Let me just get this out there at the outset: For many, being single in the church can sometimes feel very awkward. I have heard a number of singles tell me stories that have made me cringe—stories of how the leadership and the marrieds in the church spoke or acted in ways that were silly at best and dishonoring at worst. Let’s all face it: Singles make up half of our churches, so we best learn to treat all people—married or single—equally.
In fact, the singles in our churches are quite significant, and are, in fact, integral to our mission.
Changing patterns of marriage and singleness
More and more, Americans are staying single by choice. A Pew Research Center study released in 2017 found that 42% American adults are living without a spouse or a partner. That number is up 3% since ten years ago in 2007, when it was 39%. The biggest change was adults under 35. Today, 61% of adults under 35 are single. That’s five points up compared to where it was a decade ago, at 56%. Singles make up a significant portion of our population.
Singles are not an accessory or an appendage in the life of the church.
Knowing that will shape how you engage them. Many married people tend to think of single people as incomplete married people – married people often assume singles will find somebody else, the two will be made one, and then they’ll be complete. The reality is that’s a very different view than the church has held historically and biblically.
Some examples from church history
If you go back over the centuries of the history of the church, it’s actually consistently single people who were thought of and looked to as some of the most influential Christian leaders. Many of the church fathers and men and women throughout history who’ve made a significant difference have been single.
For example, Florence Nightingale was one of the most influential women of her time. She is considered one of the pioneers of public health and the founder of modern nursing for her remarkable accomplishments as a nurse.
While working as a nurse for injured British soldiers, she became known as the “Lady with the Lamp” and the “Angel of Crimea” for her remarkable compassion. She felt called to her profession of nursing by her faith.
In her early life, Nightingale turned down the proposal of a wealthy, suitable suitor against her parents wishes. She lived her an entire life as a single woman and made astonishing accomplishments that saved many lives and notably changed the world. Nightingale was no accessory or appendage. She was not incomplete. She, a single woman, devoted her entire life to serving others in a Christ-like manner.
Or take Paul the Apostle. He was single, and in 1 Corinthians, he clearly laid out why he believed it was better for people to be single so that they could focus on the things of God. Many different practices stemmed from this passage. It is only recently that people have begun to swing the other way and value married people above singles in ministry.
I had a call not long ago from a pastor friend of mine who is single. He continues to find doors closed for ministries he’d be interested in because they want a married person. A millennium ago, they would have said they wanted a single person. While it’s good to value the roles married people can play in ministry, we should not do so at the expense of valuing singles’ vital contributions.
If it’s only recently that singles have become a less appreciated section of the church, one simple question presents itself: Why do so many married people think of single counterparts as unfinished?
Part of the reason is because of the family-centric model of ministry, a phenomenon of the last few centuries. I’m thankful for churches that minister to families. I’m thankful for churches that care about families. But the family-centric model of ministry leaves out some people that should not be left out.
Tomorrow I’ll discuss where we go from here.
Ed Stetzer holds the Billy Graham Distinguished Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College, serves as Dean of the School of Mission, Ministry, and Leadership at Wheaton College, is executive director of the Billy Graham Center, and publishes church leadership resources through Mission Group.