There are few things more terrifying than walking into a stranger’s house to attend a small group for the first time—except, perhaps, walking into their neighbor’s house by mistake. Luckily, the elderly couple was very kind, and I was able to take a piece of lemon cake with me (the experience actually helped shake loose some of my nerves). If only attending small groups as a single person was always a piece of cake.
We are morphing into a “single” nation with the number of unmarried American adults outnumbering those who are married. These trends are also trickling into the church as we see a delay in marriage and an increase in cohabitation. So what does this mean for your ministry? How should this affect the work of small groups? And how are you adjusting to this cultural shift?
Integrating single people into your small-group ministry should be a priority. Small groups act as the antidote to the idolization of the nuclear family in the church—they break down barriers between generations, socioeconomic divides, and marital statuses. In small groups, we offer compassion for the wounded, comfort for the crushed, and wisdom for the searching—or at least that’s what we can offer, when small groups are at their best.
Why Singles Need Your Small Groups
In small groups, single people can cultivate community, something many of them are finding it difficult to latch onto in larger church services. It’s hard to build relationships on Sunday morning, in between avoiding eyes during the mandatory handshaking and trying to sneak out before the sting of rejection sets in as those around you mingle without offering invitations for lunch. For those who have uprooted their lives to move across the country for jobs, they’re left settling into new churches without knowing anyone, so small groups can act as a salve on their raw relational wounds, providing an immediate sense of support.
Recent data out from Barna shows that adults prioritize relational connections over work, family, entertainment, and even church. The key here is to ensure that church, via small groups, is where these relational connections are taking shape. Roxanne Stone, a vice president at Barna and the lead analyst on this study, discusses the findings: “A sense of belonging and community is what seems to hold people to a place—and church leaders should be encouraged by that. Churches that can foster a sense of community and help people cultivate friendships will become an important part of people’s sense of place and their willingness to call that place ‘home.’”
So how will your small-group ministry fill this relational need for single people? Unfortunately, even those of us with this noble aim may struggle to find practical application steps to take to change the situation. Small groups for singles usually take two shapes:
Singles-Only Small Groups
As you’re thinking through the different approaches to integrating single people into your small-group ministry, you may believe that cordoning them off into their own group is the best option—throw all the singles together. Some people like this approach because they appreciate spending time with their peers, and they need a group of friends their own life stage, especially if they’ve recently moved to the area and have a limited social circle. I have a few friends who prefer this kind of group because it also offers, as they call it, a “meat market”— a place they can go shopping for future spouses and learn about Jesus all at the same time. (No, I’m not kidding, but I wish I were.)
Clearly this isn’t for everyone, and that’s an important thing to keep in mind in this process—not all singles are created equal, and the needs of the 42-year-old single man are quite different from the 23-year-old single woman. To assume they would want the same things out of a group or that one group could meet the needs of every single would be doing them a disservice. In fact, I had one friend recently write to me, “This is one of the hardest things for me, as an ‘older’ single (I turn 37 next month). I have so much more in common with the thirties and forties women (married mamas) than the 20-something singles. I’ll be a good sport if I need to, but I wish we offered more mixed groups.”
Many single people, myself included, regularly feel defined by our lack of a spouse already, so belonging to a small group whose membership requirement is a lack of marital bliss, well, that stings a little. It also means that as my friends pair off and get married they’ll be leaving my small group, and that can complicate social dynamics. These are all considerations that come with the singles-only model, and many like that it provides a more flexible schedule without the constraints of family calendars. I know I’ve benefited from being in these groups when I’ve needed instant community from moving to a new place. No one model will be perfect, and the singles-only model certainly isn’t, but it does have a few easy perks that churches typically gravitate toward.
Intergenerational Mixed Groups
These groups span all different life phases (e.g., single, married, married with children) and are intergenerational. While single people get to mingle with others who might fit better in their stage of life, the frustrating part of these groups is that they’re often dictated by small talk of dance recitals, soccer games, slow cooker recipes, and couples counseling. If there is a lone single person in a group full of couples, as is the case in many groups from small-to mid-size churches, people may have to work hard to ensure the small talk before and after doesn’t naturally gravitate to topics that may be isolating.
