This is the second of a several post series about issues of singleness and faith. In coming posts, I’ll be sharing stories that will illustrate what it is like to be a single Christian in today’s culture. To enhance our discussion about singleness, and to ground our expectations and assumptions in reality, it’s important that we get an accurate picture of singleness in America and the church.
According to the 2008 US Census, 95.9 million Americans were “unmarried.” That number accounted for 43% of all American adults, 18 years or older. Women were the slight majority group among unmarrieds at 53%. The unmarried category is split into three sub-categories: widowed, divorced, and never married. Adults in the never married category made up 63% or 60.5 million of the 95.9 million unmarried Americans. To visually map these numbers for you, if American single adults were a country, they would be the 14th largest country in the world.
Data about the unmarried population in the church is much harder to find. After a moderately exhaustive search conducted last spring, I discovered an article that reported that in the American church in general, unmarried adults make up only 10% of attendees. In mega-churches the number of unmarried adults jumps to 30%. These stats show that singles are a clear minority group in the church today, much more so than in America at large.
According to the 2010 US census data, the median age of Americans at their first marriage continues to creep higher.
Year Men Women
1950 22.8 20.3 (yrs. of age)
1980 24.7 22.0
1990 26.1 23.9
2000 26.8 25.1
2010 28.2 26.1
According to The Barna Research Group, which conducted a survey with American teenagers in 2010, 58% of all teens expect that marriage will “definitely” or “probably happen” to them by age 25. Unfortunately, I can’t find any statistics on the median age of Christians at their first marriage or how many of them expect to get married, but it is no secret that American Christians place a high value on marriage and family. (Think eHarmony, Focus on the Family and local churches providing a wealth of programs for married couples, parents, children and youth.) If I were to speculate, I’d say that theological beliefs and traditional family values lead many Christian Americans to marry younger than their peers who are not Christian.
Anecdotally, I can verify that the desire or pressure to marry young is still a verifiable part of Christian young adult culture. As a member of the Association for Christians in Student Development, I had access to seminars and workshops that were offered yearly to discuss the “ring by spring” mentality (to get engaged during the last semester of college) which is a pervasive, and sometimes problematic, topic on Christian college campuses. Having worked with college students for six years, I have interacted with hundreds of young people, most of them women, who show clear signs of concern about finding a spouse before or soon after they graduate. As a guest lecturer for Messiah College’s Marriage and Family Ethics course, I polled a class of 34 students. 100% of them reported they hope to get married. They believed that the average American marries at age 24 and they believed the ideal age to get married was 26.
I want Christians to have informed, realistic and healthy expectations about marriage and singleness. Hopefully, the facts above will enlighten us to the trends in both American and Christian culture and get many of us thinking critically. I think we need to chew on the facts above, especially the fact that a vast minority of church attenders are single. If there are far more singles in the general American population than those that attend church, what does this say about outreach and internal church programs meeting the needs of singles?
Mull this over. Talk about it with your friends. Seek the input of single adults that you know; some of you may have to make new friends to get a fresh perspective. Show the statistics to your pastor and do a little exploration in your own churches. Then come back and follow the conversation. I’ve solicited the stories of 25 of my single Christian friends. Their experiences and thoughts about singleness, marriage and faith are coming soon. Plus we’ll explore topics like loneliness, the single pastor and the question of whether singleness is second-best.
(If you’d like the sources for the statistics cited in this post, please leave a comment with your email address and I will send them to you.)