Singled out

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What Mennonite Brethren have to say about being single in the church

“Are you trying to seduce my husband?”
“Are you gay?” 
“What’s wrong with you?”

 These are the messages many single adults in our churches are hearing, leaving them feeling singled out.

There are millions of single adults across America today whose lives can and should be touched by God. I preach to some of them occasionally; I work with them in leadership situations in the church regularly; I interact with them socially far too seldom. 

But when I listen to single adults tell their stories and talk about their values, feelings, hopes and desires, I learn a lot about them. I am confronted with the reality that those of us in the married world have a ways to go when it comes to entering the single world and clearly and fully understanding single adults.

I focused my research for this article by posing questions to a focus group of single adults from four different locations. Eighty-six percent of those who were given the survey responded; that says something about how strongly this segment of our population feels about this.

Those who responded come from a variety of walks of life. Some are single adults who have never been married; some are divorced; some are single parents; some are widows. The respondents communicated with passion and conviction, often with emotion, sometimes with hurt or anger.

The remainder of this article consists of the questions posed in the survey and the responses I received. Rather than summarize the responses, I will let these men and women speak for themselves. I close by offering five action steps based on the comments and my observations.

1. What myths do people have about single adults?

Singles are unhappy with being single and want/need to be married. If we aren’t engaged or married by the age of 22, we won’t find anyone.
Singleness is not a gift from God.
We have to marry to be fulfilled.
Those who have never been married are better off financially.
Church singles groups are for finding your spouse.
Singles should have more time to offer the church.
Single adults are somehow dysfunctional and can’t make relationships work.
Single adults are irresponsible, uncommitted, untrustworthy and unstable.
There is something wrong with a person who is single.
Single women are domineering, have wrong values (other than marriage and children) and/or are selfish.
Single adults are too focused on work.
Often when we view those who are different than us, we develop caricatures that are inaccurate, unfair and hinder our ability to relate to them effectively. These myths suggest that some married adults may spend more time talking about single adults than talking with them.

2. Are there things that the church typically says or does that deemphasize the value and importance of single adults?

 Most sermon illustrations refer to husbands, wives or children, which makes me feel like they are most important in the church.
My church does a good job of valuing singles/divorced adults. Our pastor often finds a way to specifically relate his sermons to the single life.
The majority of church programs, terminology and mottoes are directed at families and children.
Married women don’t appear to want to have meaningful relationships with single mothers.
We (single adults) aren’t discussed or used as the example of good service.
An event may be advertised for everyone, but there’s still a part of me inside that wonders, will I get that “what’s-he-doing-here?” look. 
Some churches isolate the single adult by having ministries that focus on married couples and families, without regard for the single mother or unmarried professional.
When an event came up for a Sunday school class, “couples” were asked to sign up.
A sermon series…on marriage for four weeks.
The church plays a strategic role in equipping couples and parents for their responsibilities in the home and there are a variety of settings where this can happen, sermons included. The disparity comes when the focus of church programs and activities and sermon topics and applications ignores the needs and feelings of single adults.

3. What are the most important things the church can do to minister to you as a single adult? Would you enjoy more opportunities to connect with married adults? 

 I want my voice to be taken seriously even though I don’t have a spouse or a large joint income to speak for me.
When I was part of a mixed small group I enjoyed the viewpoints of the female members. It was a chance to associate in a comfortable setting. I don’t often get the opportunity to chat with women about serious issues.
I would enjoy more opportunities to connect with married adults. My daughters need positive male role models in their lives.
Phone calls and invitations for a meal or other activity. Phone calls are mostly about church ministry areas rather than showing interest in me as a person.
After my husband passed away, one of our couple-friends always saved me a place to sit with them and that meant a lot. I didn’t feel as lost or displaced.
Pastors should be more involved with the singles ministry whether it is simply appearing at a social event or speaking at a Bible study on the unique issues we face as single Christians.
I need to visit with others about the problems and concerns that I face daily. My Sunday school class is there, but they don’t understand what it is like.
I would love to see ministry within the church that recognizes the needs of single women, in particular. Single women generally don’t make as much money and are usually the primary caregivers for children. The single woman may need a babysitter and have no family around or finances to commit to such a luxury. Perhaps her car is in need of repair, or her residence is substandard. I remember feeling like a fifth wheel in many social situations after my husband died.
Things like someone to volunteer a day to help with home repairs or lawn care. I also enjoyed the Sunday lunches that were provided for single parents.
I don’t want to connect with most married adults. If they have kids, that’s all they talk about.
Remind us, as Christ would, that we are loved. We need our friends to cover us in prayer, not withdraw from us when we are at our lowest point.

