God immediately showed me what it meant. The harvesters were church leaders reaping traditional families. The untouched half of the field represented single adults. The single adult ministry is a huge and responsive mission field.
Within a couple of months, the singles ministry became my favorite one, and in less than a year it grew from 12 singles to more than 200 actively involved each week. But more importantly, we saw many lives changed, healed and saved.
Clearly, the single adult ministry in our churches needs attention. Out of 700 reader survey respondents, 72.2 percent said that their singles ministry was either non-existent or so small as to be ineffective in outreach. When you consider that 48 percent of female adults and 42% of male adults in the U.S. are single, you can see that we’re missing an entire segment of the population.
Outreach asked a panel of four current singles pastors to identify key principles for starting and growing an outwardly focused singles ministry. Keeping only the responses that all four pastors identified, I compiled a list of the eight most important elements of a dynamic singles ministry. I consider the first three to be essential and the next five to be strategic.
1. CREATE A CHURCH CULTURE THAT VALUES SINGLES
Most of the pastors we interviewed ranked this concept as the No. 1 element. “I think there is a prevalent preconceived notion that if a person hasn’t been married by the time they’re middle-aged, it’s because they’re socially awkward,” says Jonathan Damiani, executive director for Crossfire. “Sure there are socially awkward singles, but there are plenty of socially awkward married people too.”
Other pastors identified three specific action points for developing a singles-friendly environment churchwide:
• Preach positively about singleness. “[Senior or teaching] pastors really need to consider how they can affirm single adults,” says Susie White, singles pastor at Christ Church Episcopal in Plano, Texas. “When was the last time you heard a sermon on the high calling of being single?”
•Don’t segregate singles. “Our church doesn’t want the singles program to become its own subculture,” says Ramon Presson, single adult and college minister at Brentwood Baptist Church in Nashville, Tenn. “It wants them to be a part of the church, just like married adults are a part of the church. The operative word is adult not single.”
• Put singles in positions of responsibility. One of the ways Presson’s church affirms the value of single adults is by putting them in positions of significant responsibility in the church. “We’ve got more single adults serving outside our singles ministry than in it,” Presson says. The church asks singles to serve on its personnel committee, the deacon board, etc.
2. PUT A SINGLES LEADER ON STAFF
The panel of pastors we assembled overwhelmingly agreed that if churches are serious about growing their singles ministry, a staff position specifically designed to reach this target group is essential.
Jarett Stephens, a young adults pastor at Prestonwood Baptist, notes that because singles ministry is so transitional, consistency in the leadership is critical. Single adult ministry, observes Christ Church’s White, is often at the bottom of a church’s priorities. “A church’s unwillingness to pay a staff person to focus on singles supports that argument.”
In Plano, Texas, where she serves, single adults comprise more than 30 percent of the city’s population. “As a group needing the ministry of the church and the message of Christ, singles should be at the top of every pastor’s list,” she says. “Singles struggle with a sense that the culture around them is waiting for them to get married and become ‘legitimate.’ The way in which churches allocate their funds reinforces that message.”
White stresses that a singles leader needs strong communication skills and an ability to articulate the ministry’s purpose: “With moral issues being what they are today, I believe it is imperative for a leader to be clear about the ministry’s focus on Christ and on biblical values as a basis for living.”
3. DEVELOP A LAY LEADERSHIP TEAM
Our panel’s responses indicated that a lay leadership team—even if it’s just two people—is critical to starting and growing a singles ministry. The overarching principle here, explains Stephens, is “giving away as much of the ministry as possible.” The more ownership someone experiences, he says, the more ministry he or she will do. Stephens, who identifies his greatest emphasis as developing his leadership team, makes the people on his team a priority. He takes one day a week to call each person and check in with him or her.
Presson’s experience has shown him that a singles leadership team should be comprised of the actual people the ministry serves. “I have a thing about single adult ministry being single adult-owned and operated,” he says. “I do have some married teachers, but sometimes they tend to do the ministry ‘to’ or ‘for’ single adults rather than ‘with’ them.” The exception to this rule, he says, would be a previously divorced couple working with mostly divorced singles.
How do you start a leadership team? White launched with a lunch. “I found it extremely helpful to hold leadership luncheons right away,” White says. “A free lunch will always attract a few people, and out of that initial group you can find some leaders who are interested in helping you launch the program.”
Brentwood Baptist’s Presson adds, “Start by identifying lay leadership who would be interested. Start with the people who are coming to you to say we should be doing this.”
4. START SMALL
Instead of throwing open the floodgates in hopes of thundering crowds, our pastor group advises churches to “think small” when beginning a singles ministry. Even if unchurched singles are your target, an outreach-oriented singles group has to start with a core group committed to the ministry and to each other.
“My advice would be to take it slow and realize you’re trying to hit a moving target,” says Prestonwood’s Stephens. “And that’s OK. Pour your life into the singles that are coming and always have something for them to do. Any singles ministry—regardless of size—must be an active ministry.”
White found it easier to start from scratch with small groups and build on that philosophy. Presson agrees, stressing the importance of keeping a new and small singles ministry close and focused.
“Identify a few things the singles ministry wants to concentrate on and do well,” he says. “I once supervised a men’s ministry in another church that tried to do too many unrelated things right out of the chute. They floundered. The subsequent team majored on doing two things well, and the ministry grew.”
The emphasis for small groups should be cultivating a place where people feel like they belong, Presson says. “When you think about it, singles ministry is the only area where someone walks in completely alone. Teens are likely to see someone they know from school. Married people have each other.”