Mark Gomez, a friend and small-group leader, offers advice to these groups: “I think giving the single man in our small group opportunities for leadership has been a big deal. There's a tendency toward husband/wife leadership in this scenario, and he's able to contribute from a different perspective, so we encourage him to lead whenever possible. Also, we intentionally invite him into family events and encourage him to be hospitable as well, so it's not just married people having guests over for dinner. We can see his place and interact there as well. My kids love him and treat him like an uncle.”
What Mark demonstrates so well here is the integration of the single person into a small group. This will look different from group to group, church to church, even person to person. In offering opportunities for leadership, Mark is acknowledging that single people are valuable and are called to contribute to the body of Christ. This is, at its best, a shining reminder of what we’re all called to: to love and sharpen each other, regardless of our marital status.
So often in these mixed groups, however, single people may be looked at as lacking spiritual maturity because the common mile-markers of one’s life—marriage and motherhood or fatherhood—have not come to pass. One of the most spiritually mature women I know, when I asked her the hardest part of being in a small group, replied with: “When I talk about how much I’m growing in my faith because of how much school or work is testing me, the ladies in my group will almost roll their eyes in a, Oh, you think that’s hard? Just you wait. And I know they mean well because they’ve all been through so much more together, but what I’m doing is hard, and I am being stretched, and I wished they would acknowledge that.”
There are legitimate frustrations that come with singleness, and many single people have gifts to lead and to teach that aren’t be utilized in their churches and small groups because of their marital status. I encourage you to listen and to seek out opportunities to elevate the concerns and voices of single people in your small groups.
Bridging the Divide
“I think the biggest challenge is that in relationships, we leverage vulnerabilities and difficulties as a way of creating connection,” my friend Ben says, as I was venting my frustrations in writing this article. Why can’t we bridge the married/single divide more easily in small groups? What’s holding us up? How do we make it work? His diagnosis is pretty straightforward: “When couples are together, the other couple's vulnerabilities are very familiar and obvious because we share many of them. Finding and empathizing with vulnerabilities between single and married people is a little harder and takes more intentional effort. And frankly, we’re not good about pursuing those things. It's easier to be lazy and focus on connections with people who it is easiest to connect with.”
It’s easier to connect with the fellow moms than it is the single guy across the table, but what’s easiest isn’t always what’s best—or what’s most beneficial. After all, “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!’” (1 Cor. 12:21). So whether your church decides to offer singles-only groups or integrated groups, I encourage you to consider the following ideas as you work to intentionally incorporate singles into your ministry:
1. Learn about single people.
Not all single people want to be married. Not all single people are avoiding responsibility. Not all single people are free in the evenings. It’s hard to break through a lot of the stereotypes floating out there, but take time to develop relationships with the single people in your church, and then build a ministry that meets their needs, not one that ministers to myths.
2. Figure out what the people want.
You might be the first person from your church staff to actually welcome them. Find out what they’re looking for. They might be wanting community with other singles, or they may be longing for intergenerational groups. Either way, don’t make the decision for them.
3. Make your intentions clear.
A friend of mine joined a small group because in their description the first line read, “Singles welcome.” If you want singles to join your small groups, don’t just set the times and hope they come—invite them, put it in the group’s purpose, go out into the community. If your church isn’t taking the lead on this, blaze the path yourself.
4. Celebrate small successes.
Building a thriving small-group community is a challenge, and the church is still struggling with how to incorporate singles, but I truly believe small groups can be one of the keys. If you get a group for singles started, it’s a success—even knowing that one group won’t meet all of the needs presenting in your church.
5. Value relationships over relationship statuses.
God is neither married nor single, but he is relational. And we all share that, as we are made in his image. Your ministry should be promoting what makes us alike, not what divides us. And small-group ministries that only further the divide between married and single people tend to elevate and privilege one while diminishing the other, so work on establishing likeness rather than exposing differences, no matter which model you choose.
The church that doesn’t work to incorporate singles into their infrastructure is one that won’t be around in 20 years, so evaluate your small-group ministry and see how you can begin to integrate singles today.
—Joy Beth Smith is an editor with Christianity Today and the author of Party of One: Truth, Longing, and the Subtle Art of Singleness. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook: @JBsTwoCents.