(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.”


How the Unmarried can Reveal the Vocational Character of Marriage

April’s second point—about the way that marriage features in our cultural scripts about adulthood—is an important one. Within such scripts, perhaps especially in evangelical Christian circles, marriage is a matter of course. The question is not if but to whom you should be married. We all steadily pair off and settle into suburban lifestyles with a couple of children. Those who don’t marry are like the sorry kids left unchosen for a class team. We try to extend sympathy to them and to dull their disappointment. We speak about God’s purpose for ‘singleness’ as if it were a sort of consolation prize.

Yet the New Testament treats the unmarried state as one that Christians can purposefully pursue and one that is even preferable in certain instances, allowing one to devote oneself to the service of the kingdom of God in a fuller manner (e.g. Matthew 19:11-12; 1 Corinthians 7:6-9; 25-40). One of the things that this does is to disrupt the cultural script of marriage as a matter of course. Marriage ceases to be something that we just do because that is what everyone is expected to do and becomes something that we need to think about as a particular Christian vocation among other vocations.

In 1954, my grandfather, a missionary in Nigeria, read a book on the Christian family. This book made such an impression upon him that, although he had previously been strongly inclined not to marry, he was convinced that he needed to find a wife. After prayer for guidance, God put my grandmother on his heart. My grandmother, for her part, had felt that the verse ‘For your Maker is your husband’ (Isaiah 54:5) had been given to her by God. She resolved herself to remain unmarried in God’s service, packed up, left the UK, and went out to serve God in Africa. It required struggle on both of their parts to come around to the idea of marriage. The following pictured prayer letter describes the way that they finally did so.


Marriage is typically treated as a matter of course, yet Jesus’ teaching on marriage led his disciples to wonder ‘if such is the case of the man with his wife, it is better not to marry’ (Matthew 19:10). As someone who, like my grandparents, has given serious thought to lifelong celibacy—even when marriage was an option—marriage has always appeared as one particular—albeit naturally the most common—mode of Christian vocation, rather than just the presumed script. Once this is recognized, rather than where I will enjoy the greatest happiness in my personal lifestyle, the primary consideration becomes the form of life in which God would have me serve him.

Viewing marriage primarily as one possible mode of Christian discipleship, rather than the presumed script that merely awaits my finding the ‘right person’ has led me, like my grandparents, to reflect at length upon the particular character and significance of these modes of discipleship. It has led me, like my grandfather, to a very pronounced sense of the immense importance of Christian marriage as a form of vocation and to a similar sense about various vocations that exist for the unmarried. It has also led me to a strong realization of marriage’s character as a project and institution that exceeds and places limits upon the ends and desires of the couples entering into it. Marriage does not principally exist to serve our personal self-realization, but brings two people together as one to serve God and their neighbour, most notably in the next generation.

When the Church and society becomes forgetful of unmarried vocations, it risks losing sight of marriage itself. People walk blindly into marriage in pursuit of personal satisfaction or because everyone is expected to get married, without ever being prompted to reflect deeply upon just how awesome a vocation they have committed themselves to. The pause that a strong doctrine of unmarried vocations can give us—is it ‘better not to marry’ or what reason do we have to believe that God would have us marry?—may help people to understand marriage in a way that they never would have done otherwise.

Marriage and Family as Idols of the Church

Graham, thank you for starting this conversation on singleness in the church!

My husband and I were relatively new to married life when we began seminary, and I remember sitting in my Pastoral Care and Counseling class and hearing my professor remark that she wondered if the western church had made an idol out of marriage and family. At the time, as a newly married person, I laughed at that idea. The truth was, however, that I had never experienced the church as an unmarried person over a “marriageable age.”

Shortly before I turned 21, I was married. At 26 I had my first child. These all fell into place within the expectations of many people in the churches where I found myself.

It wasn’t until I began interviewing for church ministry positions that I realized the noticeable slant in favor of married ministers. And even better, we were married with a newborn child. I think there are several things at play that lead to preferencing married ministers, but for this conversation, I want to address two of them.

1. For churches in numerical decline, or churches longing for more young families and children in their midst, a married minister (preferably with a child or two, or more) seems to be step one in quickly fixing a perceived void in the life of the church. If a church has no children, but calls a minister with 2-3 children, suddenly there are kids in the church again.

Unfortunately, not only does quickly adding a child or two to the congregation not create needed adaptive change in which children are actually welcome in a congregation, but a minister who is married with a family may not be any better equipped to minister to young families than an unmarried minister with gifts for children’s ministries.