What ministers to one single adult may not be helpful to another. Planning ministries/activities with rather than for single adults may be more successful.

4. Are there any leadership roles that appear “off-limits” to single adults? Do you feel that the church provides adequate opportunity for you to serve in ministry?

I don’t think any one part of it seems off-limits.
I have plenty of opportunities to serve.
I’ve served in several ministries without feeling any pressure.
My church offers plenty of opportunity to serve.
Typically, elder positions seem off-limits, but I find no lack of places to serve especially when Christ calls it to be.
Most staff positions come across as being off-limits.
My church is very open to everyone who wants to serve.

This question seems to be the least controversial and is one where the church “scores” the best. 

5. What are the most awkward things that people have said to you as a single adult?

There have been long awkward silences when people discover that I am divorced.
I was real mad when someone in a church meeting wanted to remove a minimal amount from the budget for young adult ministries.
“If only you had more faith in God, he could have saved your marriage.”
“Maybe you should start going to another church so you can find that special someone.”
“I understand what you’re going through,” when, in fact, they don’t have a clue. Don’t patronize me!
“Everyone has to die sometime.”
“Why aren’t you married yet?”
“Why don’t you date so-and-so? He’s a nice guy.”
“You shouldn’t be so picky.” I truly hate this one. My single status is an example of what happens when you aren’t so picky.
“Don’t you miss sex?” Thanks a lot! That has not been on my mind until just now. Lord, help me through this again.
“Are you gay?”
“I’m afraid you might try to make a move on my husband.”
Several invitations to dinner where they were trying to match me up with someone else.
Someone scolded me for being selfish—the reason I was single.
Some people asked me about the status of a single guy in church. I think they were hoping to play matchmaker. That was awkward.

This question receives the most volatile responses. The feelings and emotions are so raw and painful that I had to take a break while reading them. Whether intentional or not, those of us in the married world receive a low score on this one. Comments like these (and many were repeated more than once) do not honor God or the people who are so valued by him. 

6. What are some of the biggest struggles that single adults face? 

Raising a teenage daughter alone is draining. There is no one there to visit with about it.
Raising children alone, being both father and mother. Feeling overwhelmed by the enormous responsibility of trying to “do it all” and falling very short.
Lust for women and pornography. You can’t go through the grocery store or watch TV without being bombarded with it.
In dating, sexual purity seems to be the biggest struggle. 
No sex! Prayer is what helps more than anything and not putting my thoughts or myself in that direction.
I had struggled with pornography, but God saw fit to prove it possible to trust in his Word to make me clean by the death of his Son and trust in the same Word to keep me clean, which is holiness. I have experienced victory in this spiritual warfare.
Sexual purity! We want to honor God with our bodies and yet crave physical touch! It is soooo difficult!
Finding a place to meet a solid Christian person that may lead to a possible relationship.
I do want to marry and have children so I do feel like I am waiting to marry so I can get on with my life.
To hold off dating too soon after a failed relationship. 
Loneliness.
Going places alone. 
Attending a church function where there are all couples and when a single sits down, it really messes up seating arrangements.
Not being invited by couples unless I am paired with another single, kind of like two singles make a couple.
As a relatively young widow with two small children, I had no one in my circle of friends who could relate to my situation. At my most vulnerable moments, I felt very much alone.
Not having another adult to give perspective when making significant decisions or facing problems, feeling overwhelmed or having low self-worth.
Not being asked to lunch after church.
Where I fit in the world. It seems like everything is focused on being a pair or a family.
Finding a Sunday school class with which I feel a real connection.
Living out my Christian lifestyle among non-Christians and being ridiculed for not going out and partying. 
Financially it is a real struggle to survive. I have only one income, get very limited child support and am barely scraping by. I can’t afford to go to many activities, to travel, etc.

I especially appreciate the vulnerability and honesty of the responses. The struggles are quite varied and reflect deep feeling. And in case you are tempted to stereotype people, some of the “sexual” responses came from women.

