by Carolyn McCulley
When I was a single woman in my mid-thirties, I invited the elders of my church and their wives to a formal holiday dinner as a way of expressing my thanks to them for their care and ministry. As I served the standing rib roast on a table set with china and crystal, one man remarked, “Wow. I never would have done this when I was single. It would have been pizza for everyone!”
This pastor offered this comment as an expression of thanks and I received it that way. But I did ponder it afterward, realizing that for many people the link between youthful inexperience and singleness is inextricably linked. In my early 20s, I too would have served pizza on paper plates, if indeed I had thought at all about offering hospitality.
This is one of the potential pastoral challenges to ministering to single adults. We are often The Singles, one monolithic block of unmarried people. But there are as many stages and seasons to single adult life as there are for married adults. A single woman in her 50s with a demanding career caring for elderly parents is not equivalent to a recent college grad who is still living at home. Both are unmarried, yes, but chances are, the older single woman and the parents of the college grad may have more in common.
Through the years, I’ve observed that The Singles can be a prickly lot to pastor. Whatever leaders say from the pulpit about singleness is guaranteed to encourage some and offend more. I know because I’ve been in both camps, depending on where I am in the cycle of hope or despair and how I am working that out in my soul before God.
Therefore, I have a list of insights about single adults that I’d like to offer to church leaders. The hope here is that these ideas will foster a stronger connection between unmarried people and their local congregations:
You are not shepherding a dating service — wait, yes you are.
Churches should have a high view of marriage and uphold it without apology. But church leaders also need to recognize that when marriage is devalued in our culture, that brokenness comes into the church, too. There was a time when older members of any community worked hard to ensure the next generation married well. In our current hands-off approach, many single adults are adrift and need help to meet and marry wisely because that’s not a priority in our culture.
In the face of that neglect, the church should be proactive about facilitating what God prizes in Scripture. That said, there’s a huge difference between being nosy busybodies and facilitating relationships among single adults. In my observation, the best resource the local church has is married men who befriend and mentor single men — not to “fix” them, but to invest in them as brothers.
So to help unmarried adults meet and marry well, the church needs to be proactive about creating contexts for singles to meet each other and live out dating relationships in the context of community. What that looks like will depend on many factors specific to local communities, which is why church elders need to lead and shape this process.
Marriage is not the ultimate prize.
While I believe all churches should prize marriage and family, I also believe we have to be careful about the unintentional messages potentially conveyed about marriage and family. Both are gifts for this life alone. The one relationship that survives eternally is the one we have as the Bride of Christ to our beloved Savior. The relationships that we all have as brothers and sisters in Christ are the ones that will not end—and these need to be cultivated as much as family life is cultivated. Additionally, single adults need to be reminded that God has not withheld his very best from them if they remain unmarried.