Like most children and young people, I dreamed of the day I would marry and have children. I nurtured my dolls, rocked them, sang to them, and wondered what it would be like to find the godly man my daddy had been talking to me about — the one he had to approve before we dated.
Through junior high and high school, some of my best friends were boys. I had my share of crushes and responded to several “I like you” notes, but I was pragmatic about dating. I believed that God wanted to use me in ministry somewhere, somehow, and I knew that anyone I dated would need to be of the same mind. I was headed for college. I had plans. I wanted to talk about more than superficial issues, and perhaps I critiqued young men too harshly.
In my later high school and college years, I went on several dates with godly young men, wrote many letters, and developed some beautiful, wholesome friendships that last to this day. But nothing “clicked.” I never found the right person. I began to dread the inevitable questions: “Are you dating? Seeing anyone?” They were well-intentioned, but the implication was that if I answered “no,” something was wrong with me. I began to hide behind excuses like “timing” or “future plans.”
A Path of Surrender
Why did I feel inferior because I wasn’t in a relationship? Wasn’t I valuable just because of who I was? Couldn’t people appreciate me just for me? Or was it necessary for my name to be coupled with another? Would I be one of “those single people”? One of those women who never have children? I didn’t want that, but neither did I want to settle for someone with whom I was not compatible, someone I couldn’t respect, someone who didn’t “get” me, or, most of all, someone who did not have God’s blessing.
In the intervening years, I have walked a path of surrender to the trustworthiness of a God who knows me perfectly and who gives me what is good for me — even if it doesn’t feel good at the time. I’ve developed a relationship with Jesus that is now as natural to me as breathing. The depth of this walk with Christ can be attributed somewhat to necessity, even desperation. When no spouse is present, it becomes easier to allow Christ to fill that void. I’ve become completely honest with Him, frank even, at times reminding Him of my spouseless-ness and watching Him make up the difference in beautiful ways.
Is there still a longing for human intimacy? Of course. We were made for intimacy, to choose and to be chosen, and to share the deepest and most vulnerable parts of ourselves with another human being. So there are times of grief for the lack, and I’ve learned to grieve honestly, to acknowledge it as normal and healthy, to surrender it again and again, and not allow its waves to overwhelm me. Lest you think the picture is bleak, let me assure you that with surrender also comes joy. Purposeful contentment and gratitude is the most fulfilling way to live, and when I choose to rest in the goodness and wisdom of my Heavenly Father, and live in wilful gratitude of His provision, contentment becomes a precious reality.
I am not representative of every single out there. Each individual is different. No one wants to be judged through a one-size-fits-all lens. But I do believe my experience is a common one and that the church can do more to include and normalize singleness in the body of Christ. I also believe that single individuals bear some of the responsibility in becoming healthy, functioning members of Christ’s body here on earth.
An Opportunity for Change
Scripture is rich with examples of singles who impacted the Kingdom. Christ Himself was single and lived a life that forever altered history. Anna ministered in the temple for years after the death of her husband and was one of the first to recognize the Messiah (Luke 2:36-38). Paul the Apostle wished the Corinthians to be as he was, as he says in 1 Corinthians 7:6-7, “Now as a concession, not a command, I say this. I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another.”
History has shown us what happens when singles live fully surrendered lives. Gladys Aylward ministered in China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, cared for orphans, helped to bring about prison reform, assisted in ending the practice of footbinding, and brought many to Christ. Amy Carmichael rescued children from temple service in India, founded an orphanage in Dohnavur, and was a prolific writer whose books and poems have impacted lives around the world. Dr. Helen Roseveare took her medical skills to the Congo, survived imprisonment and torture during a civil war, and founded hospitals, medical training centers, and a leprosy treatment center. Lilian Trasher walked away from a fiance to follow God to Egypt where she founded its first orphanage which still operates today. Amanda Berry Smith (who heard God’s call after the deaths of two husbands) traveled as an evangelist, spent time as a missionary in Liberia, and founded an orphanage for African American children in Illinois. These are just a few of the many singles who dedicated themselves to follow wherever God led and turned their worlds upside down for Christ.
