At first, it seems counterintuitive.
Just as the number of singles is rising in churches across the country, churches across the country are axing peer-specific singles ministries. Only about 20% of North American congregations still have one, ranging in scope from the rare, full-blown worship services exclusively for singles, to more common weekly home groups, to monthly mixers.
Of course, it’s not just singles ministries being downsized—or eliminated. Just a few years ago, segmenting congregations into a maze of sub-groups was far more appealing a practice than it is today. However, as the trending pendulum has begun swinging back, it seems that churches have particularly lost their eagerness to maintain singles ministries, leaving us once again to our own devices.
The story of our lives, right?
In fact, definitive statistics on church singles ministries are practically non-existent. It’s almost like single adults are the one people group churches know the least about. All statistics referenced in this article have been estimated by reports on a few denominational websites, several studies by the Barna Group, and ministry descriptions on the websites of churches across the country.
Is this yet more proof that the evangelical church still doesn’t know how—or want—to deal with singles?
Or, might this simply be an indication that the community for which evangelical singles say we’re looking shouldn’t be based on marital status?
After all, the fact that more and more singles are attending church means that a lot of us are staying, even after discovering that our church may not have a dedicated ministry for us anymore. Which may suggest that integrating singles with worshippers of other demographics isn’t the first step to our disenfranchisement after all.
Evolution of the Singles Demographic
Part of this peer group retrenchment by churches may be due to our nation’s sagging economy. Ever more limited resources means that church programs can’t be all things to all people like we used to assume. But most of it may be due to complex logistics from the same social dynamics that are causing our singles demographic to grow in the first place.
For example, the demise of marriages among evangelicals has created an array of life-stage cohorts, from separated or divorced without kids to separated or divorced with kids.
Then add the never-marrieds with kids, plus the traditional never-marrieds, widows, and widowers. If you’re basing a ministry on the needs of a specific group, you can see how diversified—and complicated—a singles-centric outreach could quickly become.
Then there’s the issue of today’s twenty-somethings. Our society has developed a surging band of young professionals who are intentionally deferring marriage and family. These people tend to relocate a lot as they navigate the first rungs of their career ladders, and this transience makes for instability in conventional singles ministries. In addition, unlike traditional singles, many unmarried Millennials are simply so busy dating for fun that they hardly have time for church singles groups anyway.
Indeed, it’s become a well-documented trend across North America. Millennials are most noticeable in church by their absence. Perhaps no generation before them has “abandoned” Christianity in such significant numbers. Many evangelicals seem bewildered at the scenario, with program-driven churches stunned that the culturally-relevant methods they’ve been using for the past several decades to attract young adults have suddenly become ineffective.
Of course, maybe culturally-relevant programs weren’t really what attracted Boomers and Gen-X’ers into church to begin with. Maybe the fact that few of our modern singles strategies have had any staying power means that programs aren’t as crucial as what the Holy Spirit is doing in the lives of his people. Maybe the jaded refutation of church by our Millennials proves that programs aren’t what singles groups need, as much as a Philippians 4:11-12—regardless of our circumstances—to Christ.
Re-evaluating Fellowship in Community
Either way, authentic communities of faith are what Millennials who do attend church say they want, even though “community” has been an elusive goal for most conventional singles ministries since before today’s twenty-somethings were born.
Some experts say a conventional singles ministry can expect a roughly 50% turnover rate every year or so. This has become prohibitive for building genuine community in singles-specific groups. Such turnover is due not only to the migratory job picture of some singles, but the sheer transitory disposition among many of today’s singles.
Think about it: How often have you gone church-shopping? Have you ever assessed the viability of a church disproportionately on the type of vibes you get from the singles ministry—or lack of one? After a while, don’t you think churches get wise to the fact that shoppers for singles ministries will only be satisfied until the next big thing comes along?
Maybe the church with the most solid theological teaching where you live doesn’t have a conventional singles group. Should that be a deal-breaker? After all, is anybody ever 100% content in their church choice? By making the lack of—or type of—singles ministry in your church a sticking point, could you be Matthew 6:28-34 to a higher place in your stratification of church essentials than is healthy?
Or even biblical?
Singles ministries are not mentioned in the Bible. Granted, neither are high school ministries, or even church membership. By focusing on what a church does or doesn’t offer unmarried people, might we run the risk of making more out of our marital status than we should?
Churches are James 1:22-27 to look after widows and orphans. We’re to make sure the physical needs within our communities of faith are met. Our spiritual leaders are to preach Christ crucified, risen, and coming again. God-focused corporate worship and intentional personal discipleship should dominate our fellowships.
If your church isn’t doing these things, then you have a right to be righteously upset. However, like many other things churches in North America do that aren’t prescribed in Scripture, maybe singles ministry should be how you serve your church, not how the church serves you.
“Ah,” you interject. “We’re also supposed to love each other. And might my church not be loving me because they don’t provide the ministries I think I need?”
Loving the people in our churches, despite whatever luxuries we think our own church lacks, could be just the testimony our fellow congregants need to see from us. Why prove the negative impressions they have of single adults by our lack of evidence to the contrary?
And hopefully, your frustration with how your church handles singles isn’t, in actuality, a manifestation of some latent frustration you may be having with God himself, since his sovereign providence has yet to grant you a spouse. According to the apostle Paul, 1 Corinthians 7 is supposed to be a gateway to deeper service for God, not private resentment over our marital status!
Developing our identity as a child of God—regardless of our marital status—depends more on our willingness to participate in his will for our lives than whatever programming our church may—or may not—have.
No, the great disappearing singles ministry is not a figment of your imagination. However, assuming we’ll suffer because of it could be.
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.