In a 2015 interview with Francis Chan on John Piper’s podcast, Chan expressed his view that young people are delaying marriage because they are engaging in premarital sex. Immediately alarm bells went off in my mind when I read this.
Another single person, Caitlin, also must have heard those same bells. She recently listened to the 2015 interview and wrote in to Piper’s podcast expressing her concerns over this reasoning. She writes:
“I have been deeply impacted by the writings and teachings of Francis Chan in the past and have profound respect for him. But his reasoning that singles in the church are engaging in sexual immorality and therefore marrying later felt dismissive for a lot of us. I cannot name a single Christian couple that is in the situation he describes and is therefore delaying marriage. His response felt like it skimmed over a topic with so much more depth to it.”
Amen, Caitlin. I hear you. I think every single person who has stuck it out in church hears you.
Caitlin then goes on to describe her situation and that of her friends. I feel like I could have written what she did. She writes of faithful, committed Christians trying to stay in community and working their tails off to pay student loan debt all while waiting for their spouse to show up at church one weekend. I’ve seen my own friends do this for years. Ummm….going on decades now.
Some of us have stayed committed to the hope of a good, godly marriage, and others of us have gotten discouraged and left the church in search of a relationship.
Problem #1: Those Numbers, Though
Briefly, I want to talk about numbers. Because for all practical reasons, this is a numbers issue.
In 1980, the average age of marriage for women was about 22. In 2018, it’s about 28. That’s a pretty steep climb if you compare the ages in 1950 (around 20) and 1980 (again, 22). In that thirty year stretch from 1950 to 1980, the age increased by two years. But in the 38-year stretch from 1980 to 2018, we’ve leaped from 22 to 28. The ages for men hover slightly above their female counterparts, and have also climbed steeply these last few decades: up and to the right (and not in a good way).
Honestly, I just don’t think we know what to do about this change as a society.
It’s important to say that the desire for marriage hasn’t waned as the average age has risen. Those of us in the church are especially keen on marriage. I don’t have a single (double entendre intended here) friend who doesn’t want to be married. Literally.
Added to the hike in age, the church has its own numbers problem. There are simply more women than men who attend church. A study by Pew Research shows that currently those who attend church at least once a week are composed of 43 percent men and 57 percent women. Of this group of people who attend church at least once a week, only 19 percent have never been married, 9 percent are widowed, and 12 percent are divorced or separated. The rest (60 percent) are married or cohabitating. There just aren’t a lot of single people at church in general.
Additionally, the single people at church are disproportionately represented by women. Single Adult Ministry cites 23 percent of single women attend church regularly, while only 15 percent of single men attend regularly.
I look at those numbers and think: Odds are not in my favor. But then I remember God literally made Adam a spouse when he didn’t have one. So….there’s that.
Problem #2: The Cringe-Worthy Advice We’re Offered
Added to the bleak numbers, there are the well-intentioned yet potentially harmful effects of older, married Christians offering advice. People like Francis Chan, who are hoping to give some sort of an explanation but are completely out of touch with the struggle of the single church-goer. Sometimes we get the “have you tried a dating app?” To which we reply, Yes. Of course. It was demoralizing. Other times we get “Well….you are praying, right?” Yes. That was step one. That is also the repeated thing we do day after day after year after year. But this is by far the worst thing you can say: “Oh your generation. You’re just so picky.” Oh boy. You obviously don’t know me very well. I’ve tried to make a lot of things work. Also, didn’t you teach my generation to be picky?
If I could speak frankly, without the fear of offending truly well-intentioned older, married Christians, I would say this: I so appreciate your concern for my situation. Honestly, knowing that someone is praying for me about this is comforting. But until you’ve been single into your 30s or 40s (or older), there’s not a lot of practical advice you can offer me. You just don’t understand the plight unless you’ve experienced it. I’m not saying I don’t want your advice or insight. I’m just saying when you offer it, please don’t assume the situation now is the same as it was when you were dating. Or that there are easy answers.
I think of my parents, from whom I regularly seek advice in this area. I explain a problem or a concern I have, and they listen quietly, think for a few minutes, then my father usually says something along the lines of, “Honey, I’m sorry. I don’t know what to tell you. We got married young.” For some reason, this comment is helpful. I don’t expect them to have a solution for me. But the fact that they understand how different my situation is from theirs helps. (By the way: This isn’t the end of the conversation, but it usually starts there.)
Problem #3: Few Examples. Little Platform.
Truthfully, when I think about myself and my single friends—some of us in ministry, some of us pursuing careers or leadership opportunities, some of us fostering kids and volunteering at church—I think these are the people the church should be asking to teach about self-control and fulfillment in Christ. Nothing teaches you self-control like going to bed alone for years on end. And nothing teaches you fulfillment like confiding in Christ like you would to a spouse at the end of the day. Yet we don’t often hear from people like us in a church setting.
I’m not trying to toot the single horn here, but honesty I feel there’s a lot the church can learn from those of us singles who have remained committed to the cause of Christ and also living in community with other believers. I wish, instead of offering advice to Caitlin, John Piper had given the floor over to a single person in his or her 30s or 40s to answer the question. No offense to Piper. Really, I don’t mean to put him or his intentions down. Or Francis Chan. But really, it’s hard to take advice from someone in this area who got married young and in a different day and time.
We singles need a platform in our local churches, too. For the equipping of the saints! For the sake of relevancy!
Finally, if I could speak to those well-intentioned married Christians again: The next time you check in with your single friend, don’t offer any advice. Tell him or her you are praying. You care. You’re there.
Your presence and concern are enough. And for many of us, they are the reason we come to church.