Mind the 'Single-Minded' Church

Sep 30, 2008 |Candice Watters
Mind the 'Single-Minded' Church

If you feel called to marry, your best bet is likely a marriage-friendly church.

Have you noticed efforts by your church to be more "single friendly"? One of the early comments on the Help Get Married website came from a woman telling about her pastor's recent effort on behalf of singles. Presumably, to make singles feel more comfortable, he sought to eliminate the awkwardness of being set up on dates. As such he told everyone in the congregation — from the pulpit — that they should stop trying to match singles.

Whatever the merits (or demerits) of his approach, it's part of a growing trend among churches trying to come across as more friendly to the surging singles population. (Other suggested changes I've seen include everything from integrating everyone into the same service — no more segregation by age or life stage, to embracing egalitarian theology and granting leadership positions to singles regardless of gender).

Why the shift? The explosion of single adult households. It's one of three demographic changes marketing research firm Yankelovich Partners is advising Fortune 100 companies to consider if they hope to "stay on top."

Scott Hitzel, singles pastor at Saddleback Church, believes churches should follow the example of corporations and respond strategically. Pointing out that 40 percent of Americans are currently unmarried, Hitzel encourages church leaders to ask themselves, "Are 40 percent of the adults in my church single? If not, why aren't they here, and how can they be reached and included in the church's community?"

It's worth asking these questions given that singles are less likely than marrieds to attend church. According to sociologist Brad Wilcox, the percentage of single women attending church is a third less than the percentage of married women who attend and the proportion of single men going to church is half the proportion of married men who go.

Why the discrepancy? As church leaders review attendance trends and anecdotal evidence, many believe singles are turned off by churches that continue a heavy emphasis on family in a day when it's single households that are growing. Saddleback's Hitzel reports "those who have attended church often believe a 'married' church has marginalized them."

In a Christian Singles Today article, Camerin Courtney wrote that while many churches are already having a hard time attracting single men, she "was worried that if churches didn't change their hyper family focus, they'd start losing single women as well." She noted that in the midst of programming for "family camps, back-to-school ice cream socials, daytime women's Bible studies, moms gatherings" and more, it's easy to feel overlooked and left out.

If singles attend church less and report feeling left out by an emphasis on marriage and family, then it shouldn't be a surprise that one way churches would try to be more single friendly is to scale back on being family friendly.

"Is your church family-friendly?" asked pastor Mark Driscoll in a Church Report commentary last year. "Does your church provide family programming? Does your church defend family values? If so, you may be guaranteeing yourself a perilous future." To avoid that "perilous future," church leaders reading these kinds of insights might say, "If we're going to be relevant to singles, we better crank back on the family stuff." But is it in the best interest of single believers who hope to marry some day to attend such churches?

One single man, quoted in Julia Duin's Quitting Church, talked about his experience of telling his small group that he wanted to get married,

I was rebuked by the elders because, according to them, the Bible says it is better to be single to serve God better. They, obviously, were married, and I didn't understand, if they felt so strongly about being single, why they themselves weren't single. When I would ask for prayer, I would get a lecture about being content, and was told I needed to stop focusing on self and serve God better.

Duin noted how, during research for her book, she "kept running into stories about ministers who were indifferent about singles issues until their own children began looking for mates." The pastor she spotlighted did little to nothing to match the singles in his church body, even as he "went about the church, telling everyone how wonderfully God had answered their [family's] prayers [for a husband for his daughter].... The incident caused quite a stir among the single women in that church," she said.

While references to being content in singleness might make singles feel more comfortable in the short term, in the long term, they're a disservice to singles who desire to marry well. According to With This Ring ... A National Survey on Marriage in America conducted by the National Fatherhood Initiative, 86 percent of American singles want to be married someday and Census Bureau estimates show that historically nearly 90 percent of Americans eventually marry.

Churches that don't offer practical help for marrying well often imply that it's much more spiritual to focus on Christ and let the marriage thing happen if it's meant to be. "If it's God's will for them to marry," the pastor with a ban on matching told his congregation, "He'll provide spouses." In his mind, practical efforts only get in God's way. Such an approach would be laughable if applied to getting a degree, a job, a house. And it fails to serve those who are looking for an alternative to the relational confusion and recreational dating around them.

What's worse is that when churches pull back on their support of family and helping new families get started in their effort to be seen as more single-friendly, they often end up eliminating the very things that research shows is most likely to help singles marry well.

Princeton professor Robert Wuthnow, who studies young adults and church attendance, has found that churches help single adults by incorporating marriage and family around them — not by tucking family messages away somewhere.

Suppose a man or woman decides, for whatever reason, to be actively involved in a church. Chances are, that man or woman will be in a context where programs are geared toward families, where other young adults are married, and where there may even be sermons and classes about marriage. Any of these influences might encourage a person to think more seriously about getting married.

Contrary to much of the trendy church-growth advice, churches wanting to reach singles should be intentional about their life in the body — but they shouldn't assume that cutting back on marriage and family messages and family formation efforts equal single friendliness.

An improvement on Hitzel's question for church leaders would be: Is your church 40 percent single like the population around you, AND are you helping the majority of those singles who desire marriage to marry better than they would outside of the church?

Social researcher Brad Wilcox says,

One thing churches need to do is to really encourage ... their young adults not to buy into this culture of 'hooking up' and even the culture of dating or just hanging out. [Churches need] to create a culture of courtship that puts them on a path to marriage, for those who are called to marriage.

Churches that seek to attract singles by removing any context of "pressure to marry" by scaling back on premarital support undermine their intentions of helping the unchurched to re-engage in church for the long-term.

According to Chris Smith of Notre Dame:

We have long known that, for a variety of reasons, religious participation for many young people declines significantly when they leave home. Going away to college seems especially likely to kill regular church attendance for most. Historically, marriage and parenthood have then marked the return for many to church and more active faith.

Some do attend church, including evangelical churches, but keep their sexual behaviors compartmentalized as their own private business. In any case, it seems clear that the church will not be able to respond faithfully and effectively to emerging adulthood and emerging adults if it does not seriously grapple with these questions of sex, cohabitation, and approach to marriage.

Helping Christian families form is still a fundamental role and responsibility of the body of Christ. God created the institution of family even before he created the church. Family is the institution that, for most of us, will be our primary area of spiritual shaping and development. It's where we grow in our faith, learn how to serve others, and become more like Christ.

Pushing the family message to the margin is not the answer. Better to tolerate some of the quirks of a marriage-friendly church.

Churches that understand this divine plan for spiritual formation are more likely to have a biblical approach to helping singles marry well. What ultimately serves singles and the overall church body is more, not less, emphasis on family. The good news for singles is that churches with a healthy perspective and emphasis on the biblical family are more likely to be a helpful place for finding a spouse and forming a family of their own.

Copyright 2008 Candice Watters. All rights reserved.

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