Several months ago, two articles caught my attention when I was reading online: Marvin Olasky’s “Early Maturity” and Karen Swallow Prior’s “The Case for Getting Married Young”. Essentially, both writers urge believers to tie the knot sooner rather than later. I find such articles singularly unhelpful. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate Prior and Olasky’s defense of marriage. I too believe that marriage is a gift from God. Yet this is not a gift God has given me. I and many other godly men and women have been given the gift of singleness – some of us for a short time, others for life. For us, the question is not how soon we can be married but how we can best, most wholly participate in the church as singles.
Paul writes that the church was designed to bear one another’s burdens, individual believers coming together to support each other in their walk with Christ. Thus, as God works in the lives of us singles, we naturally want to share the resulting joys and burdens with our married brethren, and we want to bear their burdens in return.
I want to offer a few suggestions for nurturing this kind of relationship in your church. The suggestions I give are born out of my own experience as a single woman in an evangelical church and the experiences of my friends. I hope they will be useful to you.
1. Integrate single people with married people.
When I show up at a new church, one of the things I look for when perusing the bulletin are the weekly Bible study and service opportunities. What I discover is that a lot of women’s Bible studies are scheduled for times like 10.00 AM on Tuesday. I work at 10.00 AM on Tuesdays. Not for years will I be able to take time off in the middle of the day to attend a women’s Bible study.
Yet this experience is hardly an aberration. Most churches today arrange activities and groups by demographic. And there are many good reasons to split groups up by demographic. Young mothers, for instance, need the support of other young mothers. Yet unless the church also has groups that are not split up by demographic, we singles may find it hard to fit in, let alone build the kind of deep relationships that foster mutual encouragement. It’s hard to build relationships with people and minister to them when they’re busy with a parenting group or a young married group and we’re not.
Establishing singles’ groups is not necessarily a solution; especially as we grow older, we age out of singles’ groups peopled mostly by college students. Instead, establishing groups that cross demographic lines will encourage single people and families to build friendships together and support each other in Christ. Nearly all my single friends tell me that it is these friendships, between single and married people, that have been some of the deepest and most fruitful in their church experience.
How can the church integrate married and single people? Schedule two or three Bible studies for the evenings as well as the mornings. Start Bible studies or Sunday school groups that mix married and single people. Invite the single men in the church to the men’s prayer breakfast. Ask single people to volunteer alongside married people at particular church ministries, such as working at the homeless shelter. Start the groups. Then it’s up to us to build relationships with other people in the church.
2. Give us the opportunity to serve in new ways in the church.
When I joined my current church, someone suggested that I assist with nursery duty. I have not changed a diaper in 10 years – seriously. I am not what you would call good with children. I am sure that this is a personal deficiency. Yet the fact remains that before I can serve in the church, I have to bridge the gulf between what my church expects me to do and what I am actually gifted to do.
I am not the only single believer encouraged to take on roles in the church that don’t really fit who I am. Jenna, a friend of mine single into her late 20s, tells me that her church assumed that because she was single, she was immature and directed her towards areas of service reserved for high schoolers. At other times, the church makes a mistake that can be as easily made with married people: They suggest a particular ministry before they really know us well enough to know what our gifts and talents are. I don’t mean to cast blame. Everyone makes wrong assumptions about other people at some point. Yet when singles are, whatever the reason, directed towards avenues of ministry that they’re not really gifted for, they will be uncomfortable contributing to the church, and the church in turn will suffer.
As long as we singles are part of the body of Christ, we want to use our gifts to support our brethren. The church is strongest when members serve each other in keeping with their spiritual gifts. Thus, encouraging singles towards ministries suited to their gifting has a double benefit: We singles will feel at home contributing to the church, and the church will be blessed as the body of Christ works together in unity.
The best way to get singles involved in areas that we’re gifted for is simply to ask where we’d like to serve. For instance, if asked, I will tell you that I don’t feel qualified for nursery duty, but I’m happy to pass out bulletins. Another option is to make church members aware of what ministries need help and how they can get involved. If we know where the church needs help, we can pick an area that matches how God has gifted us to serve. As with the previous suggestion, it’s important for the church to make singles aware of the opportunities to serve. After that, it’s up to us singles to actually start serving.
3. Give us a voice in the church.
Several months back, two elders at my friend Faith’s church stepped down. The church held a men-only meeting to discuss the transition and review the future of the church. All the men attended the meeting; married women were represented by their husbands. Yet Faith had no husband and thus no representative at the meeting – no one to ask the questions that were on her mind or report back to her afterwards. The problem is this: Faith’s singleness prevented her from participating as fully in the church as married people. This should not be.
Listening to people is a universal sign of respect, and the church is no different. When a church fails to listen to the voice of its singles, even accidentally, we are likely to be hurt and discouraged. When, on the other hand, you listen to us, you assure us that we are welcomed at the church. You encourage us not only to speak up with concerns but also to invest in a church community that feels we are worth listening to.
Don’t misunderstand me: Giving singles a voice in the church does not have to mean installing women in leadership roles. All I am saying is that churches need to make sure that they do not apply their biblical principles in a way that, even accidentally, relegates single women to the peanut gallery.
There are ways for our voice to be heard without violating biblical leadership patterns. For instance, a church might designate an elder to take questions from single women prior to a men’s-only meeting. A church might explicitly invite single congregants to email the pastor with their concerns about church development. Single men ought to be encouraged to participate in church leadership – perhaps as a deacon or an elder. If singles are to truly be part of a church, they can’t just be doing stuff with the church; they also have to know that the church listens to their voice.
A Word to Singles
I want to close these posts with a word to singles: Encouraging the church to value our participation does not let us off the hook. We too have responsibilities towards the church.
First, be patient with your church. Don’t get offended easily. Almost no churches are deliberately uninviting to singles. Married people, especially those who married young, sometimes have a hard time understanding who we are and what challenges we face. Let your church get to know you. Let them know that you want to be involved. Over time, your patience will help them understand you – and hopefully other singles – better.
Second, be proactive. Don’t wait for your church to magically become the perfect welcoming church. It’s not going to. Start reaching out to its members anyway. Several of my single friends told me how important it was for them to take the initiative. Jenna set aside one night a week to invite people over for supper. Josh, who has served in four churches as a single man, invites married couples over to his tiny apartment for mac & cheese. You don’t have to offer the church something fancy, but you do have to deliberately, obviously offer your support and friendship. If you’ve found a good church, your effort should pay off in stronger, encouraging relationships within the church community.
Can singles be a welcomed part of the church? Absolutely! God designed the church so that all kinds of believers could be united in Christ, mutually supporting each other in the faith. Is this vision an easy one to achieve? Absolutely not! It will require hard work on the part of married people and single people alike. But the end result – a community in which everyone, married or single, feels welcomed – is worth it.
 Name changed by request
M. V. Bergen teaches college writing in the Midwest. In her spare time, she reads the Church Fathers and science fiction, writes free verse poetry, and runs.