(Mis)categorization and its effect on singles in the local church

Thank you, Graham, for bringing to the table an important issue. I want to zero in on talking about singles and the ministry of the church. You ask about ministries to singles and whether or not singles are flocking to the church. I want to offer up only one thought as to why singles might not be flocking to the church but rather leaving the church.

First, I approach this discussion as someone who was single until 27, who was part of a group who launched a young singles ministry at my church and whose mother was a volunteer singles minister for the majority of my years at home. I hope these factors will give me a helpful perspective.

After being part of churches my entire life that split its Sunday Schools and ministries into categories determined by age and marital status, I wonder if this system has had a negative effect in regards to singles.

After some reflection about my mom’s ministry to singles and my own experience, I am leaning toward the conclusion that when the local church divides its congregation into categories it can be problematic and potentially polarizing for those who do not neatly fit into a category. This is especially true for people who are unmarried. Sometimes I feel as if the leftovers, those who do not fit neatly into the other categories, are lumped together under “Singles.” And, if we don’t neatly fit into the category we are more likely to leave the church rather than stay.

Yet, when we talk about people who are single we are referring to a very diverse group of people within singleness. There are young adults who are single because they haven’t met someone to marry. This group of singles is dating with the hope or expectation of marriage. There are singles who choose to be single and celibate. Then, there are singles who are single not by choice but due to divorce or death of a spouse. And, we must also take into account the age of those who are single, as those who are single and 25 will not have the same needs or issues as someone who is single and 50.

Let me share my story.

When I moved to Birmingham, Alabama, as a 22-year-old single, I joined a church that, like many, divided its ministries, Sunday School hour and small groups into categories based on age or marital status. As a young single, there was only one Sunday School class option for me — Singles. However, this class was made up of mostly older singles that were working full-time jobs, while I was fresh out of college in graduate school. Even though we all shared the status “single,” I didn’t have much in common with them. I could have easily left the church or stayed uninvolved because I felt like a misfit. In fact, I later heard someone describe the Singles Sunday School class as “the island of misfits.” And, it felt that way, because we were grouped together based on a pretense. I left the Singles class and taught Sunday School for high school girls. A year later, with the help of a minister on staff, a small group of us formed the GAP (Graduates and Professionals) Sunday School class. But after five or more years we ran into a problem. All of us who started the class as young graduates were now approaching our 30s and were in the workforce and didn’t seem to fit well with the new young graduates. So the class split into the younger GAP class and the older GAP class.

Later, I married and my husband and I joined a young married class. There was a couple in the class who, after a couple of years of knowing them in the class, got a divorce. The wife left the husband and the husband now felt he had to leave the class. Although we told him that he was welcomed and we wanted him to stay, he didn’t feel like he could because he lost the status that unified him with the rest. He was now a divorced man in a married class. And as a result lost the support and community when he needed it the most.

I think there’s a place for people in similar stages of life coming together, perhaps in a small group setting. However, I wonder if it is unnecessary and unhelpful for Bible study hour or Sunday School hour. I wonder if the best thing for people who are single is to be part of a church that is integrated and focuses more on unity in Christ rather than finding unity within a specific category.

At present my husband and I are visiting a church where Sunday School isn’t divided by age or marital status. Rather, a handful of classes are offered based on either a book of the Bible or a relevant topic and the members choose which classes to attend. Most of the classes are given in lecture style and people from all ages and walks of life attend. Sunday School isn’t an hour that is structured around an attempt at unity based on external factors but rather structured around learning Scripture together. In this way I would think it is easier for someone who is unmarried to be involved and not feel like they are part of an “island of misfits.”