Singleness as Identity, Context or Vocation

In our culture we are constantly talking about how we identify.  Not only that, but we know that whatever our answer is to that question, we will be judged by it.  It has of course to do with who we are, what we do, or even what we believe.  We are republican, democrat, conservative, liberal, American, black, white, male, female, gay, straight, feminist and on and on.  In the Church identify ourselves and judge others as Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical, fundamentalist, charismatic, Baptist, Calvinist, Lutheran and on and on.  Heck in my town we identify people by their zip code, whether we live north or south of a street and what high school that someone went to.  We can also identify ourselves and others by things that have happened to us, or that we’ve participated in or even what teams we root for.

Some of these are things that we are born into and others are things we choose or believe.  But if we are in Christ none of these things are supposed to be our core identity. Meaning that they are not to be the first thing that defines us.  This includes whether or not we are single or married.

Being single or married has become a core identity for us, maybe especially (though certainly not limited to) in the Church. This is a real problem because in the Church we are supposed to be one family.  We aren’t really supposed to divide ourselves up by category and then just hang out with the other folks in that category.  The Church should be the one place where your category doesn’t matter.  We are all of equal value under the cross.  We all are sinners. Jesus thought us each valuable enough to come and die for.  Sin and the cross are the ultimate equalizer.

This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t offer practical teaching, guidance and wisdom for people in these different contexts.  But we have to start with the fact that at the core we are created in God’s image, all have sin, and all are loved by Jesus.

Adding to this, singleness is not really even a biblical category.  You could be unmarried, divorced, widowed, celibate by gifting, by the sin of man, or by choice for the Kingdom. This is really important because it affects how we see ourselves and how we set people up within the church.

Being unmarried is a context that you may be in.  But that is not the same as your identity or for that matter even your vocation.

This matters for those called to Celibacy because Celibacy for the Kingdom is not simply a context they find themselves in.  It is a calling and a vocation within the Church, at least historically.

Vocation is an interesting word in our culture.  It’s not really what your job is necessarily.  It could be.  But really your job could be simply your means to your vocation.  In fact, as a lay Christian, this is always true.  Let me explain.

Our first vocation as a believer is to follow Jesus and represent the Kingdom wherever we go.  This was our original created vocation going back to Genesis.  We were created to know God and advance His cause.

But we also have a secondary vocation.  That is either to be in the married vocation or the celibate vocation.  As I heard a wise priest once say, “The first vow we all have to make is to Jesus – to be committed to Him. Then we can make a second vow – either to God to be in celibate ministry or to God and to another person.”

Now here is where we screw it up in Protestantism.  We equate the vocation of celibacy with the context of being unmarried.  This is unfair to both the person who has the vocation of singleness and the person who doesn’t.  We need to honor the person who is called to that vocation by recognizing the Kingdom picture it represents, honoring their pursuit of that, and giving them the support they need as well as utilizing their gift and choice.

At the same time we need to not saddle the people who are not called to that with the responsibilities, lifestyle or teachings that those called with that vocation have.  Instead we need to support them in their context, help them navigate it, and ultimately help them pursue marriage.

In short.  Being unmarried is not an identity group and shouldn’t be treated as one.  It is a context that people are in.  For some it is a vocation they are called to.  Recognizing all of that sets us up to serve, teach, empower and support each group.  Not recognizing that hurts everyone.

We should instead identify people first by who they are in Christ, created to by God to know him and advance the Kingdom.  Secondly we should help them pursue their secondary vocation from whatever context they are currently in.

Responding To Platitudes

One of the most annoying things that you deal with as single person is all of the things that people say to you about your singleness.  I’m talking about all of the platitudes, quick answers, and questions that people say to you.

I was single until I was nearly 41 and believe me, I’ve heard them all.  They come from all directions.  People who care, people who don’t.  People who feel sorry for you, people who are frustrated with/at you.  From behind the pulpit to in the small group to heck, behind the counter.

