It was time for the extended family picture at my cousin Nathan’s wedding. The photographer placed the bride and groom in the center of the church steps and then started grouping everyone around them. He gathered my grandparents, then my aunts and uncles, my parents, my brothers and their wives and children and my cousins with their spouses and children, until I was the only one left. The photographer, unsure where to place me, asked, “Who do you belong to?”
That family picture was a beacon moment for me, a real-life illustration of the complexity of being a single adult. Yes, I’m a valued member of my family, but as a single adult I float free among them, unanchored to any of the defined subgroups. I know that my family loves me and welcomes my presence, but there is no easy way to explain to whom or how I belong.
Belonging is a fundamental need for every human, a need that we meet through relationships. For married people, their marital status, the fact that they call someone their spouse, helps shape a sense of belonging. The same is not true for a single person, that is, saying that I am single does not help define my sense of belonging to others. Instead, saying that I’m single differentiates me from others.
America, especially church-going-Christian America, is a marriage majority culture. As a thirty-something adult Christian female, the vast majority of my friends are married and most of them have children. For these friends, their spouses and children are their primary relationships, meaning they give priority time and attention to their families. I understand those priorities and I do not resent them – I love my friends and I want them to have healthy, life-giving marriages and family lives. The challenge for me, (really, for any single adult), is that I do not have those same primary relationships. Friendships are my primary relationships. I look to my friends for the support, accountability, love, sharing, affirmation and motivation that they so often get from their spouse and/or children. Like all human beings, single adults need healthy, reciprocal relationships in order to thrive. We need to be connected to others, to belong and to be valued. Friendships are natural places for us to seek these needs, but not always easy places for us to meet them.
Beyond friendships, the church should also be a place of belonging, value and fulfillment for Christian singles. Unfortunately, loneliness seems to be a common experience for single people in the church. In previous posts we’ve located part of the problem, church populations and programs that segregate believers by marital status. We’ve also read real testimonies of single people that have heard both subtle and overt messages that say marriage is better or more holy than singleness or that singles are incomplete. Since we have identified the problems, now we ask the big question. What do we need to do to reclaim the value of singleness as a way of life and revitalize a sense belonging among single people in the church?
I’m going to offer you a few suggestions constructed from years of personal experience and careful reflection. Many of these suggestions incorporate the ideas and convictions of more than 30 single friends, whose opinions I solicited for this series. Here is what we need to do…
We need to re-orient our beliefs of marriage and singleness to the teaching of scripture. A close, topical study of scripture reveals that marriage is good and that healthy marriages testify to the kind of peace and love that only knowledge of Christ can bring to relationships. However, scripture also reveals that singleness is fundamentally good and that the life of a healthy single person can also proclaim the redemptive presence of Christ.
Unless you mistook Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code for a fifth gospel, you know that Jesus was single and showed no signs of needing to be married to be a content, fulfilled and God-honoring human. If marriage would have enhanced Jesus’ life or ministry on earth, then I believe he would have gotten married, but he didn’t and that shows us something.
The apostle Paul wrote to believers in Corinth that it is good for people not to marry. Paul wasn’t married and he wrote that he wished all people were single like him. He told widows and single adults that it was good to remain unmarried, a message that was surely as counter-cultural then as it is now! In this passage, Paul talks about marriage as a concession to singleness (not the other way around!), explaining that if you cannot control your sexual desires then it is better to marry than to “burn with passion.” What I find most revelatory about Paul’s whole discussion of marriage and singleness is that he sums up his instructions by saying, “But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.” Both marriage and singleness are a gift from God. How often do we hear or accept teaching that proclaims singleness a gift?
Marriage is discussed more in scripture than singleness, which is not surprising if you know anything about the historical, cultural context that the bible speaks into, but I can’t find a single word that indicates that marriage is more valuable or spiritual than singleness. What is clear is that all Christians are called to present themselves as living sacrifices to God. The labels and classifications that the world uses to understand human experience do not impact the way that God values us. We are all one in Christ, equally valuable people of diverse experiences united by the unconditional love of God. The way in which we live is an act of worship as much for the single person as those who are married! (For more reading see Romans 12 and Galatians 3.)