2. I’m not exactly sure when this began, but it seems to me that for quite some time, marriage has been viewed as a sign that someone has successfully launched into adulthood. Those who do not get married are often viewed suspiciously, as though there is something wrong or broken with those who remain unmarried. Women might be blamed for having too dominant a personality. Men might be viewed as not stepping up, as Alistair wrote about in his response. For men and women, remaining unmarried has also contributed to speculation about their sexuality.

Viewing marriage as the point when someone has “arrived” at adulthood is problematic in so many ways. Not only does it neglect the Apostle Paul’s discussion on the calling to remain unmarried (as Graham mentioned earlier), it also defines adulthood as something an unmarried person is unable to enter into on his/her own. This view of marriage is something that comes far more from the 1st century idea of the nuclear family as the building block of society than it does from Scripture.

I also want to say thanks to Alastair for challenging the language of “singleness.” I deeply appreciate the push for viewing the church as a new family, and that none of us should be “singles” even if we are unmarried.

The Shifting Ground of ‘Church Values’

In response to Graham’s post, I think there’s a lot to be gained from remembering that the Church has never had a perfect/functional view of marriage/singleness/sex, but that we go through phases of different types of dysfunction. A quick read of the Church fathers and you find yourself embroiled in debates as to whether men and women should be able to leave their marriages in order to join monastic orders; singleness (or, more specifically, virginity) being considered a ‘higher’ calling than married life. Or, to look at the tradition of Roman Catholic priests, as a minister, your call is marriage to the Church, which is a sacrament in itself – the direct opposite of the ‘favour’ shown to married ministers in protestant churches.

As to representing the ‘single’ view, as a very young single woman (though currently in a relationship) my early twenties have been plagued by the ‘dating pool’ view of church, and a constant anxiety about whether my attempts at friendship are being read as having ulterior motives. More generally, I do get the feeling that single people are relegated to a kind of ‘second class citizen’ status, once they are over ‘marriageable’ age – an age which is much harsher for women than men.

Assorted Thoughts on the Unmarried State from One Still in It

Thoughts on Graham’s post, in no particular order.

  1. God’s statement that it was not good for the man to be alone is often misread, I believe. Rather than the emphasis being upon Adam’s supposed loneliness, where many Christians place it, aloneness describes a much broader issue. The aloneness of Adam is a problem because alone, Adam cannot fulfil the purpose for which God has created him. He needs a commissioned counterpart for his purpose to be realized, not just a personal companion. Read this way, the point of Genesis 2 is not that every man needs a woman, but that the human male is quite insufficient to fulfil God’s creational purpose for humankind without the assistance of the human female: the male and femaleness of humanity is integral to the purpose for which God created us. While marriage expresses this truth in nuce and has an iconic significance as a result, it is far from the only way that this truth can be lived out and expressed in human life and society. Also, it is important to recognize that some of the loneliest people in the world are married.
  2. While ‘singleness’ may be an appropriate way of speaking about the behaviour of the culture, is it helpful Christian terminology? While in our culture we are tempted to go through life as ‘singles’—even to approach marriage as ‘singles’ (concerned with maximizing individual life satisfaction, sex life, etc.)—the Church should be a place where no one is ‘single’, but where we are all caught up in a rich web of relationships in the body of Christ.
  3. The welcoming of the unmarried in the early Church was radical, but perhaps not in quite the same ways that it will be in our society. The radical step in the early Church was forgoing offspring and the social place accorded by family role. Those who took this step trusted that their posterity would be secured in the kingdom of God and that it was within that family that they found their place. In our society it will typically be sexual relations and personal lifestyle fulfilment that we forgo (both of which we idolize). Both steps can be practical declarations of eschatological imminence, that a new creation is at hand and that this creation and its orders will pass away. This has a lesson for the married among us too.
  4. As our society has ceased to be a robust familial culture, the Church has often set itself up as a site for the defence of ‘family values’ (the privileging of families within the Church often contrasts with the way that the wider society can privilege ‘singles’). While such defence is important, this can make the Church forgetful of its distinct calling and identity as a new family formed of peoples of all backgrounds and can trap it within the parochialism of the nuclear family (which no longer is even connected to an extended family or to a larger ‘household’). The Church takes on the weaker character of a sort of social club for families and assorted others, rather than a family in its own right. The unmarried will always tend to be marginalized in this order.
  5. Can a biblical foundation for honouring the unmarried state be made? About ten years ago, I attempted to make one (part 1, part 2, part 3). I would change several things were I to write that today, but I still roughly agree with the ten years younger version of myself. Barry Danylak’s Redeeming Singleness—which I review here—is also well worth a read on this.
  6. Many of us who are unmarried aren’t the slightest bit angst-ridden about our state, nor are we lonely. Being verbally ‘affirmed’ or assured that we ‘belong’ is of little interest to us. What we would appreciate is avenues for service and a Church that thought more seriously about the sort of society it is called to be.
  7. There is definitely a bias towards married clergy with children in my experience.
  8. There are also differences between men and women’s experience of singleness in the Church, I believe. The widespread gender imbalance in churches is a big issue for many women, I suspect. As an unmarried guy (though now in a relationship), I have faced accusations of not stepping up and doing my bit to address this problem and have also encountered more than my fair share of well-meaning but unhelpful matchmakers!

