About fifteen years ago, prior to being called as the Lead Pastor at our church, I had the honor of serving as our Single & Young Married Adult Pastor at our church. This was following my initial stint as Student Pastor. During that time, I learned much. Mostly, I learned how much I did not know regarding ministry to and with those who were categorized as single adults in our church.
For many current evangelical churches in America, the single adult ministry often is forgotten or deemed unimportant. While that may not be stated aloud, the lack of focused ministry to and with those who are unmarried proves otherwise. Even if not intended, this appears to be what is experienced by the unmarried believers in the church family.
Recently, I was leading our deacon ordination council interviews with prospective deacons. One young man is newly married (within the past two years) and I asked him point blank "How difficult was it for you to serve faithfully in the church as a single man?" The question had nothing to do with the ordination interview. That was complete. It was simply a question that had been on my mind recently. His response was not unexpected, nor shocking. He stated, "Very difficult."
His response was centered around the fact that many, if not most church programs and activities tend to be promoted with "family" or for those who are married.
Years ago one of our senior adult men (married for decades and wife still alive) asked me why we even had a single adult ministry. His question seemed odd, if not a bit offensive at first, but as I discovered, came from a sincere desire to understand. The last time he could have been categorized as a single adult was right after high school. He remains happily married and did not know why those who were unmarried would not feel comfortable in a couples' class.
The truth is some do feel comfortable with others, regardless of the marital status of others. Yet, the fact remains that not all do.
While our church is intent on ministering to and with families, leading parents to be lead disciple-makers in their homes, the reality is that while unintended, some who are not married feel left out. Some have expressed that it is like being the friend of the high school student with a boyfriend and being invited to go to the theme park with them. It can be enjoyable, but you end up sitting behind the happy couple on the roller coaster, or even worse, in the "Tunnel of Love."
Why is it this way in the church?
Writing as a man who has been married to the same woman since I was twenty years old, some may view my responses and analysis here as uninformed or disconnected. Yet, as a pastor called to lead a congregation into the fullness of God's teachings and minister to those who have been segmented into ministries based on age, gender, and marital status over the years, I hold a heavy responsibility to do my best for all who are part of our church family.
Without doing an extensive survey, but simply talking to people who are single, and having served in pastoral ministry for almost thirty years, here are some things that seem to be making it so difficult to be an engaged (not engaged to be married, but engaged strategically in ministry), faithful single adult believer in the local church. Of course, there are exceptions and varied other things that could be listed as well. Feel free to add to the list in the comments.
1. There's a post-high school and college gap in the church.
If your church has a vibrant, strong student ministry - that is wonderful! Some churches even have a strong collegiate ministry. But, what about when a person makes it through those ministries that include events, mission trips, camps, conferences, Bible studies, and more? If your church is like most, many have couples classes and small groups for adults. These are good. But...what about the adult who did not get married in college or even has a significant other at this point? This gap is real and what many have discovered is that these ministries for youth and students tend to have designated pastors or ministers leading them. The youth pastor is the go-to person for teenagers. There may even be a collegiate pastor. Yet, the lack of designated leadership for the single adult ministry post-high school and college often leaves a large demographic with no where to land.
Even if the church is not large and there are no designated pastors or ministers, the gap is still felt. Some single adults who desire to be married find in the smaller church that they stand alone in what well-intentioned, but wrong friends and parents claim a "small pond" and thus, the single adult is encouraged to go elsewhere to find a prospect for marriage.
This concept of "finding a prospect" leads well into the next point.
2. Singleness is often viewed as a stage of life to survive.
It may not be intentional, but whether from parents, grandparents, other family members, or those in the church, offhanded comments like "When are you going to get married?" often come across negatively.
Rather than viewing singleness as a stage to survive and get through until you find that perfect someone, could it be the church should elevate those who are living faithfully to the Lord as single adults. Perhaps even honoring their faithfulness as Paul alluded to in his letter to the church at Corinth.
So then he who marries his betrothed does well, and he who refrains from marriage will do even better. 1 Corinthians 7:38 (ESV)
This is not a shot at the married, but should be viewed as it is intended, as an affirmation for the single believer.
Often in the church, this affirmation is absent. One pastor of a neighboring church told me years ago when referencing his single adult ministry that "There are some who are single for a season and others who are single for a reason." While that statement could be taken well, if intended to affirm the "reason" as being for the calling of God, this pastor actually was speaking in a demeaning manner of those who apparently just couldn't get it together and find a spouse. That is wrong and in the age of the easily offended, that statement should offend.
