In my recent book, Redeeming Singleness, I present a theology of singleness from the beginning of creation, through the history of Israel in the Old Testament, to Jesus and Paul in the New Testament. While I won’t recount that exploration here, for this setting I would like to address the following questions:
“Why should we be uniquely concerned about the singles within the church?” Further, “What might we be missing by failing to engage them in ministry?”
Before answering these questions, it may be helpful to define what I call the “gift of singleness.” This, I believe, is a God-given capacity for kingdom service, such that individuals are not distracted with an undue desire for sex, marriage, and family. In other words, they are persons able to serve the kingdom of God with all their heart, mind, and soul just as easily whether they are married or not. Though not every single person has the “gift” of singleness, every single person is a complete person in Christ (Col. 1:28) whether he or she ever marries or not. Singles are therefore fully equipped and able to serve the kingdom in the model of Christ himself.
Because of their often simpler state of life, single individuals are also in a unique position to serve in capacities and ways that married people may not able to endeavor.
Given that singles are complete in Christ, then, why aren’t we utilizing them more within our churches? Why is it so common for singles to feel out of place or forgotten? Below, I’ll share four pitfalls that I see churches making when it comes to ministry to singles within the church.
Pitfall #1: Viewing singles as if they’re a problem to be solved
Well-meaning Christians have often viewed single adults in the church as a problem to be solved. The thought has been, “You’re unmarried, so let us help you get married,” or “Don’t worry, we’ll find you someone!” In this line of thinking many also presume that the purpose of a singles ministry is essentially to serve as a dating service, to help people match up.
Over time many churches recognized this faulty thinking and have eliminated specific ministries dedicated to singles in an attempt to destigmatize them and treat them as equally valued members of the body of Christ. They want to include them, and they want them to be fully integrated into the life of the church. The problem is that simply eliminating a ministry directed to singles is not in itself an integration strategy. They still haven’t eliminated their inherent biases toward singles and become intentional about including them in all areas of church life. Moreover, a singles ministry rightly focused and designed can be a vital conduit to help integrate singles into the larger experience of church life.
Pitfall #2: Not utilizing singles for ministry positions
One major frustration singles have is that the church doesn’t use them. Oftentimes they will get bypassed in favor of a married person or couple that is available. Some singles will feel there is a bit of a suspicion around them. That they’re not trustworthy. That they don’t have a proven track record of stability, because they haven’t quite graduated into full maturity. There is sometimes a view that without a spouse, a single person’s view is going to be unbalanced. And so, churches are hesitant to use singles.
I know of singles who have graduated from seminary and repeatedly have had the experience of going into a church, having everything go well in an interview until the question of their wife and family. And because they don’t have a wife and family, they’re suddenly “not what the church is looking for.” Ironically, of course, Paul and Jesus were both single men. And their ministry was conducted as single men. Yet many still maintain the assumption that marriage is a requirement for every elder or pastor. A more accurate requirement would be that every elder or pastor needs to be a one-woman kind of man.
Pitfall #3: Failing to see the unique positions that singles can hold
Paired with the pitfall above, many churches fail to see the unique positions that are easier for singles to hold as opposed to someone who is married. One great example of this is certain areas of missions that are in closed countries. They are not conducive to having a family. Perhaps the missionary is going to be in the back country translating with a tribe, and it’s dangerous. Maybe it is working covertly in closed Muslim countries or in countries that are very restricted. In these instances, what someone can do as a single person is much greater than what he might do as a married unit, when the safety of a spouse or children is not at stake.
But full-time missions work isn’t the only area in which singles may be uniquely placed. As a single, I’m able to take time for research and writing. I can also live a very modest lifestyle that frees me to spend a lot more time overseas on special short-term mission trips, available for service. When a relief team was needed to support victims of a devastating wildfire, it was a team of singles at our church that was mobilized to provide the immediate assistance needed. Singles are often ready to get involved with ministries that are spontaneous and unexpected, ones that would be more difficult for someone who is married.
Pitfall #4: Failing to understand the unique needs singles have
The reality is there is a little bit more pastoral care that is to be expected with singles. This is mainly because they don’t have the immediate support structure of a spouse. In marriage, there is an immediate go-to person for accountability, for wisdom, or for questions. Those who are single don’t have that, so they may look for the added engagement of friends, spiritual mentors, or pastors and church leaders. And that’s natural, from just the standpoint that they’re missing a very important person in their life. That responsibility to some extent is often shared and more widely spread among other significant individuals in the single person’s life. Just as singles have more availability to serve the church, so, too, they require greater support and care from the church. Pastors and other mature believers, then, must make themselves available to singles to be that needed support.
Beyond awareness of these pitfalls, I would like to put forth a challenge. Compare the proportion of single and married adults inside your church versus those outside your church who do not know Jesus. If your church is like most traditional churches, the vast majority of active members on the inside will be married. This is true not just of leadership but of involvement at almost every level of church life. But when you look today at those who are nonreligious in your city and not actively engaged in any church, a significant majority will be single. So, here’s the challenge: In a church with mostly married people, what is your strategy for reaching a nonbelieving world of mostly single people? Does an unchurched single person walking into your church find a place to belong and call home?
I encourage you to share in the comments below how you have cared for singles by intentionally involving them in your church and how you’ve helped people change any incorrect views of singleness.
Sandra Aldrich, in Single-Parent Families: The Mission Field in Sunday Pews, shares what she wishes she had been able to verbalize to her friends and to her church when she was a newly single mom years ago.