On an ordinary Tuesday last spring, the Dean of Student Life at an evangelical Christian college in the Midwest said to me, her graduate assistant, "Marcy, the evangelical culture of our campus does a lot to prepare its students for the inevitability of marriage, but we do little to set them up for singleness. We need to do better. You should be the one to speak with them," she decided, "and the title of your talk should be, 'Single by Choice.'"
She was a provocative one, this dean, with sharp instincts. Her title's declaration posed an ultimatum: to reconsider the assumptions about singleness and marriage passed down to us by the lore of our Christian campus, and an ultimatum to me as a representative of the most recent generation of young adults, most of whom, according to U.S. census data, will not marry until we're at least 27. A full one-fifth of us will never marry at all.
There are several reasons for this trend toward prolonged singleness. Sociologists such as Robert Wuthnow and Christian Smith point to a changing job market that requires extended years of education beyond a traditional, four-year bachelor's degree. Many young adults devote their post-college years to volunteer or low-paid service. Few careers available in one's early 20s come vested with the 9-to-5 sturdiness that used to turn one's thoughts to starting a family.
In this climate of enterprise and ambition, few young adults experience singleness as a condition worthy of their attention or concern. When I asked my 28-year-old friend why he never came to any of our church-sponsored events for singles, he replied that he didn't know he was supposed to. In fact, though the church I attend is nestled in a college town and lists over 120 single adults in its directory of 500 members, its singles ministry has folded for lack of interest. Singleness, it seems, is not so much the harbinger of identity for these young adults as it is the default set of tracks for the train of their young adult years.
Yet what changes in the experience of these young adults when they reach their early 30s and are still single? How do they activate their desire to grow up—to commit themselves in love to a person, a place, and a plot—without a wedding planner to script this transformation and a ceremony to declare it? How do they get their community to see them as grownups without a rite of passage akin to marriage? Who are they as adults, if they tarry on as singles—laden with time, money, and experience, but in limbo and alone?
This is the question my supervisor was essentially posing to me, a 35-year-old woman, transitioning from the unmeditated singleness of my 20s to the long-term investment impulses of my 30s. I mulled over her question for six months or more. In an evangelical culture that has tended to view marriage and family as the normative template of adulthood, how would I conceive of my identity as a single?
The answer that has come to hold the most shape for me resides in the purposed way of life evoked by celibacy. I'm not endorsing here a wholesale return to traditional lifelong religious orders, but I think it's time to ask, "Why not?"
Why not call for a vowed, vocational commitment to the church? What would change in our culture of singleness if the church were to reclaim a tradition that reinvokes the memory that we live in the time between the gospel's first announcement and its final fulfillment—a time in which marriage is celebrated, but celibacy is held out as a radical sign of fidelity to Christ and his body?