a position of leadership over a large Denver church's Sunday night service for singles. However, this service seemed to be a separate entity from the rest of the church. Neither the singles nor the Sunday morning families seemed to know what to do with the other.
Over the past year, I've worked with a team of singles and married couples to bring this service under the church as a whole. With great effort and willingness from both demographics to come together, we've seen more families come to evening services and feel welcome, and more singles begin attending Sunday morning activities. This integration required someone wanting to build a bridge between two seemingly different groups of people. I helped accomplish this unity by asking my senior pastor about the division between the services. As we talked, he asked me to write a bit to help him understand why singles often feel out of place. After writing of my single life as a Christian, I noticed changes in my senior pastor's approach toward singles.
Everyone needs grace to understand another person's perspective. The more singles build bridges of understanding with families and church leaders, the less intimidation will stand in the way of unity.
Because of laziness and extensive business travel, I entered 2008 having not darkened the door of my church in months and having attended only sporadically for months before then. And I love my church! I've been part of it for almost 10 years. Although I don't have many 30something, never–married peers in my church, I have many close friends and mentors within the congregation.
But after a few weeks of "good excuses" for missing church, I started more and more easily talking myself out of attending. I didn't want to walk in alone. I didn't want to look around and feel jealous. I'd found myself crying during baptisms or student affirmations of faith, longing to have a baby to commit to the Lord or a teenager to hear profess faith before the congregation. My self–pity was distracting me from worshiping God. So I just didn't go to church.
Then I began to wonder: Is skipping church worse than going and feeling distracted while there? I don't have an answer yet. But during this Lenten season, I'm trying to reengage in my personal time with the Lord and with my local body of believers. Maybe I need to find a congregation with more people my age. Maybe I need to push through the awkwardness of walking into the sanctuary alone, knowing I can scoot in beside a friend, or, if not, meet someone new. Maybe I need to let the tears flow during baptisms, using that time to pray about my unmet desires for a husband and family.
All I know is my loneliness, jealousy, and self–pity when at church was only growing into bitterness when home alone on Sunday mornings. And God certainly wants better for my life.
I'm 35, never married, and deeply involved in the small church where my dad pastors. The congregation consists of a good mix of singles, couples, older people, teens, and children. The church is also ethnically diverse.
It's inclusive because it doesn't emphasize any one group. My dad has one never–married daughter and one divorced daughter with three kids, so perhaps he's more sensitive to the growing number of people with "non–traditional" family experiences.
Also, with so many spiritually hungry people here in Montreal, churches simply don't have time to develop cute little programs for moms or singles or other groups. Christians are too busy trying to save the lost in this city. Maybe churches need to focus on that calling more!
One church here in Texas does such a marvelous job of attracting single men and women that the congregation is growing by leaps and bounds. But instead of overpowering the congregation, singles meet on Monday nights for a complete service. The pastors of this service are a married couple who rely on single elders and leaders in the development and management of the service and small groups. These singles have launched a variety of ministries, missions programs, and social activities. However, the majority of the singles who attend this service also attend services during the weekend, thereby participating in the church's entire culture. So I'm able to continue attendance on the weekend, when, as a single, I'm the exception, and still engage with a large community of singles.
I left my church two years ago. Before then, I'd been an active member for 12 years, serving in leadership roles and countless other capacities, and developing quality relationships with various people.
For years, I served as a singles ministry leader, advocating to ensure the acknowledgement of singles' role in the church. High–school and college–age Christians seemed to get special nurturing, benefiting from energetic, full–time ministers and uniquely created conferences. Likewise, married couples and families garnered special sermons, retreats, and ministries. But singles didn't seem to fit in anywhere, never meriting a full–time minister. After giving myself wholeheartedly to this cause, I underwent a crisis of faith around my 30th birthday. The crisis stemmed from dissatisfaction with my singleness and with the lack of compassion or understanding from married church leaders. These leaders had served beside me for years, and they knew my devotion to God, my passionate prayer life, and my robust relationships. Nevertheless, these leader couples treated me as though I were a divisive heretic for questioning the church's treatment of singleness, dating, and marriage. And only one of those three couples ever called me after my departure from the church.
Every organization benefits from a variety of viewpoints, yet the singles viewpoint often gets excluded because married Christians typically dominate high–level church leadership. Many of them do try to speak to the needs of singles, but married people often do so from limited experience. Many couples have been married so long, they don't understand the changes in culture. Married people aren't wiser, more spiritual, or more qualified to lead than their single brothers and sisters are.
A church that seeks to include singles of every age, education level, career track, and varying level of desire for marriage should include Christians of every life stage in its leadership. Once the input of single Christians is no longer an option or afterthought, the church will do a better job of making singles feel like valued members of God's family.
As a single, 38–year–old woman in a medium–sized church, I struggle with whether or not to be involved in the women's ministry. I long for the company of older women as mentors, but I can't take their wifehood/motherhood focus. This past week, I spoke to a male friend about this issue. I told him such a strong focus on family matters leaves me feeling worthless. Do I merit pity because I don't have a husband or children? Do I have any value as an individual woman? In the church's eyes, can a woman have value only if she's a wife and mother?
I certainly don't hate the wives and mothers in the church; in fact, I hope to be one of those women someday. But I can't help becoming depressed (and even angry) at the concentration on family life. I long for more of a focus on women who, regardless of their marital or family status, have triumphed in difficult situations, and find strength, wisdom, and guidance through the Lord.
For about two years, I attended a nearby church in my small town. However, I left that congregation because I didn't feel I, a single, 42–year–old guy, fit in with that community's strong focus on family activities. When I tried to share my perspective, people said, "You just want to go to a church that has more single women." In reality, I was looking for a church family that included everyone in true community.
I now drive 45 minutes to a larger church that's taking steps to include everyone. Most of the sermons and activities are still for couples or families or young adults. But recently the pastor announced he was dividing the church into teams of 15 to 20 people. Each group includes a young married couple, a senior couple, a couple with kids, a couple with adult kids, and at least one single person. When I heard this plan, I knew I was in the right place.
Each team looks after the church—cleaning, cutting grass, shoveling snow, setting up for special functions—for one designated week. The church leaders hope these teams will build community.
Since this new structure started, I've connected with people quickly. I feel noticed and included. Doing life and ministry together truly connects the family of God. This church is headed in the right direction, and that makes me hopeful!
I attend a church with a mix of marrieds and singles. Still, I often feel lonely and isolated. So I seek to be the change I want: I stay friendly, I smile, I welcome new people. But if I miss a week or two, no one seems to notice.
One of the hardest tasks in a family–orientated church is developing close friendships with people of other marital status. I want to have a servant's heart, but I'm often the one making the effort to keep a friendship going with a married person. I do the calling, the organizing, the waiting. I understand the busyness of a parent's life; one of a married person's biggest struggles in a church community is finding time for other people. Sometimes I wonder if marrieds and singles can really be friends. But until marrieds and singles find a way to value each other, and to develop and maintain friendships, churches will always have a divide.
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