When you first walk into a sanctuary, your gaze is likely drawn elsewhere. Perhaps the sullen teen forced to sit with his family catches your eye or the couple whispering as they wait for worship to begin.
Maybe you'll notice the ones sitting by themselves or in clusters. The single dad whose kids are visiting their mom this weekend. The 20- and 30-somethings in the Young Adult group sitting to the side. The woman widowed after 54 years of marriage. The college student home on break. Having eyes to see does not mean you will reach out or wonder about their story. Chances are the service will begin and then end without further interaction.
While there are certainly churches doing it right, all too often singles are overlooked amidst a sea of married couples and families. Small groups often segregate according to young adults, older singles, young marrieds, and empty nesters. Sermons provide tangible applications for those married and parenting, perhaps tacking on an afterthought for those not in either category. Assumptions are made on both sides and the cracks begin to form. And when this happens, singles can question their place. What is their role in the Body of Christ? Why should they bother to attend church anymore?
Will anyone notice if they stop showing up?
We naturally gravitate toward the people who look and sound like us, as if we never grew out of our high school cliques. The jocks with the jocks, the band kids with the band kids, and so on. We might have friends who look and sound different than us, we may even be intentional about this, but in general, we like doing life with those who are in similar seasons.
That's not a bad thing. We benefit from solidarity. However, spending time with only people who are similar to us does not a good life make. It's a one-way ticket to stagnation and little to no growth. We lose the priceless gift of learning from one another.
We better understand God when we see various representations of his nature in models around us. Relying only on one metaphor diminishes the richness of his character. Our call is to be the Body of Christ. This call requires us to to be the hands and feet of Christ to those around us, regardless of how much we have in common. The universal Church is a diverse group and thrives because of it. We all have different gifts, backgrounds, and opinions and they somehow meld into beautiful worship.
At least, they have the potential to do so. How much diversity do you see in your congregation? Take a look at the age range, race, culture, gender, marital status, sexual orientation, political affiliation, level of education, career, and so on. Church demographics are usually quite telling about what is valued and sought out. Diversity doesn't “just happen.”
Most churches boast their fair share of those who are married and parenting. In many cases, more than their fair share. In the process of centering the church around this population, singles are edged to the sidelines.
Is marriage a great calling? Yes but it is one of many. It is not the end all, be all. Viewing it as such creates unrealistic expectations of spouses and the necessary work of marriage. It can also lead to those who are not married to feel “less than.”
Many pastors regularly preach about marriage and parenting because they are married and parenting themselves. Plus, we often associate church with being family-friendly. This is not bad in and of itself but we must be careful to remember not everyone in the congregation can check off those boxes. Church is not only for those who are married and parenting.
There may be married couples who do not yet have children or who are experiencing infertility or who have decided they do not want children. Can the church still speak to them?
There may be men and women who never married but are single parents. Can the church still speak to them?
There may be singles who have never married or whose marriages have ended due to divorce or death. Can the church still speak to them?
Our answer must be a resounding “yes.”
With this answer comes a question. Is the church willing to learn what the unmarried, divorced, widowed, and single parents can teach?
For the church to show its care and compassion may require first listening. Much of the rhetoric surrounding singleness, both inside the church and out, does not reflect the richness inherent in the lives of most singles.
Will those in the church listen to our hopes and fears and walk alongside us? Will they love us not because we're single but for who we are?
Singleness is not a transitional waiting room until real life begins. There's danger in viewing singles solely through that lens, especially since singleness is a broad, encompassing category. Each type of singleness has its own gifts and problems. Is singleness a problem, or does it have problems, just as marriage does?
Those who are single don't have, or no longer have, a partner helping out with chores and bills and work. For the formerly married, they may find gaps in their community as they are no longer included in the same circles or they may have less time to devote to others, given their increased responsibilities. For the unmarried, instead of leaning on a nuclear family, they lean on the community of friends and family they've formed and the local church should be first in line. Sadly, for too many, the local church is not part of the equation.
Too often, marriage becomes synonymous with acceptance and belonging. Singles are encouraged to marry, whether or not it's best or even their desire. What's missing in all of these expectations and simplistic solutions, whether real or perceived, is a focus on the individual. In the face of all this, many singles quit going to church or resign themselves to being second-class citizens.
A person should know unequivocally they belong in their church. Regardless of who they are, where they've been, and what they bring to the table, they should know they are loved and accepted. The Church misses the mark when members are not valued and cared for as they are.
Those who are married and those who are single need one another. We have much to teach and much to learn. For the church to truly thrive, it must find ways to integrate singles into the congregation and encourage congregants to share their lives.
Together, we must learn what healthy relationships look like, how we benefit from the inclusion of singles, and how to stop assuming we know what someone else needs. Singles must reflect on their own role within the church and how they can care for the married people in their lives. Pastors and churches need to develop a stronger sexual and community ethic, whether discussing chastity, including singles in leadership, or creating viable options for singles to connect with the congregation.
Some churches already do these things. Some people instinctively know how to include others. Wherever you fall on the spectrum, my prayer is for eyes to be opened and ears to hear. So long as people are marginalized, there is always room for improvement.
Given the aging Baby Boomer population, current divorce rate, and increasing number of singles who are unmarried, the Church must examine what it means to be the Body to one another. We can't afford not to.