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The Art of the Set-Up

Why matchmaking done right still has a place in an increasingly mobile and fractured world.

If it weren’t for a set-up, I might not exist.

For 20-odd years, my dad was oblivious to a girl he’d grown up with until one day when his older sister casually asked, “Have you ever thought about Sue?”

Well, once he started thinking about Sue, he couldn’t stop — and they’ve now been married for 45 years.

It’s such a fun story, but I’m still single, even after a number of similarly simple and heartfelt set-up efforts by my family and friends. So here’s my question: While set-ups seemingly worked for past generations, are they worth attempting today?

Before I answer, let me take you to a scene that sounds strange to Western ears, but felt normal, light-hearted and funny to me because I lived in Jerusalem — in a culture where matchmaking is deemed a good deed. In fact, I’d call amateur matchmaking a Middle Eastern love language, shown to family and friends, neighbors, acquaintances, fellow passengers on the bus, and even random people on the street.

After six rainless summer months, autumn arrived with a sudden downpour just as I was stopping for a falafel. The middle-aged shopkeeper beckoned me in under the awning, and began chatting as he assembled my sandwich.

“Are you married?” he asked.

After we established that he had a single son my age, he dropped a succession of falafel balls into a vat of hot oil and motioned me to a chair at a safer distance from the rain blowing in at the tiny shop’s open front. From the back room, a young man appeared. “Are you married?” he asked.

“No,” I replied, bemused by their clever maneuvering.

The questions continued: How old was I? Why was I still single? Did I want a boyfriend?

Saved by the ringing telephone on the wall above my head, I moved to let the father take the call, finished my falafel, and saw that the downpour had turned to drizzle. As I escaped and waved goodbye, the young man blew me a kiss across the counter.

When my American friend Jana heard this tale, she was struck by how frankly the young man shared his desire for a mate. Asking for help with dating is humbling, she says, “because there’s something I want and I can’t achieve it, while a lot of people around me are achieving it. There’s a stigma about needing help, almost like there’s something wrong with you if you’re not married by a certain age.”

So why are you still single?

Sometimes singles experience married Christians treating their singleness like it’s a burden, or something that needs to be “cured” by marriage. Despite the stigma — or perhaps because of it — many singles wish they were not completely alone in the process of finding a godly spouse. Among the 102 people — aged 23 to 63 — who responded to my survey about set-ups, 68 had been set up, and 34 had done the same for others. About half feel positive about set-ups in general; many know marriages that began that way.

When I asked if churches should host dating events for singles, most said, “No.” Not only does that kind of event feel awkward, stigmatizing or even desperate, but most believe the church should remain focused on the gospel and discipleship. Getting personal support from friends in the church, however, is largely welcomed, especially if it comes from mentors or close friends.

How do they feel when someone offers to set them up? The most common responses were: loved, grateful, and vulnerable. More than half rushed to add, however, that their feelings about a set-up depend on how well the matchmaker knows them. Several said they would reject help from even family and friends who don’t know or share their values and Christian faith.

What about dating online?

Considering the vulnerability of involving others in our love lives and the difficulty of finding good allies, it’s no wonder that many are turning to the privacy and autonomy of online dating. But as my friend Kiara points out, different personalities handle online dating differently. Some can cut straight to the chase. Others attach rapidly and may stay in contact with rejected matches out of sympathy, taking energy away from the search for a viable match. Some find the process taxing, but worth it. Others may decide that pursuing marriage in this particular way is not good stewardship.

It is possible, however, to combine the power of community with the online world, and the Jewish community is particularly innovative in this regard. Recently, they’ve developed matchmaking events that work a lot like speed-dating — only it’s friends of singles who show up and rotate between small groups, comparing profile information. Similarly, there are Zoom and Facebook groups that crowd-source matchmaking. One website links singles to matchmakers who provide a curated list of profiles to consider. On another, moms set up and pay for coffee dates. There’s also an organization that uses teachers to set up students they already know.

The Christian world has its own innovations. Mom blogger Kelly Stamps, who met her husband through a set-up, began to host yearly events in which her readers created blog posts to introduce their single friends. Kelly has since moved to an Instagram account where singles can introduce themselves. Of the 39 married couples (and counting) who met with her help, many have invited her to their weddings.

Laura Austin of Hey Mrs. Austin encourages singles to ask others for set-ups, coaching from her own experience of dating into her 30s. She says, “The women I coach consistently have positive experiences with set-ups, even if it doesn’t work out with the guy.” She says her own confidence grew when she stopped seeing “wrong” matches as a reflection on her and simply practiced saying, “No, thank you” as needed. She also enjoyed her singleness more when she realized that she was choosing it over being in a relationship that wasn’t what she was looking for.

