Wesley Hill: Singles in church

You don’t need a big program to practice hospitality to singles in the church.

I picked up the habit only after that fateful phone call.

It came on a Monday night. I’d just arrived back at my basement apartment after teaching a class. Dropping my book bag, I lifted the receiver and heard my friend yell from his house upstairs, “The president’s plane is crashing!”

“What?!” I felt my heart start to pound.

“The president’s plane is crashing! You’d better come up and watch it on TV with us.” At that point, my friend couldn’t keep up the charade anymore. The smile I’d sensed behind his words burst into full-throated laughter. “It’s ‘24,’ man!” he said. “Jack Bauer’s on. Come watch with us!”

And I did. That night I watched my first episode of “24,” the long-running TV drama about a U.S. government counter-terrorist unit whose hero, Jack Bauer, always managed to save the country from inevitable doom in just the nick of time. I “ooh’d” and “ahh’d” with my friend, his wife and kids, and the other neighbors they’d invited over. Afterwards, we sat cross-legged on the floor and ate ice cream, talking way past our bedtime.

Eventually I decided show’s politics were too right-wing for me, too Cheney-friendly, but by that point, it hardly mattered. Monday nights had become an established time with friends, and that was the important thing. It made no difference what we watched -- we tried “LOST,” “The Biggest Loser,” “The Amazing Race” after we gave up on Jack Bauer’s escapades -- because certain things stayed the same. In between episodes, we shared desserts we’d made. We caught up on stories from the weekend. We shared prayer requests. I even managed to sneak in a few theological debates with my landlord -- he was my pastor too.

In short, my friends and I practiced hospitality. In the lingo of the first-century Christians, we broke bread together (Acts 2:46); we shared holy intimacy (1 Corinthians 16:20).

Over the last couple of years, I’ve had the privilege of taking part in some important conversations with pastors, counselors and other concerned Christian leaders about how churches can do a better job of forming communities that welcome and nourish single people.

Everyone has had good suggestions. We need to recognize the honored place the Bible gives to the single life, or recover ancient wisdom about celibacy, or provide a home for the divorced and widowed, people have suggested. All good things, to be sure.

Yet I find myself thinking back to these simple Monday nights at my friends’ house. As a single person, I felt safe there. I felt nurtured and cared for. Why was that?

I can think of at least two reasons.

First, it was a kind of “institution.” We had a regular meeting place and a regular day and time (an hour or so before “24” was scheduled to start). Those established patterns freed me from having to invite myself over and risk imposing on my friends’ calendar. I knew I was welcome because we’d made a plan.

Second, it was a motley crew, an eclectic mix of people. My friend’s wife, especially, excelled at inviting guests from outside her natural social milieu. Though her children were teenagers, she didn’t just invite parents from a similar age group. She included me, then in my mid-20s. She invited other single folks, a younger couple whose kids weren’t even toddlers yet, a woman whose marriage was on the rocks. Generations apart, we all stayed long after the credits had rolled to talk with one another, to get to know one another better.

It didn’t take much effort, I found, for these Monday nights to spill over into Tuesdays and then Fridays and Saturdays. Before I realized what was happening, “community” was being created. As a single person, I was finding my place in a family, in a neighborhood, in the local church down the street that most of us shared in common.

“You see, you don’t need a big program,” Francis Schaeffer once said to some Christians asking him how they could learn to practice hospitality. “You don’t have to convince your session or board. All you have to do is open your home and begin. And there is no place in God’s world where there are no people who will come and share a home as long as it is a real home.”

We singles need that kind of open door. If it’s open, we’ll bring the dessert.