Here are some action steps that married adults can take to build or improve relationships with single adults: 

  • Avoid stereotypes. Single adults come in all different sizes and shapes. No two are alike. Assuming that they all think and feel alike or that they all have the same concerns or challenges fails to treat single adults as unique individuals. Choose to ask sincere questions rather than make inaccurate, uneducated conclusions. Some single adults would like to get married, while others prefer remaining single and are offended by innuendoes to the contrary.
  • Engage and include single adults. Single adults enjoy healthy interaction with other adults. Instead of always going out to eat with another couple, invite someone you may normally overlook because they aren’t married. I have found that single adults are fun to be around and offer valuable insights and perspectives. Get over your paranoia that they are “out to get your spouse.” Avoid the temptation to invite two of them together. Invest your life in a relationship that will be rewarding for both of you.
  • Listen. Single adults need to be heard. They have great ideas, legitimate thoughts and feelings and worthy goals. Married people can (and should) learn from them.
  • Treat single adults with respect. Single adults are not second-class people. God never created “half” people who wander aimlessly around looking for “the other half.” They are “whole” adults. Single adults don’t need to have a spouse to make them complete or “normal.” In 1 Corinthians 7:8 Paul writes, “Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I am.” I get the impression from Scripture that Paul was an OK guy. And research also indicates that Jesus was single his whole life. Article 11 of our Mennonite Brethren confession of faith says, “Singleness is honored equally with marriage, sometimes even preferred. The church is to bless, respect and fully include those who are single.” Add single adults to your mental list of leaders who can serve as well as be served. They have strengths and weaknesses, just like married people. And for those who look forward to being married, don’t get in a bigger hurry to “make a match” than they are.
  • Demonstrate compassion. Imagine being a widow or a divorced person and never getting a hug or a pat on the back or a word of encouragement. Single parents can use a break from parenting once in a while or a meal that they didn’t have to cook themselves or pick up at the fast-food restaurant. Some singles enjoy spending time with a couple or family that cares; just remember not to spend all your time talking about kids and grandkids. Single adults are sometimes lonely and just want someone with whom to converse. Divorce or death is often painful for months and even years; others can help bear the burden. And remember to ask questions before you draw conclusions. Some people could use help with fix-it projects that need another person’s expertise; sometimes it takes two people to move furniture around. Ask how you can help. When you go to a worship service, look for a single person with whom you can sit; save a place for a widowed adult. Some of us may need to go and be reconciled with those we have offended. The best comment that someone offered to a widow was, “I have no idea how you feel but I care.” Above all else, apply the counsel of Proverbs 12:18: “Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.”

Being the church

Whether you are part of a large church or a small congregation, all of these steps are possible without ever starting one “program” in the church. It’s simply “being” the church. 

 Larger congregations may be in a position to provide a variety of opportunities for single adults to grow spiritually and relationally. Some activities may be targeted to specific areas such as: DivorceCare for those who are single again; small groups that are designed for both single and married people to interact together; support groups for those who have lost a spouse through death; group activities where single adults can interact without feeling like it’s a speed dating opportunity. Brainstorm ways that your church can become known for treating single adults with love and respect.

Steve Fast is the adult ministries pastor at First MB Church in Wichita, Kan. He gives special thanks to Pam, Janelle, Dwight, Naomi, Janice, Joel, Kala, Debbie, Charlie, Christy, Waneta, Angela, Annette and an anonymous group of other single adults. 

Statistics are staggering

The U.S. Census reports some interesting statistics about single and unmarried people in our country. Of the 300 million people living in this country, 41 percent (almost 90 million) are single or unmarried adults 18 years and older. Of these single or unmarried adults, 60 percent have never been married, 25 percent are divorced and 15 percent are widowed. 

 As an adult ministries pastor, this statistic is staggering. The demographics of most American churches hardly reflect this division of adults. An analysis of the congregation I serve reveals that about 84 percent of participating adults are married, meaning that only 16 percent are single/unmarried.

Even more staggering is the reality that many single adults who are committed participants feel that the church “has a ways to go” in addressing the issues that they face. This may indicate why only 16 percent, rather than the national average of 41 percent, of single/unmarried adults attend our church.—SF 

CL Archives
This article is part of the CL Archives. Articles published between August 2017 and July 2008 were posted on a previous website and are archived here for your convenience. We have also posted occasional articles published prior to 2008 as part of the archive. To report a problem with the archived article, please contact the CL editor at editor@usmb.org.

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