According to the National Academy of Sciences, the practice of meeting through friends has been declining over the last 80 years, and its number-one spot now belongs to matches formed online. Jeff Kaplan says that the average millennial user spends 10 or more hours a week on dating sites, using as many as four different apps simultaneously because so few matches turn into dates. After working for a major dating website, Lakshmi Rengarajan now asks why we outsource our dating lives to corporations. She suggests that apps change us, making us less patient and open, while set-ups can make the atmosphere less transactional. And if we’re already setting others up with friendships and jobs, why not with romantic matches as well?

How does it work?

If we’re going to go fully organic in making matches, how does the process work? Here’s what I learned from my own experience, from Jewish, secular and Christian matchmakers, and from those who answered my survey.

First, almost anybody can get involved. If you’re single, you might not have considered setting others up, but you may the perfect person, especially if you know more singles than your married friends do. I love the story told by a Jewish matchmaker named Ziva Kramer. She had just two days left of her visit to Israel when friends implored her to find a match for their daughter. The problem: She knew just one potential guy, and when she called him, he declined. Then Ziva got bold. She pestered him into finding a friend who would go out with the young woman. Within 90 minutes, he did – and the couple is now married. While the friendly arm-twisting approach may be unique to Ziva’s culture, the principle of networking still applies: If one friend can’t help, he might know somebody who can.

If you’re seeking a spouse, assemble a wise and trustworthy support team. Choose potential matchmakers with healthy relationships and ask them to help. Be healthily open to suggestions, but don’t let others override your intuition.

If you’re helping others seek a spouse, go about your life with an ear for those who say they want to meet someone. Then prayerfully consider any matches that come to mind. Introducing a couple only because they’re both single can make them feel unseen, perhaps even that their case is too desperate to expect a good fit. At the same time, you’re not looking for the perfect match, just a hunch and a handful of things you think the two have in common.

Here’s what you must know about the people you want to set up:

  • Do they even want to get married?
  • Are they both believers, people of integrity, and ready to date?
  • Did they give permission to be set up?
  • How do they want to be set up? Share phone numbers or online contact info? Invite them to a dinner party at your house?

What comes next? The introduction could be as simple as “Ian, this is Gina. Not only can she talk online teaching woes, but you and she both understand chronic illness, and have a lot of respect for biblical counseling. Gina, Ian teaches for the local seminary and he shares your love for hot air balloons.” The couple just needs to know enough to spark further conversation.

Sometimes the matchmaker goes on to provide more: the online or actual venue for meeting, perhaps. Or gentle advice and support, like training wheels for the wobbly beginning of a new relationship. But sometimes a nudge (like the one my dad got from his sister) is enough for the couple to make a match on their own.

Whether you’re matchmaking or being matched, relax: It’s just an introduction.

Confidence for more

My favorite falafel-seller didn’t understand my commitment to marrying within my own faith. But a Christian acquaintance also showed how little she knew me, picking Christian men who lived across the globe and had hugely different lifestyles from mine. In contrast, when longtime friends invited me to visit them in Europe, hoping to introduce me to their neighbor, our shared context and trust meant I confidently took the trip – and the risk. The great strength of the set-up is this confidence – not that a man is my perfect match, but that he’s a man of integrity.

For me, dating through set-ups has led to good conversations, good friendships, the kindest of breakups – and even afterwards, to prayer and phone calls of support in times of crisis.  While I’m still single (so far), my friends’ many matchmaking efforts have provided some really good things, like funny stories, affirmation (the matchmakers wanted me to date their loved ones!), travel and adventure, cross-cultural experience, godly fellowship, and spiritual and relational growth.

My matchmakers have loved me well by accepting failed matches graciously and refusing to idolize marriage on my behalf. They have helped me best, I suspect, when they are close enough to know a little about my single life: one thing I would miss if I marry, for example, and one thing I’ll be glad to set aside.

Whether single and married, we’re called to “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:11-13). Meanwhile He makes us “strong to comprehend with all the saints” (Ephesians 3:14-19). For me, that has meant prayerfully wrestling out my own theology of singleness, suffering, disappointment and fruitfulness – side by side with those whose stories are different, but whose hearts are the same.

In this way, I hope, we’ll all become light-hearted, hopeful and adventurous together, asking “What if?” while we consider inviting set-ups or making matches for others.

Copyright 2021 Elisabeth Adams. All rights reserved.

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About the Author

Elisabeth Adams

Elisabeth Adams has lived in five states, one Canadian province, and the captivating city of Jerusalem, where she studied historical geography and Hebrew. As a freelance writer and editor, she loves hearing and telling new tales of God’s faithfulness. Most of all, she wants to keep a quiet heart.


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