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Twelve of us sat around a table discussing how to bring single adults into our church. The thoughts they offered traveled familiar paths:
"We have to reach out to singles."
"Our purpose is not to provide a neighborhood dating service."
"We want to help them understand how the gospel intersects their lives."
"If we can meet their needs, the rest will take care of itself."
That evening, like many before, I found myself reflecting on single adults and how our church can minister to them-more specifically, how we can reach them for Christ and incorporate them into the church.
And minister we must, for we know the statistics: by the year 2000, 51 percent of our adult population will be without marriage partners. If the church is to reach out to the majority of adults in our country, we must find ways to minister to singles.
My exposure to singles ministry began when I created a fellowship group for young adults, married and single. Looking back, I see this ministry took primarily a front-door approach. That is, single adults were initially attracted to our congregation and from their participation in church became involved in young-adult ministries.
Consider Jane: she came to the church because she was already a committed Christian. She wanted to socialize with other singles but also desired to contribute to other church ministries. So she taught children's Sunday school, worked with mission outreach, and financially supported the church. Jane is a front-door entrant.
People who enter through the front door usually support the church's various ministries and become involved in ministries that go beyond single adults.
One problem with the front door, however, is that people who are not familiar with church culture may not feel comfortable becoming involved.
One young woman, an aerobics instructor, had tremendous charisma and energy and was popular with the singles group. However, she thought herself spiritually inferior to the other singles. She was discouraged about her lack of Bible knowledge, and guilt over previous relationships dogged her. She joined the church, but soon she drifted away. We never had a chance to see her gain confidence and blossom as a Christian.
Thus, our church also uses a side-door approach. We reach singles who don't feel secure in a church setting but do feel comfortable among other singles. These people are first touched by community-outreach programs, such as our divorce-recovery workshops or our support groups for abused women, people with eating disorders, or the chronically depressed.
A side-door approach intends first to meet human needs. It introduces people to a God and church who understand and care for them. Often it's others in the same plight who do the caring. In this approach, singles are first touched by the church in a safe and familiar environment. From there, they eventually flow into our singles activities and finally into the life of the church.
At First Presbyterian, 60 percent of our singles identify themselves with some church, either ours or another local church. The remaining 40 percent consider themselves unchurched. Typically these are people looking for healing from the traumas of divorce or death. They also may be divorced Christians unable to remain with their former congregations and looking for a safe place to rediscover Christ's love and forgiveness. People like these benefit from the side-door entrance.
This approach has a tremendous evangelistic advantage: it makes the church more effective at reaching people who've never known Christ or who haven't been to church in years.
For example, one woman left the church entirely following her divorce, because although her husband left her to marry another, her congregation had condemned her as strongly as it had her former husband. Though she had been absent from church for several years, she heard about our divorce recovery workshop. She attended and then began to come to one of our singles classes. Six months later, she recommitted herself to Christ and joined the church.
The side-door approach tries to help singles feel comfortable in the church by letting them grow spiritually with others who share similar needs and lifestyles.
One man came to one of our singles classes simply to find a mate. Although a self-confessed atheist, he attended the class for more than six months and even went on a short-term missions project. Eventually at one of our retreats, he turned his life over to Jesus. Without the singles group-a group that shared his lifestyle and many of his concerns-he never would have entered our church. Love and acceptance from the other singles, however, made him receptive to the gospel.
But the side-door approach is subject to disadvantages as well, such as rapid turnover. Many, like the man above, come to a singles group hoping to find a spouse. Once the wedding bells ring, they leave the church, having achieved their goal. They believe that a love relationship will meet all their needs. Unfortunately, they may depart fulfilled emotionally, but they remain spiritually needy.
One couple, after marrying and being away for a year, realized this and came back. Their life away from the church was inferior to their experience when they were involved. They, fortunately, weren't among those who come in through the side door and never find the main entrance to church life.
But whatever the reason for the turnover, it's frustrating to take time to bring people in the side door only to have them walk away.
A side-door ministry holds other disadvantages, such as people who don't agree with the spiritual agenda of the church and constantly raise issues they disagree with. And any singles ministry successful at reaching out will inevitably attract some participants interested only in sexual encounter.
The best strategy, of course, is to use both doors to minister to single adults and eventually bring them into active partnership with the congregation. This is what we try to do at First Presbyterian.
To do so, we had to wrestle with a basic question: Are we focusing on inreach or outreach? In other words, are we primarily seeking to meet the needs of members, or will we also focus on meeting the needs of singles in the community?
Several years ago, for example, First Presbyterian attempted to create an inwardly focused singles ministry. Planned to be spiritually deeper than our existing program, the group emphasized discipleship and in-depth Bible study, while cutting social activities to only one per month. They focused on teaching, whereas other groups spent more energy on outreach and relationships.
Many initially came to this group, feeling their spiritual needs weren't being met by activities they considered "too shallow." The new group took off splendidly and sustained itself for more than a year.
Then, two things happened. First, many members of the class became engaged to one another and married. Each wedding spelled the loss of two people. Second, we lost participants as local employers transferred some workers and laid off others, who then had to move to find new employment. The group, because of its inward focus, failed to attract new people to replace departing members.
After three years, the class had shrunk to a quarter of its original size. Certainly new people came to join the class, but not enough of them to match our attrition. The ministry was simply too inwardly focused to be appealing to many single adults.
