According to recent Pew data, the number of married Americans is at its lowest point since at least 1920. In 2015, only half of Americans ages 18 and over were married, compared with 72 percent in 1960. Put another way: Singles are on the rise and beginning to outnumber marrieds. The church, however, doesn’t reflect those numbers. According to a recent Barna study, while more than half of Americans (54%) between the ages of 18 and 49 are single, only 23 percent of active churchgoers are single. “Your church should be filling up at least half of your pews with single people,” writes Joyce Chiu for Barna Trends. “So what will get them there?”
In my recent book, One by One: Welcoming the Singles in Your Church, I share my own experiences as well as those of many other single Christians with whom I’ve talked over the past several years. What emerges is a portrait of an evangelical church that is still firmly family-centered even while the demographics within it have shifted. Single people make up more and more of the church body, which means forward-looking local churches benefit from understanding us and incorporating us meaningfully into community life. Although single and married believers are in the same boat together—we’re all at church to worship and serve God—nonetheless singles have unique needs. We want to be visible; we want to belong. We also have unique contributions to make in advancing Christ’s kingdom.
So how can your local church create a welcoming space for singles?
Recognize that single people’s needs may look different from yours.
When a single person talks about feeling lonely, it’s common for a married person to counter that he or she often feels lonely, too. That’s not surprising. Studies show that up to half of us experience loneliness “at least some of the time.” However, studies also show that singles are more likely than married people to feel lonely. Furthermore, singles often experience a qualitatively different kind of loneliness that includes physical as well as emotional isolation. So when we reach out to you for support, be willing to listen to our stories, take us seriously, and acknowledge our feelings.
If you have the capacity, draw us into your family life, too. Micha Boyett, author of Found, invited a single friend named Leigh to live with her family for an extended period of time. The arrangement gave both women a chance to learn something about each other’s lives. “Single people can feel invisible in the place they most need to be seen,” Boyett writes. “Leigh has helped me see that more clearly.” Although most families aren’t in a place to house someone, nonetheless you can invite single people to hang out with you at home, participate in family activities, and enjoy the occasional meal. All of us, single and married alike, can learn something from putting aside our preconceptions and simply being in community with one another.
Recognize our disadvantages.
Those of us who are single often find ourselves “outside the system” of family-focused churches and face the awkward, abashed silence that ensues when we say we don’t have spouses or kids. We often end up sitting alone in the service week after week. We sometimes get overlooked when people are getting together socially. As one single man told me, “There are no invitations to lunch after church or other social gatherings, mainly because I don’t really ‘fit in.’” And we’re often treated like wayward, overgrown adolescents, herded off to “young adult” groups well into our 30s and 40s because no one knows what else to do with us. In short, we’re routinely ostracized for lacking something that many of us very much wish we had.
With that in mind, start rethinking how you look at fellow parishioners. A church isn’t made up of family units and spare parts—it’s made up of people, all of them made in God’s image and worthy of fellowship. As one single woman told me, “I wish there was greater understanding that we are not ‘strange.’” Or as Lisa Anderson put it in her book, The Dating Manifesto, “Single isn’t synonymous with alien.”
Serve singles, and recognize that singles often serve without reciprocation.
The author of the Book of James encourages Christians to “look after orphans and widows” (James 1:27). Although contemporary single women (divorcees, never-marrieds, and widows) don’t face the same travails as first-century widows, nonetheless many of us experience significant financial instability, vocational disruption, and other notable challenges. In that sense, we need the church to come alongside us in a similar spirit.
Even minor things matter. One woman I interviewed told me that she didn’t mind caring for children in the church nursery, but sometimes she wished some of those parents would reciprocate by helping her with household repairs or offering other assistance. Other singles lament the time and money they spend on weddings and baby showers without anyone spending time and money on them.
Of course, singles are called to serve the church simply because it honors God and others. Nonetheless when the service tends to flow in the same direction, one demographic is being underserved—and possibly on the verge of serious discouragement and burnout. With that in mind, take time to serve singles, recognize their service to you, and celebrate their accomplishments, too—like when the choir at my former church celebrated a single member after she got her PhD.
Finally, recognize your calling to community.
Some of my closest friends over the years have been married Christians who recognized what we had in common—people who made time for me, listened to me, and found ways to incorporate me into their lives. And sometimes, I’ve been able to be there for them, too, when marriages fell apart or illness struck or something else went wrong. It’s not always the single people who are in need. Sometimes the married people need us, too.
As Paul writes, “If one member [of the body] suffers, all the members suffer with it; or if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it” (1 Cor. 12:26, NKJV). In other words, your calling as a member of the body is to recognize those who suffer, empathize with them, and make sure they have what they need to be fully functioning members. Similarly, their calling is to do the same for you. In doing so, we honor not just those around us—we also honor Christ, to whom we all belong.