It was the late 1970s. John Travolta was taking the dance floor, and the church in America had a problem. How would it deal with the increasing number of single adults created by a growing divorce rate, career minded professionals placing work before settling down, and others delaying or never agreeing to the confines of marriage? It was a brave new world. Being single was in!
This zeitgeist, coupled with the attrition of the unmarried demographic from their pews, caused Christian leaders to mobilize. There was a new target for ministry professionals: singles. The race for success in reaching them was on, and by the late 1980s singles ministries had become a staple at many churches.
Almost 25 years later, much has changed. "Single" is not a term people normally choose to describe themselves. Being single, while accepted among those in their twenties, is often seen as something of a stigma after passing a certain "acceptable" age. In America that age is around 30 years old.
You almost never see a 20-something "singles ministry." Instead, 20-somethings congregate in groups with more relationally non-descript titles like New Beginnings or Careers, and the groups include both single and married.
But ministries for singles over 30 are harder to find.
The last 25 years have seen the church alter the way it relates to and reaches singles. The fervor to target singles directly is no longer front and center. On the contrary, ministry to singles is seen as a burden to many churches. What started out as a brilliant success has disintegrated into the realms of an epic fail.
Singles ministry proved to be harder than the original pioneers expected. It took too much time, too many resources, and produced too few sustainable results. We are now living in the post-singles ministry era.
Before writing this article, I contacted 16 churches about their singles ministries. Many of these churches you would know. I was looking for a thriving singles ministry.
A few of those I spoke with recounted the glory days of their ministries, days when 300-500 singles packed their facilities. While some of these churches still had a singles ministry, no longer did any have a full-time person focused on singles. Most were now only running a skeletal version of their once full-bodied singles ministries.
Also sobering was the fact that none of these successful churches had been able to sustain a singles ministry for more than three years. I discovered a cyclical pattern of failure and restart. Groups had either been recently launched, shut down, or were in the process of regrouping for another re-launch.
In the end, singles ministry had proven to be unsustainable for all of these churches, even though there was still an often-vocal single contingent clamoring for a ministry they could call their own.
The question became: what's the appropriate amount of resources the church should devote toward singles ministry?
A Better Model
In 2005 I was hired by San Diego's North Coast Calvary Chapel to be the 30-somethings pastor. Not wanting to be a singles pastor, from previous exposure, I posited that we instead explore ministering to 30- and 40-something adults in an integrated construct of marrieds and singles. It would be age-appropriate for "second stage adults," but not defined by marital status. We are now finishing our sixth year of ministry in this context. It would take another article to tell the positive effects of this decision, but my conclusion is, it works.