This isn't uncommon. As a rule of thumb, singles ministries experience a 50 percent turnover every six months. Front-door and inward-focus ministries may experience a lower turnover, but they also attract fewer people and thus stagger more with every loss.
An outward-focus ministry emphasizes attracting new members and meeting their needs. It asks, What are the needs of people outside these walls, and how can we meet these needs? Outward-focus ministry finds a way to touch the community-at-large and bring people into the church.
We recently started a new outward-focus group for single adults. For months prior to the startup, we met with potential leaders to brainstorm and identify the needs of unchurched singles in their 20s and 30s. To accurately distinguish the needs of our churched singles from those of our target people, we asked four basic questions:
What are the perceived needs of our present members, and how do we meet them?
We discerned that our singles wanted friendship, acceptance, a sense of community within a shared (single) lifestyle, spiritual renewal, the opportunity to use spiritual gifts, "ownership" of the singles ministry, a setting for recreation, and the opportunity to participate in missions work.
What else would a ministry to meet those needs seek to accomplish?
We determined we wanted to fashion people who could be transparent about their faith and their struggles, who could understand the significance of the gospel and yet be playful at heart, who would desire to give rather than just receive, and who would become involved in the larger church.
What are the additional needs of singles in the community?
We discerned that the singles outside our walls needed all that our church singles needed and more: to be accepted even if not a Christian, to hear answers to questions a non-Christian asks, to enjoy friendships in a non-churchy setting, to feel valued, and to learn how to handle a variety of singles issues.
What additional ministries must be created to meet these needs of secularized singles?
We came up with ideas like mountain biking, where the emphasis was not on meeting people but on enjoying an event with other people. We also worked monthly with Habitat for Humanity to rehab a house, which allowed side-door singles to socialize informally as they contributed something to others. We offered small groups that dealt with issues of concern to singles: social trends, job satisfaction, singles in the workplace.
The similarities and dissimilarities between the singles in our church and in our community helped us define ministries to meet both sets of needs. Our front-door ministries approached people with the message: "Get involved in the life of the church; help meet our needs, and that will meet yours."
Our side-door ministries say, "Tell us your needs, and we'll try to meet them. And as they are met, you'll want to consider what else could benefit you in your relationship with Jesus Christ and his church."
After the various needs of both side- and front-door singles are addressed, the church can then focus on the next concern: getting side-door singles committed to Christ and integrated into church life. Only when we do that have we ministered to them fully-and effectively-for the long term.
In our ministry we want singles to learn three fundamental practices:
1. How to love the Lord with all their heart, soul, and mind.
2. How to bear one another's burdens.
3. How to be disciples of Jesus Christ.
Singles coming through a side door often practice the second-especially if they've come to a support group. But we are intentional about making sure they also learn the first and third practices as well. We help them realize how becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ is important-and even in their best interest.
Our group attracts many side-door people through divorce-recovery workshops publicized in the newspaper. Many of these people feel overwhelmed with burdens and devastated spiritually and emotionally when they come to us. Our workshops tell them God accepts them, and it provides ways for them to process recovery. We also communicate that our church community will help them over the long haul.
Though it may take a year or so, many workshop alumni eventually straggle into our single-adult activities-and for a variety of reasons. One such man, Jim, said, "I choose to become active to give something back to the community that gave so much to me."
No matter why they become involved in the singles group, we try to broaden their involvement in the entire church.
I like to think of a church as a home. I wouldn't invite friends to my home, show them the game room, and then leave them there. Instead, I would open other doors and show them the whole house, inviting them to make themselves at home.
We want our singles to become especially at home in the sanctuary, where our family gathers for worship. It's not easy to convince singles to enter that room, because many of them feel ill at ease there. Worship becomes attractive to single adults, however, when they see others benefiting from it.
So, when the Sunday morning singles class concludes, we make a point of inviting singles to our worship service. And what's more, we accompany them to the service and sit with them. In addition, our preachers take care to avoid sermon illustrations that assume everyone lives in a nuclear family.
Nonetheless, I've learned the need for patience. I simply cannot expect unchurched singles, coming with a collection of motives, to become connected readily with even the singles ministry, let alone the institutional church. It usually takes one to two years before singles are ready to join the church.
To incorporate a number of outside singles, we've worked to create a ministry of many doors-front and side. The doors are determined by the needs of the singles, themselves. We then create the ministries to meet those needs, such as retreats that focus on issues like loneliness or dating. Co-dependency and twelve-step programs are also attracting many singles.
No church can meet every need of singles. But any one singles ministry doesn't have to. What every singles ministry does need to consider, however, is opening as many side doors as possible.
And churches across the country are doing just that, providing single-adult Sunday school classes that address spiritual needs, divorce-recovery workshops to help heal broken lives, small-group book and Bible studies, and small groups focusing on grief, job transition, and abuse. Single-parent ministries help people rear a family when half the parental team is absent. Some churches offer workshops dealing with dysfunctional behaviors. Other ministries find creative ways to meet recreational and social needs.
And all the while, churches are inviting singles through the front door to worship, Sunday school, and intergenerational events.
In short, effective singles ministry uses a variety of doors to invite single men and women to meet and know the One who stands at their personal door and knocks, seeking entrance into their lives.
Copyright © 1991 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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