A couple of summers ago I visited a Dallas-area church. It was a hot day and the temperature in the church building was almost unbearable. But I wasn’t distracted by the heat because the pastor (who is quite the scholar) gave a profound, rousing sermon on the beauty and holiness of marriage. Even as a single person, I was inspired by his sophisticated, lovely depiction of a Christ-centered marriage. It was that good!
At the end of the 40-minute sermon, the pastor looked up from his notes and began to ad lib: “I know that over 40 percent of you are single, so I should probably say something about singleness as well.”
My ears perked up. Since this pastor was such a scholarly guy and had just given an exceptionally thoughtful sermon on marriage, I just knew that his brief thoughts on singleness would be equally profound. I leaned forward.
“Here’s what I want to say to all you single people: Don’t have sex before you get married. Then when you get married, make up for lost time.” He winked to make his point.
Once the laughter died down, the pastor gave a benediction and returned to the pew where his wife awaited him.
Singles Are Often an Afterthought
Married people inhabit most of the pulpits and leadership positions in the Christian world, despite the fact that nearly half of adults in the U.S. are single. (In 2007, over 44 percent were single, and that number has only grown with some estimating over 50 percent.) It’s unclear what percentage of pastors are married, but a senior vice president of a well-known parachurch organization recently admitted to me that every single one of the 60-plus “middle management” staff members he oversees is married. Every single one. And, after doing extensive interdenominational research, Dennis Franck, the national director of single adult ministries for the Assemblies of God denomination, concluded:
The vast majority of evangelical and Pentecostal churches of any denomination are “marriage and family focused.” That in itself is not a bad posture. Most Christian leaders understand the importance of marriage and the church’s role in strengthening the family unit. The unfortunate reality, however, is that our marriage and family emphasis many times does not include single adults. This is not necessarily by design but is often by ignorance and neglect.
Married people are the ones calling the shots, so they remain central to the life of the church. Meanwhile, single people are relegated to the margins. Even if this isn’t intentional, this “married people monopoly” results in a Christian world in which single people are often misunderstood, ignored, overlooked for leadership positions, caricatured, equated with immaturity, and little more than a punchline or an afterthought. It makes sense that churches and Christian organizations have a poor track record when it comes to honoring single people. After all, how can pastors and leaders who got married in their early-to-mid-20s possibly understand the complexities of singleness or how to honor the image of God in single people?
After interacting with the church, many singles start to wonder: Is there something wrong with me? Is God working in my life? Am I as valuable (to God, to the church) as married people? Does God love me as much as he loves married people? Does God have good things in store for me as a single person?
Six Ways Married Christians Can Embrace Single Adults
In a church that was founded by a single guy, singles are terribly marginalized. There’s something wrong with this picture. So without further ado, here are my tips on how church leaders can turn this barge around and begin to create communities that honor the image of God in single adults.
1. Admit that singleness is complex.
A lot of people seem to think that singleness is to marriage as junior varsity is to varsity. As a result, married people sometimes mistakenly believe that they know something about singleness when in fact they don’t. Singleness isn’t a junior varsity version of marriage. It’s an entirely different sport. The average marrying age is 29.8 years for men and 26.9 for women. If you got married before these ages, then it makes sense to acknowledge that your experience as a single adult is below average. In other words, you don’t know a lot about singleness. This calls for humility. Like marriage, singleness is complex. The challenges and joys of singleness are equal to but different than the challenges and joys of marriage.
I talk regularly with a white pastor who got married when he was 21. Most of the time, we talk about our racial differences and how we can build bridges across them. But recently we struck up a conversation about how my experience as a single person in the church differs from his experience as a married person. As I was sharing my experiences, it occurred to him that my singleness is just as foreign to him as my blackness is. He said, “Wow! Our conversation about singleness and marriage is just as cross-cultural as our conversations about being black and white.”
Additionally, singles are a wonderfully diverse group of people—ranging from never married, to divorced, to widowed. They span all age groups with very different experiences, desires, motivations, and fears.
Treat singleness like you would treat any other cross-cultural exploration. Listen when singles share their hearts. Read books and articles about singleness. Don’t even think about preaching about singleness if you don’t have a substantial and meaningful experience with it. Or, if you do choose to preach on the topic, enlist the help of an actual single person or a group of single people.
2. Recognize that as a married person, you are privileged.
Married people dominate the Christian world. Consider these facts:
- Since many pastors, board members, and organizational leaders have spouses the married perspective is well-represented in the church. The single perspective is not.
- Married people are much more likely to get hired as pastors.
- A quick search at Amazon.com reveals that for every 1 Christian book on singleness, there are 298 Christian books on marriage.