Since God uses all people — single or married — who unreservedly bow to His Lordship, why do so many singles feel alone in the church? Why do they feel awkward, like they don’t fit in? Why do so many get the idea that they are seen, “as a problem to solve or a lesser citizen,” to quote Colleen Chao, “instead of an example to emulate and an integral part of the community.” In her experience, “there was this underlying tone in many people’s comments to me — an unintentional message that I was not as ‘complete’ or mature as my married and mommied friends.”
How can the body of Christ — that unmarried God-Man who changed the course of history — more effectively minister to those who are walking alone?
Chao is not alone. In my conversations with single friends, this is a common theme. Many singles feel like the church has not provided a space in which they feel safe and valued. If it is true, as the Barna group states, that only around one quarter (23%) of active churchgoers are single but (according to 2018 numbers from the US Census Bureau) over half of Americans (15 years or older) are currently unmarried, then we have a problem. Where are the singles in our churches? Perhaps the church is just extra good at matchmaking! My guess is that it’s more than that. How can the church open its arms to over half of the population that desperately needs a spiritual home? How can the body of Christ — that unmarried God-Man who changed the course of history — more effectively minister to those who are walking alone?
What Can the Church Do?
How can you bless the singles in your congregation and create an environment in which new singles can thrive and find a home? While I don’t have the final answer, I can offer a few thoughts gleaned from life and study.
- Get to know singles and refuse to relegate them to a label. When you know someone personally, it’s not as easy to make assumptions about them on the basis of whatever group they may belong to. Everyone is different, whether married or unmarried. It is dangerous to assume something on the basis of labels. I can hardly bear it when someone gets that look of pity in their eye when they find out I’m single. Would I like to be married someday? Sure! Am I happy now? Absolutely! Not everyone who is single is happily so, but some are fine — even joyful in their singleness. Some of us are rejoicing and resting in God’s timing and provision. Singles don’t need your pity. They need you to get to know them as a person, apart from the label. In this way, you will know how to minister to their individual needs instead of approaching them with a mountain of preconceived ideas.
- Validate them. Celebrate single individuals for who they are. We all have gifts that we bring to the table. Find out theirs. If they’re struggling with their worth, help them find their innate value in who they are in Christ — married or single. Don’t make finding them a spouse the major focus of your relationship with them. There may be times when it is appropriate to introduce them to someone with whom they may be compatible. But don’t make that the driving force of every conversation. Don’t forget, the reasons singles remain unmarried are as many and as varied as there are singles! Be careful about making unhealthy and unhelpful speculations. Singles aren’t a project to be fixed. Rather, they should be encouraged to experience the riches of Christ to their fullest extent — to become the man or woman God has created them to be and to allow their singleness to drive them closer to the heart of the God who loves them perfectly as they are.
- Include them. You need singles in your church. Singles bring a richness of skills, perspectives, and life experiences into the group. They have truth to speak that needs to be heard. I’m not necessarily “anti” singles groups, but I’ve seen some that appear to be just somewhere to put the people who didn’t fit in anywhere else — or possibly one more way to match up those poor unmarried souls. Think about this when you are creating Sunday School classes, church activities, and so on. Series on child-rearing and marriage are important and necessary, but if we build year-round Sunday School classes and other similar groups solely around these themes, we lose beautiful fellowship that can happen between singles and others of their own age. Do you have children? Your children could benefit from some single “aunts” and “uncles” who have love and wisdom to give. Make them part of your family’s life. (Obviously, vetting is important before you allow anyone access to your children. Be wise!) Ask their opinion. Just because someone hasn’t been a parent or a spouse doesn’t necessarily mean they know nothing about relationships and/or children. Are you going to a church gathering? Why not invite a single friend to ride along? Showing up alone can be hard depending on the circumstances. Remember them at holidays, especially if they aren’t near family. It doesn’t take much to add another plate to your table. Pastors, address topics that apply to your single members every once in a while, but work them in naturally so that it doesn’t become an awkward hat tip. As you begin to think of singles as a normal part of your congregation, you will likely become more adept at including truths that will better feed your congregation as a whole. Use qualified singles (both men and women) to fill positions in your church. Godly singles can be wonderful role models to young and old alike.