  • I’m sure God has someone for you.
  • God is preparing someone for you – just be patient
  • Be grateful for your time as a single – once you get married it all changes.
  • Are you praying for your spouse?
  • Have you tried online?
  • It’s when you aren’t looking that you find someone
  • Just seek to be content in your singleness and God will provide
  • It will happen at the right time
  • Just focus on serving God right now.
  • God must have someone really special for you
  • Better to be single than married to the wrong person
  • Don’t settle
  • Are you too picky?
  • Are you dating anyone?

I could go on and on and on and on and on.  It can be funny, awkward, frustrating, or even infuriating.  The question is how do we respond well to this stuff.  I mean do you blow it off? Do you give a great sarcastic answer? “Are you praying for it?”- “Wow!  I’ve never thought about praying for it.  I’ll be sure to do that.”  Haha.

I think how we respond matters because it affects us and sometimes others.

There are some key things to keep in mind.  What is the intent? What is your relationship to this person?  What is the goal of your response?

Most of the time people are just making conversation.  It’s a question, in our culture that we lead with. It’s just a way of talking about something. The weather, the local sports team, your marital status. It’s all the same. There is zero reason to let it bother you. This last weekend I celebrated my one year anniversary. You know what everyone asks me? “So hows married life?” “Hows your wife?” “First year of marriage huh – bet that was fun.” “So has the honeymoon worn off?” Depending on how I answer that, they’ll have a nice thing to say about it. It’s no different as a parent. “How’s the kid?” “How is school going?”

Most of the people at church, in our neighborhood and even many of our family and friends will fit this category.  I think this is where you smile and take it.  And then ask about their kids. . . or the NBA finals.

There are others who ask out of some sort of sense of arrogance or wanting to fix you. This is more troublesome and might be worth challenging.  One time when I was on the golf course with a business associate who was about my age.  He was a Christian and married with kids.  He began to tell me how I should lead my dating life.  Basically he was pulling rank and telling me how to “stay pure”.  When the conversation moved to “I tell my 14 year old son. . . ” I stopped him.  I said, “Do you really want to have this conversation?  Because I’ll have it with you.  Do you really want to be in this with me?  I’ll let you in, but if you want to go there, it’s about to get real right now.”  That oddly enough kind of stopped the conversation.

Finally there are those who really do care about us.  I’m talking about our close friends and family who actually walk with us.  This is where, if we are bothered by what they ask us or the “wisdom” they dispense or if we are just tired of being identified as the single person in the group, we need to speak up honestly.  If we can’t challenge what these people say to us in a loving way, then we are in trouble, and not just in this part of the conversation.

But we need to realize some things from our end.  Do we really want to move beyond it?  Do we really want their actual opinion and help?  And finally, have we set the stage that way ourselves?

If for example every time someone says what can I pray for, we say, “a spouse” we don’t have a lot of room to be frustrated with them bringing it up.  If I’m focussed there, it’s pretty natural for the people around me to want to help.  Do we really want honest answers?  For example would we be willing to ask “why do you think I’m still single – for real?”  “Do you think I’m doing anything wrong?”  “How am I around the opposite sex?”  Are we willing to hear the answers?  Here’s what I’m saying.  WIth our close friends, how do we help them help us.

I’d love to hear from my readers on this one.  A couple of questions.

What are some of the things people say to you that drive you the most crazy?  How do you respond?

 

 

 

Why Married People Need A Singles Sermon Series

Recently, I was asked by a pastor friend of mine to help him consider how to handle singleness from the pulpit and frankly throughout his church.  I of course said, “Read my blog – duh.”  Just kidding.

First of all, this man should be commended for taking it on and asking questions (not just of me).  I’ve written before about how your pastor probably doesn’t get it.  This is how one gets out of that situation – because anyone can get it.

Now I have some thoughts on what a sermon series on “singleness” would look like.  I’ll share some of that soon.  But one of the things I think a pastor runs up against if he wants to talk about singleness from the pulpit is that most likely the majority of his audience will be married.

