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.
So last week while I was writing some thoughts about what we as singles could maybe do about being angry with the church, Donald Miller was writing about how he doesn’t go to church, and then some people responded – ok a lot of people.
So I thought since I’m on a roll with singles and church, I’d offer a couple of thoughts.
First, two quick points that don’t have anything to do with singleness, but I have to say them. 1. What planet were all these people on that they were surprised that Miller doesn’t regularly attend church? I mean when I see people say they love his books but were disappointed by him sharing that he doesn’t often attend church . . . what the H . . . are you sure you read the books? 2. I always find it mildly entertaining when protestant people in denominations (or “non-denominations”) younger than me try to drop the authority of the church angle on people like Miller. Yeah that’s consistent.
Ok, just had to get that off my chest. Moving on.
Miller shared a lot of thoughts, many of which I agree with even if I don’t agree with his conclusion (although to be fair, he was only making that conclusion for himself). But one of the things that I think he left out, but I would think that he has experienced as I know I have, is that is church is hard as a single person – especially once you hit your late twenties.
Miller like myself lived his thirties as a single man. And I would say that a thirty something man is in the most awkward spot in all of the church.
Here’s the reality that evangelicals refuse to deal with. Single people (and especially single men) don’t go to church. This isn’t a new phenomenon by any stretch. At least in my lifetime all the research has always pointed to the fact that people in their twenties go to church less than any other group. What would happen essentially is that people would leave, but then when they got married, or at least when they had kids, they’d come back. Because the Church is the “family place“.
The problem is, that when you don’t have that family or even get married, you don’t come back. A funny thing is that whether you keep following Jesus or not, you get used to not going. The longer you’re out there, the less likely you are coming back.
When I was in my earlier twenties I never thought twice about it. Church was fine, everyone around me trusted my leadership as a young man and we all thought I just hadn’t met the one yet. But as I grew older, that view, both mine and others, changed.
What’s ironic is, in a lot of churches, including many led by the people attacking (lovingly challenging in their words) Miller, he would actually have been limited in what he could be a part of there. In many churches singles aren’t really allowed to lead. So we should go, God only works through his local church, we can’t have real community without it, but we shouldn’t have access to it all until we get married. Yeah that’s a good sell.
Add to this the stereotypes and messages that are sent to single men (men are bad, non committal, only care about sex, are more immature than women, is he gay, etc) and you’ve got a recipe for single men leaving the church.
Single men are the most watched, judged and ostracized people group in the evangelical congregation.
But this is where I want to circle back to what I said last week. For the sake of the body of Christ, we need to not run from the church. Whether they like it or not, the church needs it’s single brothers to hang in there. While understanding that the church will not change for us, perhaps we could impact the church for the men that come behind us.
Let me be totally honest with you. For seven years I rarely, and I mean rarely, attended Church. It wasn’t all because of the singleness issue, but it played a significant role. Like Miller, I had just as good of community then as I do now. I did stuff in the kingdom, even though I wasn’t “plugged in” to a church. So why did I come back? Why for the last eight years have I stayed?
For starters, I found a church that didn’t care as much that I was single (they do exist). For the most part, they treated me as an equal. But more than that I realized that there were bigger issues at play than my comfort level. It was for me, more about communion than community. In other words, while I can get community, teaching, and impact outside of the church, I can’t get communion and that particular connection to the larger body there. Secondly, I had a role to play. If I invested, eventually I could have impact, not only in how I was viewed but in how singles that come behind me will be viewed – and there are a lot of them coming. I will not abandon them.
Bottom line to this post as well as last week’s posts is this: If we all leave, it won’t change.
A few weeks ago, a reader asked me if I would write a post about anger at the Church and what to do with that so I thought I’d take a stab at it.
Let’s do two things by way of prologue.
Bitterness Is An Enemy and Not From God
I’ve written before about how as a single we can easily fall into the trap of bitterness. There are a lot of mad singles. I’ve been there. Believe me. There is an anguish. There can be a sense of entitlement. There is a sense of loss and we react to it. I’ve written before that we can be mad at God, mad at women, mad at other guys, and mad at ourselves. All of these are important things to consider and deal with. I believe that we are mostly mad at God. Really all of us at one time or another feel this. We can also be mad at The(a) Church which brings us to:
The Church in general and in particular within protestantism, has really messed this up.
I mean it’s not good. Where to begin? The don’t get it. And maybe worse, they don’t like it. We don’t honor or even teach about celibacy. We often don’t let singles into leadership. The church is in a defensive position on marriage, and is actually often unwittingly helping to hurt marriage in the process. The Church as a whole has created an idol out of marriage and family.
Rarely does a church address the singles in it’s midst (let alone the outside of it) and when it does, mostly what it does is tell us is what not to do, wait for the one, and then your questions of sexual prowess will magically be answered. Of course as a guy the church has told us it’s all our fault, and therefore we are all (men and women) set up to fail.
So basically most of the church’s answer to singleness is to offer spiritual platitudes, worry more that we might marry wrong that if we would marry at all, and never address any of the things that we go through – including have to walk into their doors all by ourselves. And that is just a brief warm up. So yeah, there is a lot to be mad about.
What Do We Do With It?
The real question isn’t are single people generally frustrated with the church. It’s not even should they be, because frankly they probably should be. The real question (and the one that the reader was wanting to know) is what do we do with it.
I think there are three choices really.
- Say screw the church and leave – if I get married think about coming back
- Go to church at least at some level, but not engage the battle. Maybe find a church that at least isn’t anti-single.
- Engage the church, forgive our leaders, earn the right to be heard, and then fight for what we know is right.
