From my vantage point as a single woman, there seems to be a lot of confusion out there in the world and in the church about what singles want or need or just how to relate to single people’s single status in general. When I read or hear about the vision of various singles’ groups, I can usually tell instantly that one of two motifs regarding single people is assumed and in play. This is fine, until the “other” type of single person shows up in that ministry or church – and finds it is exactly the opposite of type of ministry for which they had hoped to find.
Yet I think these two motifs exist on such opposite ends of the spectrum, that generally the fact that both exist and are legitimate are not often examined or thought through – or if they are, there is usually a respect for one and disdain or sanction against the other. So I wanted to bring the two versions of singlehood into some intentional reflection and conversation out here on the blogosphere, mostly to assist singles’ ministry leaders and also the average person in how to best support and love the singles that they know.
The first type: The “I’m happy being single right now” single.
For whatever reason, it seems that the majority of church singles’ ministries operate with at least some leaning towards this type of single person. I think there was a time in the 90’s or so when there was a big push for sensitivity to this type of single, and the church in many corners of the world accommodated.
People fall into this category for a variety of reasons: Some singles who recently lost a spouse to death or divorce, or who have recently undergone any other life transition (such as being new to the faith, or newly sober and still working on it, etc.) or who are in a time of setting themselves apart to the Lord, or who are pursuing advanced degrees, or because of a legitimate “gift of singleness”, a vow of celibacy (more common in Europe than the USA) or for a whole host of other reasons, may see themselves as belonging in this category either for a temporary stretch of time or permanently.
What they are looking for in a singles’ ministry or from the church in general:
This kind of single person comes to a singles ministry not because they want to find a spouse per se, but because they want to be around other people who are in a similar position in life as themselves. They are surrounded by married folks and being around other singles is when they finally have a chance to not be receiving subtle messages that they are inadequate for being single, or where they can make friends that have a similar lifestyle to themselves. Messages that this set may enjoy are messages that affirm what they can accomplish as single folk; messages about living a full life as a single person, and opportunities to fully exploit the benefits of the single life, as well as financial planning and other lifestyle considerations that may have a different twist to them for a single person than a couple. Singles that have children in tow may appreciate networking with other single parents who have similar struggles as themselves, and appreciate messages from the pulpit geared at helping them through some of the unique challenges of single parenting.
Where they tend to feel the church fails them:
Occasionally, however, this type of single person does run up against criticism from the church, both expressed and latent. Singles of both types will often will complain that the church treats them as if they are not fully adults because they are unmarried, that they are glossed over for leadership positions and for responsibilities as if single hood means they have less maturity, less to offer, or are illegitimate as teachers or leaders. But singles of this first type are more apt to receive criticisms directly from family and married friends and even leaders, that their priorities are messed up and they are running out of time to find a spouse, that there is something ‘selfish’ or ‘wrong’ about them for not yet having children (if they have none) and single women in particular may face a boatload of messages from people condemning them for putting “career first” (whether or not they even are, the assumption is often made!) before marriage.
What not to say or do with this type of single:
This type of single tends to get annoyed, offended, or even wounded by people who ask them questions such as “So when are you going to settle down and find a spouse?” And they may be particularly appalled at people who try to set them up or matchmake in any other way suggest that they ought to be married or that they need help getting married. Also, singles of the opposite sex who continually hit on them at church or singles’ ministry can be a huge turn-off.
The other type of single person: The Single Who Wants to be Married.
While it is clear that not all single people should be assumed to be in this category, the reality is that many, many, singles are. The internet dating industry is a huge testimony to the fact that many people legitimately and desperately desire to meet someone they can love and who will love them and form a family with them.
What they are looking for in a singles’ ministry and from the church:
Simply put, the last thing this group of people wants to hear is another sermon on being content with singlehood or being joyful while “waiting on the Lord.” Some teaching on preparing oneself for marriage might be helpful, but care should be taken not to overdo that either as a 35-year-old single person ends up feeling the church is telling them the reason they are not married but their 23 year old friend is, is because they still need to “work on themselves” and mature more so they can catch up with their 23 year old married friends, which isn’t necessarily a good message to send.