This is one of the good reasons that churches do marriage sermon series.  They are trying to help people who are married.  And they know if they do have single people there, that most of them want to be married and therefore might be able to gain something from it.  In fact as I’ve written before – as a single you really should pay attention to that sermon series.

But the problem comes when this same pastor wants to talk about singleness.  How does he “sell” that to a mostly married crowd?  Today I’m going to tell you exactly how I’d do that.  In other words, I’m going to tell you why all this stuff we talk about here should be important to married people in the church.  Very important actually.  There are many reasons, but here are a few – in no particular order.

For starters, most married people, have single friends.  They work with single people, live down the street from them, sit next to them at church.  Married people need to know how to best minister to these people – and not from a place of superiority.  I think there are a lot of married folks who want to care about their single friends but don’t know much about it.  Learning more would help.  In the same way that I tried to learn to minister to my married friends (and even challenge them) even though I wasn’t married, married people need to do that as well.

This leads to a secondary point.  50% of American adults are unmarried.  Most of those people (as in literally most) don’t go to church.  So if we are going to invite a friend to church, there is a good chance they will be single.  If we are serious about reaching out into the community, learning how to think about singleness and the Gospel is pretty key.

Another reason married people need this information is that many of them entered marriage under wrong premises.  Yes the marriage sermon helps here.  But so does the sermon about not being married.  When you knock down all of the spiritual platitudes that we tell single people (God has someone for you, hasn’t brought you the one yet, is waiting for you to be ready, save yourself for marriage, etc.) we also help married people who are struggling in their marriage because they believed in those exact platitudes and now they are being let down by them.

Let me promise you this.  If a church did a gutsy sermon series on the unmarried and the Gospel, they would rock a lot of married people’s worlds.  In what would eventually be a good way, some crap would hit the fan.  Not only that, but there would be some marriages that are struggling in which by the end of this series, they would become committed to figuring it out.  They would be thankful.

Talking about singleness in all it’s forms, also reminds married people, that yes, you are in a covenant relationship for life, but your identity is not in that.  You were created unmarried and will be resurrected unmarried.  Not to mention, that talking about the holiness of celibacy also raises the holiness of marriage.  When we look at both together we get a better picture of the Kingdom.

Further, most married people will also become (or already are) parents.  If I had a church with a lot of parents of adolescents, I for sure would want them to know the stuff we talk about here.  Because how else are they supposed to help their kid walk through it?

Parents need an accurate view of what is going on out there.  If all they know how to offer their kids are the spiritual platitudes that the church throws out to the unmarried, they are setting their kids up to fail – and possibly fail hard.  It is vital that parents understand as best they can the scene today and all that goes with it.  The more they understand the better they will be able to advise, comfort and hopefully guide their children.  I don’t think this can be overstated.

Finally, and maybe most important, many of the things that we need to talk about with singles, have just as many (if maybe different) implications for those who are married.  The Gospel is the Gospel.  Switching contexts won’t change that.  Just like I’ve heard pastors say in a marriage sermon, “Single folks this applies to you” they would be saying, “Hey married folks, this applies to you.”

 

 

 

If I Get Married, Can We Still Be Friends?

Let’s say after a few visits to a church you decide to join a small group. You go to sign up and after taking down your general information the person running the sign up asks you, “How much money do you make?”  After you recover from shock, you say, “Excuse me? Why does that matter?”  The person warmly smiles (because that is what we do at church) and says, “Oh, this year we are going to be doing a couple of lessons on money, so we are setting up our small groups by income level – you know so that people are kind of in the same boat so to speak, and can identify with each other better.”

What would your reaction be to that?  Or how about if you go to a church with Sunday School classes.  What if there was a people with a lot of money class and a people with no money class.  You know because people with different income have different needs, experience different struggles and of course like to hang out with people just like them.

Here’s the best part about this – if you get a big promotion – you get to move to a new group.  Of course if you get demoted – well . . . .

