One of the debates that I’ve seen in churches and even among singles in churches is should we or should we not have singles groups. I’ve seen a lot of different approaches in my over 20 years as an adult single. I’d like today to offer a few practical thoughts on this.
Before we dive in, I want to acknowledge that this can be a really tricky conversation for churches because there are a lot of different voices. It is however extremely important that churches think about unmarried folks. As I’ve written there is an extreme lack of this in most of our church culture. We have created a nuclear family idol which I’ve written about at length.
It is vital that churches stop doing this. Not only does it alienate singles that are following Jesus, it also keeps non church attenders away. 66% of the people who don’t go to church in the United States are unmarried. This means that if you want to reach out to the “unchurched” there’s a better chance than not that you are reaching out to unmarried folks. If there are more unmarried folks than ever before . . . well you see the problem.
In general, grouping people at church into separate groups is a bad idea. An example is the youth group that is completely separated from the rest of the community. This leads to youth only knowing how to integrate with their own age and therefore less likely to integrate in a church in the early twenties when they are out on their own.
This is why I’ve never been a fan of the singles group per se for several reasons.
First, what does single mean? Singleness is not actually a biblical term. There are not yet married, those called to celibacy, divorced and widowed. Those are all completely different from a biblical and pastoral care perspective. Completely different. I guess you could try to have a group for each, but that seems a bit crazy. Treating all of these as the same is one of the huge mistakes of the modern church.
Secondly, what happens to the single that gets married. Do they then “graduate” into the married group? Let’s say you are in the singles group or singles small group, building relationships and community in the church. Then you get married. Now you leave those relationships and move “up” to new married friends? Just typing that seems ridiculous and yet many times this is exactly what happens.
For me personally what I wanted as a single in the church was to be seen as an equal, not a special case. In fact one of the reasons I chose the church I did at age 30 and single was that they didn’t separate singles out. Small groups were mixed. Leadership was available to singles. I even led small groups with marrieds in them – as a single. Crazy I know.
However this doesn’t mean that we can’t minister to singles specifically.
While I’ve railed against the church’s nuclear family idol, I’ve also said and believe that a lot of the ministry to marrieds in the church are pretty valuable. I don’t understand why we can’t do the same for the unmarried.
This to me is how we can bridge the gap between two contrasting ideas that most singles seem to want. They want to be equal and part of the bigger picture. But they’d also like to meet other people in their context as well as learn how to live as a single following Jesus and even how to get unsingle in a Godly way.
What I would propose is this: Don’t segregate singles out from the other things that you are doing. Don’t do this on purpose or by accident. Some examples of making singles feel unwelcome:
- Constantly making church about the nuclear family in message or method
- Women’s bible studies and small groups that only meet during the day (which is really a stay at home moms’ bible study, not a woman’s bible study)
- Having no place for those that are called to celibacy to be celebrated or supported
- Creating all of your small groups (or Sunday school or what have you) based on marital status
- Not including singles in leadership opportunities
Does you messaging and group dynamics feel inviting to the unmarried person that walks in your door? If not that’s problem number one. Start there.
Do provide singles with opportunities relevant to their context. We do hundreds of marriage seminars, retreats, mom’s nights out, parenting helps etc. We need to do the same thing for the unmarried. This would include things for the more specific groups such as those called to celibacy, the divorced as well as the not yet married. This does several things:
- It says that we have something to give and/or teach them. Which we do.
- It creates space for some singles to meet each other.
- Sends the message that we value those living in those contexts
- Creates the space for actual pastoral care for those people
In other words, we can have ministry to “singles” without having “singles groups”. If I had a large enough church I’d have a staff person committed to this. We have a pastor for everything else under the sun, why not this?