We all know option one is wrong, but it is an option. The problem here is that it hurts the church, and that really shouldn’t be our goal. Taking ourselves out of the equation won’t change the equation in our favor (or anyone else’s).
Option two is where a lot of people I know (and myself for a long time) seem to be at. It’s kind of a surrender really – this is just the way it is. That is easier in a lot of ways and I guess at least you are there.
But option three is where I think we need to be. So how do we do that? We need to do three things.
- Do our best to understand why it’s the way it is, and trust that most of it is not personal.
- Earn the right to have a voice.
- Exercise our voice in a way that can be heard.
Today, I want to tackle the first one and tomorrow I’ll write about the other two.
I’ve written a lot about this part before, but let’s sum up some thoughts that can help. We need to understand that the leaders of the church (most of the time) have the right heart, even if the wrong solutions. There are so many factors in play. Many in the church are looking around and watching the family fall apart. They see it and want to help. This is where all the family focus and effort comes into play. It’s why there are hundreds of Christian books on marriage and family. They are trying to rescue the family, which isn’t all bad. To their credit, I think these resources have helped a lot of families make it. That’s a good thing.
They also don’t want to see us hurt ourselves or others, which is why they constantly are worried about sex outside of marriage and all that goes with that. As I told an audience of singles at our church, the surest ways to get the pastor to stop talking about not having sex, would be if all of our singles would . . . stop having sex.
And finally as I’ve written about before, on a practical level most pastors and church leaders have never been single. They really don’t get it. It doesn’t mean they don’t care. They just literally don’t understand.
What knowing these things can do, if we can get past the bitterness, is allow us to forgive people for getting this wrong. I think we have to start there, because otherwise it’s just about us and that’s not enough. This whole thing is way bigger than just our own personal situation. It’s a real problem in the Church and we have a chance to help. More on that tomorrow.
One of the things that people used to ask me all the time about my “search” for a wife was something to the effect of, “Have you tried at Church? I mean there are all sorts of women there. Are you asking them out?”
What makes this an even better question in my case is that throughout my 30’s I attended a church of the hot chick. In other words I attended a church in which there were lots of single people, many of whom were attractive. In fact many people go there partly because of this. I mean what better place to meet someone than a 2000 person church where singles are actually welcomed right? Well sort of.
Here’s the thing about “Christian” dating – it’s never simple. It’s a huge disadvantage really.
For starters, it can be hard to figure out the approach etiquette at church. I mean the “talk to them in the lobby” thing has some value, but our lobby was small and the window to approach was short. But that is nothing compared to the mind games you have to play.
In the church as a guy, if you never approach anyone then you are obviously passive, and not a real Christian leader. But if you approach too many people you are “that guy”. And here’s the best part about that. There are two “that guys”. The one who approaches and gets shot down by everyone and the one who is successful in the approach but then decides he doesn’t want a second date (or third, or fourth, or doesn’t want to marry that girl). In a hurry you become either the creeper or the player. Welcome to dating in the church as a guy.
To top it off, you get to be called out by the pastor. “Men just need to man up and initiate.” As someone in a class I was teaching a couple of weeks ago said, “You need to ‘man up’. But only once.” Truth!
Here’s the reality. In our church culture, the church can be one of the least safe places to ask someone out.
Think about it. If I go to a bar, for example, I approach a girl, she says no, I move on. There’s a good chance she won’t be there in a week. Or I just go to a different bar if I want. Grocery store, book store, mall, your waitress, and certainly online – all way safer. Less blowback and less expectations. Heck the only thing more dangerous than church might be work. . . maybe.
There a lot of reasons for this. I won’t even try to cover them all, but here are a few (I’ll have more to say about some of these later).
It starts with the general idea in evangelical culture that women are basically innocent and men are basically lustful or immature. You don’t hear many sermons about it being time to woman up. There is not space in this post to get into this but think about it for any length of time and you see it.
In church the expectation is marriage. This isn’t all bad. It should be the ultimate goal of dating. But it shouldn’t be the goal of the first date. If a guy approaches a woman, she shouldn’t have to answer if she wants to marry him, just if she wants coffee. At the same time, for the love of all things, a few dates does not a marriage make. No other context creates this type of pressure.
If it goes bad, you still have to go to church there. In other words, I like my church. If I ask someone out, she’ll still be there next week. What if she says no? What if she says yes? What if we kiss and then break up? What if I then ask someone else out? No matter what happens this is both people’s place of worship.
It only takes one scorn woman to mess with your reputation. Choose wisely.
I know this much – I always hesitated to ask out anyone from church.
This needs to change. Here are a few quick thoughts on how.
First off we need to get in our heads that both men and women are good and bad. Men need more than the three categories of creeper, player, and perfect.
Second men and women need to show each other this grace thing we all talk so much about. I remember once I asked out this woman from church. She said yes, and then changed her mind to no. I was frustrated and we had a bit of a rough exchange. I then realized she was into someone else. I walked up to her the next Sunday and simply said, “Hey, are we good?” She said yes and you know what we were. Revolutionary I know.
Third and maybe most important. If the leaders of a church are going to tell men that they need to “man up”, then they better dang well have their back when they do. The male leadership of the church need to be able to stand up to women, not just stand up for them. I’ve been blessed to have seen this done well at my church several times. It’s huge. There’s a time to call out both the creeper and the player, but there is also time to stand up for the guy and tell the woman to let it go.
What about you? What would make the church a safer place to pursue women? What is your church’s culture of dating? Does it make you want to pursue or scare you off? How would you change it?