- Just for getting married, friends and family members buy married people expensive gifts like Kitchen Aid mixers (a mark of privilege if there ever was one).
Marriage is the norm, the gold standard. So those who are married typically aren’t questioned about their relationship status as singles are. It’s my most frequently asked question. I meet new people all of the time. The fact that we’ve just met doesn’t stop Christians from asking me why I’m not married with a quizzical look.
When married people recognize their privilege, they can restore balance by:
- Listening well
- Being an advocate and raising questions (e.g., How can we make our small groups relevant and inclusive for singles?)
- Inviting single people to the table (hiring, boards, preaching, conference speakers, etc.)
- Making sure that issues that are pertinent to singles are raised in meetings, from the pulpit, while vision casting, at retreats, at conferences, etc.
- Reframing policy, values, and expectations so that married people are no longer the gold standard.
3. Affirm that marital status isn’t correlated with godliness or maturity.
Married people aren’t more holy or godly or mature than single people. Married people haven’t arrived in a way that single people haven’t. Married people aren’t on track in a way that single people aren’t.
Many single people feel that they are automatically stereotyped as spiritually immature, morally dangerous, and unsuitable for leadership simply because they’re single. I’ve even heard pastors unapologetically and explicitly discriminate against single people: “I don’t want to hire a single woman to direct the worship arts ministry because she’ll probably end up sleeping with all of the guys in the band.” This is both hurtful and wrong.
There are plenty of Christian leaders who teach that married people are better candidates for holiness than single people. Consider the following statement from Dr. Albert Mohler: “In heaven, is the crucible of our saint-making going to have been through our jobs? I don’t think so. The Scripture makes clear that it will be done largely through our marriages.”
I disagree with Dr. Mohler. I don’t believe Scripture makes it clear that marriage is the primary route to holiness. Dr. Mohler doesn’t offer any scriptural basis for his assertion, either. I can see why some married church leaders are more inclined to believe that God makes saints exclusively or primarily through marriage. Research presented in “Seeing I to I: A pathway to interpersonal connectedness” in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology shows that humans intuitively trust people who share their life experiences.
When I meet another single Christian woman in her 30s, I automatically envision how God has used her singleness to teach her wisdom, selflessness, self-control, joy, patience, and faith because that’s what God has done in my own life. I can’t easily envision the same for someone who is married simply because I haven’t experienced it for myself. So I’m less inclined to trust that God has used marriage to produce similar fruit in her life, but I can’t let my inadequate imagination limit my view of the Holy Spirit’s work in her.
The Holy Spirit isn’t boring; he doesn’t have a cookie cutter plan for how he brings forth fruit in people’s lives. Marital status isn’t correlated with godliness or maturity. John 15:5 says that we bear fruit when we are connected to God. Period.
4. Celebrate single people.
If you get married or have a baby, Christians will pull out all the stops to celebrate you. That’s a good thing! But Christians should also recognize that many single adults get celebrated with such fanfare. We might not be walking down the aisle or gestating a baby, but God is doing some amazing things in our lives. God is at work in the monumental—helping us obtain degrees, launch ministries and businesses, pay off college loans—and the mundane—helping us serve our neighborhoods and pray for each other.
We must celebrate what God’s doing in people’s lives, whether or not it’s similar to what God’s done in our lives. Find reasons to throw big parties for the single people in your community. If you have the resources, feel free to buy them expensive gifts as well. Single people use Kitchen Aid mixers, too.
5. Recognize that you need the perspective of single people.
Rodney Clapp said it best in Families at the Crossroads:
Without children, the Israelite fears the single’s name will burn out, sift to ashes and be scattered and forgotten in the winds of time. But Paul has seen the arrival of a new hope. Jesus has risen from the land of death and forgetfulness, and so someday shall all who have died. And Jesus has inaugurated the kingdom, a kingdom most fundamentally known and seen not among brothers and sisters in kin, but among brothers and sisters in Christ. Thus Hauerwas says of singles, ”There can be no more radical act than [singleness], as it is the clearest institutional expression that one’s future is not guaranteed by the family, but by the church. The church, the harbinger of the kingdom of God is now the source of our primary loyalty.”
6. Invest in the single people around you.
If you want to know how to honor the image of God in single adults, get to know the single adults around you. The singles-marrieds divide in many churches is just as powerful as other cultural divides. Be intentional about reconciling that divide. It’s only then that you’ll begin to understand how to love single people well.
—Christena Cleveland is a social psychologist with a hopeful passion for reconciling across cultural divisions. She is the first Associate Professor of the Practice of Reconciliation at Duke University’s Divinity School. Christena earned a B.A. from Dartmouth College and a Ph.D. from the University of California, Santa Barbara. This post was originally published on Christena Cleveland’s blog; used with permission.