In my opinion, one of the great problems in our Christian communities is that we have become all about affinity.  We hang out with people like us.  The problem is the kingdom doesn’t look like this.  

Just look at Jesus’s disciples.  I mean it was not very often in those days that you would have a fisherman, a zealot and a tax collector hanging out together. . . every day. . . for three years. Actually it doesn’t happen today either.

But they did.  Why?  Because they came together around Jesus.  And a funny thing, it worked.  In fact we are having this conversation because it worked.  But this is not how we like it.  We like comfort.  We like the people who look, act, and think like us.  There’s a lot wrong with this but for me the main problem is we are ripping each other off.

I bring all this up because there is often this weird divide between singles and marrieds in the church.  In fact I would say that the divide is more apparent in Christians than non-Christians.  There are a lot of reasons for it.  We can make idols out of family, marriage, or even singleness.  The Church in our current culture is pretty marriage centered and often treat marrieds and singles differently.

But a lot of it is that we are just so self focussed that we rule out anyone in a different context.

I see this all the time.  Sometimes it’s the married peoples fault.  They get married and just kind of abandon their single friends because somehow magically they now identify more with them than those they were friends with before.  But then there are single people who give their newly married friends almost no choice because they start treating them as if now they have some sort of weird disease – “they’re married now so you know. . . ”  To top it off, many churches (and ministries) are set up in such a way that when you get married you have to switch groups/classes/etc.

And of course no one who is in a different place could possibly be helpful.  The married person doesn’t think the single person could possibly understand and speak into their married life, and the single person knows that married person just doesn’t get their plight.

Here’s what’s funny about this for me.  I’m 40 years old.  I’ve never been married – I’m about as single as you can get.  And in six months I’ll be married.  So can we still be friends?

All of my mentors are married.  A whole lot of things on this blog come from conversations with them. At the same time a whole lot of people I mentor are married – will I now suddenly be a better mentor to them?  Once I’m married do I still have stuff to say about being single or am I now clueless?  Will more married people now trust me because I’m married?  Really, if you want to be un-single should you listen to the person who is always single (I once told someone I could teach them how to not get married. Ha!) or the person who figured out how to get married?  We could play this game all day.

The truth is we need each other.  We singles need to learn how to love our married friends and vice versa.  It can be complicated.  It takes being intentional. It takes having a right theology of singleness and of marriage.  It means not lifting one up over the other but lifting Jesus up over both.  It probably means being uncomfortable.

Is your community divided?  Whether you are single or married, are you willing to be intentional with those who aren’t?

How To Survive A Marriage Sermon

As a single person it’s easy to feel a lot of different things at church.  You can feel marginalized, left out, treated as less mature and worst of all lonely.  People forget the amount of guts it takes to go to church all by yourself.  Now often single people are invited by friends but for example when you are single and you move to a new place it takes some courage.  You don’t have a partner to go with.  I know, I’ve done it.  Same thing with checking out a small group.

But there is nothing that can bring out the bitterness, loneliness, or venom like the Marriage Sermon or worse – the Marriage Sermon Series.

I will admit that there have been times in my 20+ years of singleness that I have skipped those weeks.  Usually for one of two reasons.  Either I was hurting at the time and didn’t want to think about it, or I just figured there wasn’t anything in it for me.  That was wrong.

So today I want to talk about how to survive a Marriage Sermon.

Let’s first acknowledge that a lot of churches screw this up when it comes to singles.  One way is to not acknowledge us at all.  It’s like they just kind of assume we aren’t in the room. Another way is they often throw in a spiritual platitude or two without actually addressing it. This to me is actually worse.  Things like mentioning the gift of singleness without actually talking about it, or saying that we need to know this stuff for the time when we will be married.  AHHHHHHHHH.  Drives me crazy!

But we need to show up and here’s why.

First there is a difference between a sermon (series) on marriage and one directed solely to marrieds.  Most in my church are the first.