In an article featured in Relevant Magazine, Preston Sprinkle states the following truths regarding the subtle and not-so-subtle anti-singleness message in the church:
Much of this anti-singleness message saturates the air of our churches, sometimes with words, other times with actions. The message is usually it is subtle and unintended. But single people hear it loud and clear: You’re incomplete until you get married and have at least two kids. (But if you have more than four, then people think you’re weird again.)
Just ask any post-college single person at your church how they feel. Ask them if they feel like they are valued, honored, respected, loved and invited into the lives and homes of other families of the church. Ask them if they are ever made to feel incomplete by off-handed comments (“Why aren’t you married yet?”) or sermon illustrations that always draw from parenting. Ask them how they felt on the weekend that the church was away at Family Camp.
The fact is, marriage is a small blip in our existence. We’re all born single and called to steward our singleness for the first 20-30 years of our life. Many people will be called out of singleness and into marriage and then called to steward their marriage to the glory of God. But us married folks will be single again, in this life, whether through divorce or death of our spouse. And then we’ll spend eternity with God as single persons once again. (Full article here.)
3. Marriage has become an idol
This is a difficult topic. Marriage between a man and woman is ordained by God. It is good and is even used as an illustration of Christ's relationship with his church. It is honorable. It is holy. Yet, as with all good and godly things, there is the potential for marriage to become one's idol. The family unit has also become this for many in the American church.
It's difficult because the church actually, unintentionally, propagates this opportunity for false worship.
One woman declared:
What truly should be addressed in church is the idolatry of marriage. So many singles (well, for women) feel as if they can’t be on mission until they get married. (from article here)
When thriving as a Christian is equated to being married and having children, these great and godly elements of life are elevated to places they do not belong.
This does not mean the church should avoid ministry to the married. In fact, with the divorce rate so high and marital issues between believers continually present, ministry to and with pre-married and married couples must continue. The godly marriage takes effort. No one drifts toward that reality.
Yet, alongside a strong ministry for those who are married, a vibrant, intentional, gospel-focused ministry with single adults must happen as well. Otherwise, the multi-faceted church intent on "being all things to all people" for the sake of reaching some, ignores a large demographic in the community.
4. We join ministries, not the church
The American church has been impactful for generations, but throughout the twentieth century an industrial model of business entered into the church. The programmatic structure became expected and helpful. It was beneficial for many as children's, student, age-graded, and gender-based ministries developed. The development of single adult ministry emerged as it was discovered the gap existed.
Even now, we understand that programmatic division, while helpful with age-based learning stages, often leaves many on the outside looking in when they cannot find where they fit.
The church's focus should not be built on a demographic study or gender focus, but solely on the Word of God. This may seem contradictory to the premise that single adults should be ministered to and with, but while I do believe a focused ministry for the unmarried (with or without children, never married, divorced, or widowed) is vital, I strongly believe that single adults should not be relegated to a satellite ministry that seems to orbit the church. I believe the same for student ministry and others. God ordained the church. We are called to unite together as his church locally for his glory and our good. If a person simply joins a ministry (regardless the demographic attached) they and the church find themselves disobedient to God's call. How many teenagers in our churches really were never called to unite with the church and fall under the shepherding leadership of the lead pastor, but simply joined a youth group and hung out with a youth pastor? Yeah - that hit a nerve, right? It's the same for any ministry.
5. The return on investment is not high enough
Oops. That's hitting too close to home, right?
This is a sinful reality among many churches, but let's call it what it is. If a church seeks to grow, increase membership, and along the way increase its budget, the best option is to focus intently on family units. Create a ministry for mom and dad and the kids. It's a higher return.
The single adult will have one income. It may be lower (not always the case) than the married adult. The activity in ministry is going to be limited to just the one person, rather than an increase in children's, youth, men's, and women's ministry. When it's all about numbers, the one becomes less valuable than the ninety-nine. So much so that often the one is left to fend for himself and ultimately will disappear from the fellowship.
What is the answer?
The answers will be varied, but it begins with the realization that all these issues and more are not only present, but prevalent in many of our churches. To ignore a large portion of the population is to simply say, either overtly or covertly "You don't belong."
The answer likely has nothing to do with hiring a single adult pastor. It likely isn't to elevate a programmatic ministry model as the answer either. Yet, it begins with a passion to see all people come to Christ and thrive as part of the local church.
Not every adult is called to be married. Yet, every Christian, married or single, is called to God and equipped for service within his church.
As a pastor, I must be conscious of this reality and ensure that not every sermon illustration is about marriage or parenting - though many are from my own story, so I won't ignore them. I must ensure that when seeking those to lead in ministries, we are not only looking from a pool of married persons. I must lead biblically in all areas, focusing on the value we have as children of God to be bestowed by God alone and not elevated by whether an individual is married, single, divorced, widowed, or "it's complicated."