Instead, this group is looking for a group that affirms their desire to find a spouse; one that presents social and service opportunities to have fun and work alongside other singles that they may be interested in and who might be interested in them. Leaders and others in a church can feel empowered to be creative at setting up singles’ dinners; at introducing singles from one church to another, and setting up regional “speed dates” or other events meant to give singles a chance to meet potential mates. These efforts will be welcomed as a cup of cold water to the soul of these singles, in knowing that their church cares about helping them start a family. Discouragement with waiting can be a really big factor in depression in singles of this type; and teaching and times of mutual prayer and intercession and warfare for each other’s goals of finding a spouse and having a family can be a huge boost to one’s sense of not being alone in that wait, as well as provide hope and help for the realization of that goal.
Also, this group is constantly attending bridal showers, bachelors and bachelorette parties, weddings, and baby showers and serving their friends with gifts and their presence, and yet if they’ve never been married they may never have had any party in their lives thrown for them where they ever got to pick gifts in a store registry and have friends buy things for them in that way that their married friends have had. Thus, choosing singles in an ongoing way to bless with a “housewarming party” or a “new job party” or any other excuse one can think of to throw them an actual party with gifts would also come as a huge blessing.
Where they feel the church fails them:
This group of singles has often felt their desire to be married has been de-legitimized by many of their [ironically, already married] friends. They are used to hearing their married friends share various theories about how one finds a spouse by “not looking” or conversely recommend that they use a dating website (the assumption for some reason always being that the single person hasn’t done so already). While the amount of emotional and psychological suffering of this group may be huge, with plenty of tears shed in private sometimes daily, they are often told that they shouldn’t desire to marry (because singlehood is held with high regard in the Bible) or they are criticized for being “too desperate.” Often, these singles – if they’ve never had a child, will watch as couples in the church who are struggling to conceive a child are rallied around and prayed for, while their own sense of imposed infertility (even though they may be physically completely fertile) is often ignored by those around them and treated as less important. Remembering to pray for single men and women who desire to be parents but do not have a spouse, in the same way that a church would pray for an infertile couple, would speak volumes to this group of single folk.
One other word about this group: Offering to introduce them to another single friend is probably the biggest gift you could give them. Let them know your nervousness about the choice of person you are offering them – never get upset if they do not find your offered friend interesting or attractive, but hold out the opportunity to connect them with this person as something you’d love to do for them if they’d want to chance getting to know this person. Nine times out of ten: they’ll love to at least give the person a chance and get to know them.
Some things are the same for all singles. It’s important to value the singles in your sphere as the type of single they are, without passing judgment on their feelings on wanting to be single or wanting to be married. Also, While the Bible says many things about the advantages of being single, it should be recognized that single people of any type have unique trials and challenges. When I broke my foot last year and was forbidden by my doctor to bear any weight on it whatsoever, I learned how difficult it was to even carry a TV dinner from the microwave to another room while on crutches. (Read: impossible.) Couples have other people to lean on when a crisis comes such as that, but single people might only have their friends and their church. If a single person who lives outside a major city has a car accident or car breakdown, they may not have the money to rent a car and might have no one to help them with rides until they get their wheels back. Be aware of the unique challenges and vulnerabilities of this group of people, and treat them with extra care.
The Bible mentions the importance of looking after widows and orphans – single people, even those who have never had a spouse die, may be functionally similar to the role of widow – and in the case of those whose parents have passed away or moved away or who live far away – they may also easily be in the role of “adult orphan.” Keep tabs on your single friends, get to know the singles in your church, ask after their needs, and love them. Most singles will pour out their time, energy and lives for their married friends instinctively – you’ll have trouble beating them at serving but I wholeheartedly recommend giving it your best attempt. 🙂
But mostly, recognize the particular type of single your friend or neighbor is – can you respect their individual struggles, joys and needs as a single person of whichever type? Without pushing them towards one mold or the other, I can guarantee you your single friends will be blessed if you honor their particular approach to their single hood, and recognize the importance that that approach means for their role in your life, your role in theirs, and their role in the body of Christ overall.