We need to absorb the biblical understanding of family. I believe that Christians have absorbed society’s understanding of family rather than embracing a biblical understanding. When we use the word ‘family’ in the church, we usually refer to a husband, a wife and a few kids, something remarkably similar to the nuclear family of the 1960s. There is absolutely nothing wrong with valuing this type of family structure, but it’s not the picture created when family is discussed in scripture. Theologically speaking, family in the Bible is not defined by a marriage relationship, but by the parent-child relationship between God and his followers. The Greek word for family (patria) comes from the Greek word for father (pater). The Bible does talk about ‘family’ in terms of people related by marriage and birth but that understanding is trumped by God’s fuller plan for humans: to adopt them as his children, to gather them as his people, to graft together all believers into one, unified body – the church. Belonging to Christ creates a stronger connection between me and you than any connection made through blood or marriage. In fact, our connection as sisters and brothers in Christ is the only eternal connection we humans have to each other.
Do you see how the biblical view of family balances the value of every human experience? Singleness and marriage are both good gifts, but the best life experience is being children of God. None of us have earned our way into God’s family; we have all been adopted and are equal heirs in God’s family. How refreshing to hear that as a single person I lack nothing, that I’m fully embraced and delighted in by God! How good to know that my married friends are not my betters, they are my brothers and sisters. Just as important as understanding these biblical truths, we need to preach and teach them!
We need to preach and teach more about the value of singleness. I can’t recall the last time I heard someone preach or teach about singleness; can you? I know that marriage is challenging, so I’m glad that pastors do what they can to help marriages thrive. What I’m asking is that we balance that teaching with much-needed guidance about living a godly life as single people in a sex/romance/marriage-idolizing culture. Pastors, give us some pulpit time! If you are a typical pastor who got married young and have little experience of single adulthood, then ask for input. I’m sure single people in your congregation would love to talk with you about the challenges that they face on a daily basis.
We need to be more inclusive in our marketing and programming in the church. It’s important to meet the needs of the majority of the congregation, but we should be careful not to neglect the needs of any valuable minority. The church is a place for all people and we need to live out that truth. Do the website, literature and programs of your church reach out only to married people, parents or families, or other majorities like the able-bodied, Caucasians, the financially-stable? If so, help your church leaders see what you see and help shape a more inclusive, welcoming reality.
We need to talk about singleness as an acceptable and good way to live. In Rewriting Fairy Tales, I shared my own story of being unpleasantly surprised that I was still single after college. I experienced some painful and lonely years in my mid-twenties and I know many young people who have experienced the same. I think much of the pain, confusion or angst that singles experience could be minimized or avoided if we talked more about singleness as a possibility, even a choice, for the future. Parents, teachers, mentors, anyone who is a person of influence in the life of a child or teen – please help them imagine and prepare for all kinds of good ways to live.
We need to practice true hospitality. I don’t think that the remedy for isolation and loneliness is to herd people into homogeneous groups. A singles group may connect me to others like me, but it doesn’t link me to the wider congregation which is my family. Instead, I believe the remedy to isolation and loneliness is creating a hospitable culture that values and celebrates the lives of all people. We need to spend time soaking our hearts and minds in Christ until we are so saturated with love that we can’t help but splash every person we meet.
This is true hospitality – to open myself to the life of my neighbors, their unique needs, joy, pain, vulnerability and love. I sit with them, eat with them, walk with them, talk with them and, most importantly, listen to them until I can embrace each one as my sister or brother.
We are called to love all people, not just those who are like us, those who make us feel safe or those we understand. Opening our lives to more people will expand our love for God because the more people that we know deeply, the more we will see how wide and high and long and deep is the love of God. If we practice true hospitality, then we will create a culture where each member lives joyfully connected in the core of our family, whole, known, appreciated and enabled to spread the good news that our family is always open to expansion.