Singles in the Church: A Compelling Role to Play
- 2010 29 Jul
After the church service, after a fun dinner at a great restaurant, after driving home alone, it's never fun walking into an empty house by yourself, is it?
Your pastor throws in token references to singles in his sermon, the singles Sunday School class gets yet another teacher, and almost every week some kindhearted grandmother asks, "Are we seeing anyone lately?"
With the constant drumbeat of friends getting married and having kids, and with the media's bogus glorification of gorgeous unmarrieds, the last place we want to feel marginalized is at church. Yet, no matter our comfort level with singlehood, how often do we render only tacit acknowledgement that our marital status is not our identity?
Some of us act more petulantly than others and church-hop, shopping for a hip mix of trendy singles with just enough angst in common to mask our desperation. Others of us form cliques with similarly unbetrothed saints, marking time as two by two, couples pair up and split away. And then there are the brave ones who steadfastly profess our singlehood doesn't gnaw on our psyche, even as we secretly wonder if we're only kidding ourselves.
Singlehood: The New Reality
Unfortunately, part of this is simply how mating happens in our society. Part of this reflects the reality that romance isn't perfect, even for believers. After all, just going to church won't guarantee anybody a happily-ever-after until we reach Heaven, and we won't have spouses there anyway.
Sure, we know we're to be "anxious for nothing," but for women with biological clocks approaching the eleventh hour, expressions of hope can ring hollow when preached by a married guy with three kids. God "rejoicing over us in song" (Zephaniah 3:17) can fail to fill the weary heart as we contemplate spending old age alone.
But should we simply endure our singlehood like some sort of rash? How can our churches participate in the nurturing of our faith as single believers? What role does—or should—the church play in our search for a mate, or at least our quest to reconcile unmet wants with our myriad questions and frustrations? What is the extent to which church is about us and what we feel we need?
Your pastor has taken a vow to assist you in your spiritual maturity. And to the extent that personal relationships depend on your spiritual maturity, then yes, your pastor and, by extension, your church's leadership team should maintain a balance between the needs of all relational dynamics in the congregation. After all, singlehood isn't the only marital status with its share of problems and crises. Anybody who thinks the grass is greener needs to take off their rose-colored glasses (1 Corinthians 7:28).
Indeed, marriage will not "complete" anybody, will it? (John 15:11) The only reason any believer should marry is to honor God through the metaphorical and divinely-ordained consummation of a committed love relationship. What does that mean? That means we don't marry just for sex, although Paul says that if you can't control your urges, marriage is the only way to cure them (1 Corinthians 7:9). We don't marry simply to have children, we feel sorry for somebody, or we're afraid of facing retirement alone. The church is the Bride of Christ because he desires to save us from ourselves. Should our modeling of that holy covenant simply be an emotional, economic, or convenient compromise?
How the Church Can Help
Not that every single Christian is desperate for marriage. Many of us simply want to be validated as legitimate members of our faith communities. However, some work on both sides of the pulpit remains to be done in many churches before the integration of single believers into our evangelical culture can be called a success.
For example, have you considered how detrimental certain contemporary ministry programming can be? By attempting to mirror our secular culture as closely as possible, we risk nurturing the same social crutches and sexual innuendo saturating most popular media and wooing us from Christ-centric relationships. Believers need to understand that our western culture has diversions and deceptions that are subtle perversions of many good things, and we need to actively evaluate the beneficial from the harmful. That's not being legalistic; it's being prudent.
In addition, churches should consider removing barriers—whether unintentional or programmed—between life stages within their overall congregation. Cohort-specific ministries can remain, but should be ancillary to the dominant community-based structure of the fellowship.
Third, the "professional Christian" world needs to recognize that we singles are here to stay. That's not a threat, it's just reality. Implications of this trend include the need for seminaries to stop pressuring their graduates to get married, particularly when the Lord's leading is not discernable. Does having pastors committing to an untimely marriage justify having marketable theologians?
Fourth, church members and denominations should consider re-evaluating their prerequisites for pastors and elders when it comes to singles. Does "being the husband of one wife" mean one wife at a time, or what? Should an otherwise qualified never-married man, for example, be denied a shepherding role simply because he doesn't have a wife?
What We Singles Can Do
Singles who balk at church ministries which de-emphasize marital status—and therefore don't run what are rapidly considered to be old-fashioned singles ministries—need to consider the value of inter-generational community and cross-congregation fellowship. Being a part of any community involves everyone giving up some rights for the sake of the whole. After all, if we really believe our identity isn't wrapped up in our marital status, that applies to married folk too, so is it really like trying to mix oil and water?
We should demonstrate to our wary congregations that we're serious about serving Christ as fellow believers. Even though it's become a stereotypical expectation of us, why not volunteer for the nursery? Try teaching a children's Sunday School class, singing in the choir, serving on a committee, or helping with facility maintenance. The more committed we are to our community of faith, not only do we express the love of Christ, but we deepen the dialog that can happen between us singles and people with other life experiences.
Remember the Big Picture
Singlehood represents a burgeoning social dynamic in North America. To the extent that single believers trust the Lord, join in the mission of the church, and honor marriage by respecting its boundaries, we offer a compelling role to play in communities of faith. Churches which discount our potential do so to their detriment.
Since marriage is the earthly representation of Christ's relationship with us, his church, does that make the inverse, singlehood, some sort of deviant relationship type? Since the Bible never says so, should we?
After all, each of us stands individually before God (Romans 2:6). Whether we're married in this life or not, our eternal standing with our Heavenly Father will be based on what we each have done according to our faith. In effect, the pearly gates are single-entry.
It's what we do as unique, singular disciples that counts. Both now and forevermore.
From his smorgasboard of church experience, ranging from the Christian and Missionary Alliance to the Presbyterian Church in America, Tim Laitinen brings a range of observations to his perspective on how we Americans worship, fellowship, and minister among our communities of faith. As a one-time employee of a Bible church in suburban Fort Worth, Texas and a former volunteer director of the contemporary Christian music ministry at New York City's legendary Calvary Baptist, he's seen our church culture from the inside out. You can read about his unique viewpoints at o-l-i.blogspot.com.
**This article first published on July 29, 2010.