This is important.  Regardless of where we are going to end up, married or not, we need to have a right theology of marriage.  We need this because if we don’t understand marriage, how the heck will we understand whether or not we want to get married.  The more I understand it the more I can determine if I’m called to do it.

Secondly, it’s not just about you.  A lot of our friends are married (please see my posts pleading with you to be friends with married people) so it might be a good idea to know what they are going through.  If we are going to live in community (and for that matter the world) we are going to be interacting with married people.  Whether in community or on mission if I’m going to love married people well – and we are called to love people be they married or single – then having a working knowledge of how that all works would be key.  We like to talk about how the church often doesn’t seem to let us lead married people.  Well, what wisdom will you offer them if you don’t seek to understand marriage?

Thirdly, a lot of marriage issues have to do with selfishness and relational issues.  Hmm, I’m pretty sure we have those.  We ought to be able to pull some stuff out of those messages that could help with our friendships and other relationships.

Another big point is that a lot of marital issues ultimately stem from the colliding of two stories.  In other words marriage has the potential to bring out a lot of wounds from peoples’ pasts, relationships, and upbringing.  I think as a single person it is easier to hide these wounds (which can often be in the way of getting married in the first place).  So maybe, just maybe we could think about how our upbringing and wounds affect us as single people.  This is huge.  Why not face that stuff now?

This is one of the great advantages that marrieds often have.  What most of the people I know who go to marriage counseling take out of it is stuff that is wrong with them, be it wounds that need to be healed or sin patterns that need to be stopped.

I don’t know what the ratio of married people to single people in counseling is but I’m willing to bet it’s pretty high on the married side.  I promise you they are not more screwed up than we are.

I think we need an attitude adjustment here.  Look, I get it.  It can hurt.  It makes us realize what we don’t have and in fairness the church needs to figure out how to do singleness sermons (series).  They are wrong to not address it specifically.  But that doesn’t mean we should skip out on what they are doing right. So go and listen – for your own heart and for the hearts of others.

Loving Your Married Friends Well

So I’m 39 and single.  I’ve been very blessed in my life to have several very strong mentors including one who has walked with me for over twenty years and another for over fifteen.  Others who have had huge impact in my life along the way.  One of the things they have all had in common (other than the whole Jesus thing obviously) is that they have all been married.

I think this is a really good thing.  For one, I’ve gotten to see their marriages.  I’ve gotten to see the things that they’ve done well and things they’ve screwed up.  They’ve demystified things about marriage and parenting that otherwise I would have not known.  I’ve seen their families do things differently than mine.  Sometimes better and sometimes worse. They’ve walked with me through all sorts of things, including my singleness and all the cycles that go with it.

I bring this up because I think in our Christian culture we get stuck in this idea that only people just like me can understand.  And while there is some truth to that, mostly it’s a load of crap.

As I wrote about earlier this can happen in the Church from a leadership perspective.  But it also happens because often times we singles view ourselves as less able to minister to our friends and others who are married than we actually are.

What’s interesting is for me it’s been the other way around.

When I started out everyone who was pouring into me was married, but everyone my age was single.  Then when I got into my late 20s and early 30s there was a shift.  Now almost all of my peers were married, but the people I was pouring into were single.  But now at 39 there’s been a new shift.  Now at least half of the people I’m pouring into and discipling are married.  It’s kind of crazy.

You know what, they are still my people.  

I think that we as single people have a unique opportunity to love our married friends well. We can offer some things that sometimes others can’t.  As I’ve mentioned before, we can fight for their marriage.  We can be a great outside voice that asks questions.  Also, just because we aren’t married doesn’t mean we can’t see what is going on and call stuff out. We still know relationship problems when we see them.

We also typically have more flexibility.  And we should use that to serve them.  Now before you freak out, I don’t mean babysitting and I don’t mean that we aren’t busy or that our time is less valuable. But like to admit it or not, there is a difference between the single lifestyle and the married one.