There are many more things that could be said. Many churches are family-centric by their very nature. That’s not necessarily all bad, but don’t forget to make room for others! Bottom line: treat singles as innately valuable, uniquely individual, contributing members to your fellowship. Utilize their skills. Learn from their wisdom. Your church (married and single alike) will be better for it.
What Can Singles Do?
It would be unwise of me to close without a word to fellow singles. It is not simply the church’s job to make a niche for us. There are many things we can do to be contributing members to the body of Christ. Allow me to list a few.
- Invest in relationships. We were made to exist in community. God Himself exists in perfect trinitarian unity. As the scholar John R. W. Stott (single all of his 90 years) said in an interview with Al Hsu, “God created us as social beings…when [God] made us in his own image, he gave us the capacity to love and be loved. So we need each other. Yet marriage and family are not the only antidotes to loneliness.” We need each other. Indeed we do. And attempts to be a Lone Ranger will backfire. Broaden your circle. Reach out to other singles, to the elderly, to those you see are lonely. Reach out to couples and families. Be that “aunt” or “uncle” to the children of your congregation, but make sure to do so appropriately and with parents’ approval. No one needs another creepy uncle or auntie. You should obviously maintain healthy boundaries and know your limitations, but sometimes it’s important to say “yes” to invitations outside your comfort zone. You may need the interaction! Be purposeful about investing in people and relationships.
- Speak up! People aren’t mind readers, and they don’t know what you need until you say so. Talk to your pastor or a safe church member. Refuse to hide away and become bitter and angry when people don’t come running every time you need something. Do you need help? Ask for it. Most people are willing if they know what you need.
- Get involved. I don’t know a church in existence that can’t use more help with something. Having trouble getting to know people? Volunteer! It will introduce you to others who help, and helpers are pretty amazing people. Reject the notion that you are too good for some jobs. You aren’t. Find a place that needs filling and fill it! (A tip for married people: please remember that just because someone is single, it doesn’t mean they aren’t busy. Try not to make assumptions when asking them to volunteer.)
- Practice purposeful contentment. No one can make you content. No church program, relationship, heart’s desire, or anything else can bring the peace of soul that only comes from choosing contentment in whatever situation you find yourself (Phil. 4:11). It is only as we partner with the Holy Spirit and find our worth in Christ that we will come to know the joy and fulfillment that result from a life in the Spirit. It is as we live with purposeful gratitude that we will begin to truly comprehend that our God daily lavishes us with good things. Will there be days of grief and disappointment? Sure. Will there be pain? Likely. Will we still grieve our singleness? Some of us will. But in all of it, we will also find that nothing is wasted. Nothing. We will see the faithful hand of our Heavenly Father fashioning us into the image of His Son, His unmarried Son, the One who felt all we feel, who knows exactly where we are, the One who is even now our faithful High Priest, sitting at the right hand of the Father praying for us. There is reason for contentment. There is reason for joy.
Singles are a blessing to the church and a gift to the kingdom. I am calling on the church to view them as such — to value their unique gifts and utilize their callings. The same Barna study cited earlier found that
the majority of singles who are not active in or committed to a church are searching for meaning and purpose in life (55%). These single Americans say they have emotional pain or frustration they would like to resolve (50%) and that something feels missing from their life (45%). There is a real sense of awareness that they have a spiritual vacuum needing and waiting to be filled.
The church has the answers these singles are looking for. May God help us to create a place where they feel at home, can seek and find the answers their hearts long for, and are valued simply because of Whose image they bear.
Throughout her history, the church has proclaimed the glorious “whosoever” of the gospel through both single and married men and women whose lives have been changed by this good news. Our task is great! Every part of the body is vital for full functionality (1 Cor. 12). Variety isn’t just nice; it’s necessary. We desperately need each other — single and married alike. We have a mandate to work as one with our Head in His great redemptive purpose. The world is waiting. Join me!