During the six years I co-led a single adult ministry, I heard numerous people within and outside the ministry describe it as a “meat market” that helped single adults find a mate.
I can understand why some would have this perception. I have read many of the Bible studies and small group resources for single adults. The resources talk about dating, relationships, what to look for in a mate, and patience. They tell us: Be patient. Focus on God. Pray. And remember Ruth and Boaz.
The writers and resources focus on this, they say, because most of us will marry. That’s fair. The latest data from the Pew Research Center shows that 75 to 80 percent of us between the ages of 25 to 34 will marry if we haven’t already done so.
But that still leaves about a quarter of us who will never marry. So what about us?
There seem to be two thoughts about single people in the church. One regards singleness as the period of waiting before marriage or between marriages. The other focuses on the “gift of singleness.”
We have, in other words, more time and freedom to help others. They point to Paul as an example and his words in 1 Corinthians 7:7-9 as comfort. And they remind us that Jesus was single. What could be more encouraging than that?
For a long time I embraced this idea that singleness was a gift. I used my leisure time to advocate for singles within the church.
We outnumber married adults in the U.S. today, I’d tell pastors. If more churches created offerings for single adults, if more pastors incorporated illustrations of single adults into their sermons, if more church-goers served single parents within their own communities and congregations, church membership would grow again. People want to be seen, I’d say. You ignore more than half of the adult population when you talk incessantly about marriage.
I didn’t just make these arguments because I was single. I also can attest to the power of single adult ministries because I grew up in a Baptist church with one. This was in the 1980s and early 1990s, and my mother was a single mother of two.
Some of my favorite and most transformative childhood experiences happened because of that church’s single adult ministry. With them, I experienced my first camping trip, my first theatrical show, and my first college football game. Through them, I learned “Hawkeye” was a character on “M*A*S*H,” that dogs made the best pets, and that surprise birthday parties had a time and a place.
Through the ministry, we met Jeff, my mother’s best friend. He joined us for Sunday lunches, he traveled across the country with us for vacation, and he cheered us on at our games.
His license plate read “I am Third” – a nod to Gale Sayers’ quote “God is first, you are second, I am third.” That was how Jeff lived his life.
One July morning, when I was 15, he was on a retreat with a youth group at the beach. Three of the boys went for a swim and got caught in an undertow. Jeff saw them struggling, swam to them, and pulled them to a nearby boat. But Jeff was still getting over a bout of mono. Weakened, he got swept under and drowned.
Jeff is the greatest person I have ever known, and his life is what I hold up as the example of what it means to live like Jesus. I knew Jeff because of that single adult ministry. So these ministries mean a lot to me. They change lives. They birth families.
That’s why, 15 years later, I started co-leading a lay-led, volunteer-driven single adult ministry at the megachurch I attended and why I advocated for its pastoral staff to provide formal support to the ministry. They looked at the data and found that over half of the church’s members, volunteers, and visitors were single. They hired a pastor for single adults.
The pastor for single adults expanded the course offerings, provided counseling, occasionally spoke during the church’s main worship service, and led monthly worship services for single adults that regularly drew over 150. The ministry seemed to fill a need. It certainly helped me. Through the ministry, I developed a strong support system that prayed with me through dark days, counseled me through career changes, and laughed with me through atrocious rounds of Rock Band. They taught me how to be a friend.
About two years after hiring the pastor for single adults, the church decided to end the men’s, women’s, and single’s ministries to focus on a “family ministry.” I felt cheated. Just as we got a seat at the table, the meal was over.
Though angry and hurt, I did what my mother raised me to do: I kept my head up, my eyes open, and my heart ajar. I joined a small group that included both married and single women.
Because of this group of eight women, I began to rethink singleness.
Our challenges and struggles weren’t all that different, and many of our experiences were similar. Whether single or married, we faced temptations, busyness, the comparison trap, feeling like we’ll never be enough, all kinds of complicated relationships, and others’ expectations. We all had something we were grieving for, longing for, and hungry for. We were all doing the best we could to be who God created us to be.
As we shared with each other, we learned from each other and helped each other grow in our faith.
Eighteen months after joining the small group, the experience with those women gave me the courage to leave the megachurch I had attended for over a decade and become a member of a small Methodist church closer to my home.
This church doesn’t have a ministry or a group for single adults; and, to my surprise, I have not missed them. I think there are two reasons why.
I’ve gotten older, and I have learned how to respond (or not respond) to well-meaning friends who send me links to articles about how to improve online dating profiles I don’t even have, who open our get-togethers by asking “Got any prospects yet?,” and who deceive me into attending a speed dating event. I tell them: There are some of us single adults who are at our healthiest, liveliest, and best selves just as we are. I’m one of them.
Another reason is the pastor’s language. It sounds simple, but it makes a difference. He doesn’t talk about us as married or single, and he doesn’t litter his messages with illustrations about married relationships, like other pastors I’ve heard. My pastor calls us all sons and daughters of God, and all brothers and sisters in Christ. He, too, speaks each Sunday on our shared challenges and opportunities of living our God-created identities. He sprinkles his messages with illustrations from history, lyrics, current events, movies, books, his life, and biblical relationships with God. He defines us not by our marital status but by our belief in God.
He sees us as God sees us: as beloved children of God.
Now I do, too, and I no longer think of singleness as a period in which I am spiritually preparing for marriage, or an opportunity to devote all the time I would otherwise be spending with a husband to serving others.
Being single is just one part of who I am. Though I don’t want to be in a bible study or a small group with married couples, my hope is for mindfulness, inclusiveness, and acceptance of single adults within the church -- just as we are.
Because, whether we’re married, wanting to be married, or content being single, our most important relationship is God, our greatest purpose is to live a life that glorifies God, and our highest calling is to love others as God loves us.
And, as sons and daughters of God, the question we face is not “When will you get married?” but rather the one John Wesley often asked: “How is it with your soul?”