For example one of my best friends is married with three kids.  About once a month, we grab a cigar late at night – after the kids are down.  I just shoot him a text and say, “Cigar – late?” And I get a text back that says essentially, “Um Yes Please!”  Stuff that I get to do all the time (go to a ball game, meet up for a drink, take a late night phone call) can be a treat for someone with young kids.  So why not use it with one of them.

Here’s what I’m getting at, we need to serve our married friends and we need to keep pursuing them.  We need to use our flexibility to our advantage.  If it’s easier to go to their house for dinner we should do it.  On the other hand when is the last time you made dinner for a couple – why is it always the married people who cook the meal?  Know what I’m saying?  If we want to be treated as equal adults, let’s be that.

I know this is not a super deep post but the point is we have a lot to offer married people and we need to offer it.  A lot of times single people feel left out or not part of the “in group” at church etc.  I have definitely felt that at times and sometimes there is truth in it.  I have and will continue to call that out.  But other times it has more to do with us than them and we just need to get over it.  We need to go with the attitude of what we can offer them.

There will always be some married people who write us off.  But we will definitely be written off if we don’t offer.

If you’re single, how have you felt like you could love your married friends well?  How confident are you that you can minister to married people? If you are married, how have single friends been a blessing to you?

Single People Should Do More Ministry – Not!

When I first started out in my career (which happens to be full time ministry) I used to work about 70 hours a week.  I’m not exaggerating.   I was young, fired up, and I just went at it. It was driven by a lot of things, including the desire to be successful, to be noticed and win approval on the bad side, love of the mission, love of the people, and desire to change the world on the good side.  But what this did, quietly and slowly, was to begin to shape my identity by what I did and not who I was.  It was not my organization’s fault.  It was mine. This of course is a trap for anyone, married, single or otherwise.  Things other than Jesus are always vying for the throne of our life.  As I mentioned in a previous blog even our marriage, singleness or kids can become our identity.

But when you are single there is this subtle (or often not so subtle) message from the Church – “Your single, so you can serve anytime.  You have time, you are free from other things – you should be doing more.”  We believe this stuff and we start living that way.

It’s pushed on us all the time. I’ve heard married people say, how they wish they could do the ministry we can do.  This is kind of an accidental subtle shot at us.  So, the reason that I’m successful is because I’m single?  Might it have something to do with being good at it? Secondly, how do you explain that almost every protestant pastor is married – as are elders, leaders in Christian organizations and on and on.  I don’t think being good at it has much to do with marital status – it has to do with God, obedience and gifting among other things.  Personally, all the people I look up to the most in ministry are married.

Now there is some truth in this for non paid ministry person.  A single person with a full time secular job (not that there isn’t ministry in that) does have more time to give to other stuff than a married person – especially one with kids.  But this idea that as a single person I’m not busy, have no personal life, no personal passions, and no limits is wrong.  By the way it is just as wrong to assume that a married person can’t serve – don’t say no for them. I’ll admit I’ve ruled people out that I shouldn’t have.

In fact part of the danger of this is that it sends two bad messages. 1. If you are single, your personal life and time is less valuable than a married person’s and 2. Once you are married you can’t do anything but be married.  Yikes these are so wrong!  A third danger is that as a single person it is easy to hide in ministry or work, just like as a married person it is easy to hide in being married or parenting (If you are married you can also hide from your family in ministry or work – but that is a different blog).

We need to realize that one is not better than another.  They are instead different, with different needs and advantages.  We have to do ministry differently.  I do have more flexibility as a single person and I should use it for the kingdom.  I can meet you late a night for a drink and conversation, but guess what I also go home . . . alone.  Know what I’m saying here?  I don’t have to be home for dinner, but I also don’t have a safe family environment to invite you into.  There are million examples.

Look, we are all called and all needed.  One of the most attractive things about the kingdom to an outside person should be the diversity within it.  But we’ve got to respect, not judge, each others’ situations and help each other (read push each other) to grow, yes in ministry, but also in life.

So, what is your identity in?  Do you hide in ministry? Or do you hide from ministry?  What are some ways we can help each other grow?