Ministry To Singles Vs. Singles Groups

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?

The Church Needs Single Men To Stay

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.