Marriage, Singleness, “Family Values”, and the Church

I’m married. I have 3 children. I’m a pastor. I drive a minivan.

By the standards of “traditional Christian family values” I have all the boxes checked off. When my wife and I were expecting our third child, we had to trade in our dependable, much loved Toyota Corolla for a minivan. I hated the thought of being a minivan dad. I felt like pleated khakis and a fanny pack were not far behind. But one lady in our church actually said something to the effect of “I’m glad you have a minivan now, it sends the right message”. By that I assume it was meant the image I project by driving a minivan is that of a “family man”, and a pastor should be a family man. Anything I can add to that image is to the benefit of my ministry. Apparently some people want their pastors to be dads who drive minivans, have a flock of children and a homemaker wife. But on what is that based? There seems to be the assumption that Christians are supposed to get married and make babies and have perfect nuclear families.

Since this post is meant to get a conversation going I won’t try to be comprehensive or conclusive, but I just want to throw out a few ideas on the subject of marriage, singleness and the Church’s assumptions about the ideal of family life. Most of the PTSS contributors are married, and have children. Sadly, Lore Ferguson had to drop out of this due to time constraints, but she has done lots of thinking and writing on this subject of singleness. Alastair and Hannah M will have to bear the load of the single perspective. But here’s a few of my own thoughts.

When building a case for Christian marriage, many turn immediately to Genesis 1 & 2 (a section which I’m sure will play a significant role in our conversation moving forward). “Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.'” (Gen. 2:18 NRSV). And in the previous chapter, we read that after making male and female in his image God commanded them “Be fruitful and multiply” (1:28). So does this mean all humans are meant to be in covenantal partnership with a spouse and make babies? Is there room for singleness in this vision for humanity? A few thoughts which should add nuance to our reading:

Is this descriptive of Adam and Eve or prescriptive for all humanity? There are all sorts of interpretations of the historicity of Genesis 1-2, and our purpose here isn’t to tackle that, as fun as it may be. But my own 2 cents is to read Adam and Eve as representative of humanity at our origins, not literally historical people. Thus, God’s creation of humanity in two genders for the sake of partnership and fruitfulness is for the purpose of human flourishing. But if a specific human doesn’t procreate are they failing to obey God’s command? Or is humanity collectively in view here?

I am not prepared to push beyond the text, and impose this as commanded to all individual human beings; that each and every single person must have a spouse and produce children. Marriage was prescribed for the benefit of humanity, but is it a requirement of all people? We as humans are better off as image bearers in community, but does that specifically require the community of marriage? In other words, is being unmarried the same as being “alone”?

In the New Testament, there is a bit of tension on this front. In a unique passage, Paul gives his own personal advice on the subject: “ To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am.” (1 Cor. 7:8, throughout 1 Cor. 7, Paul specifies that he is giving his own opinion, not binding divine commands) It seems there is, according to Paul, some advantage for Christians in remaining unmarried. Paul honours singleness. However, 1 Tim. 3 (which many say isn’t actually by Paul of course, but both texts are accepted as canonical) we read that

Now a bishop must be above reproach, married only once, temperate, sensible, respectable, hospitable, an apt teacher, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, and not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, keeping his children submissive and respectful in every way— for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how can he take care of God’s church?

Not a popular passage among egalitarians or singles, since on the surface it certainly seems to insist all bishops must be males who are married and have well behaved children. So do we conclude singleness is good, unless you want to lead? But that would obviously be problematic for Paul, who was unmarried. The marital statuses of many of the apostolic community is shrouded in mystery. Peter had a mother in law, and Philip had daughters. There is some consensus that there are married couples in the leaders listed in Romans 16. But it is quite difficult to ascertain exactly what the Apostolic community envisioned with regard to marriage in the Church, and how it played out it the formative years of the Christian community. There seems to be honour given to both singleness and marriage. Paul assumes marriages will take place. Some (or perhaps even most) Christians will marry, and likely have children and ought to conduct themselves in the context of marriage in ways which reflect Christ (how the remarks like those in Eph. 5 are best interpreted is a discussion which I am fairly sure will come up in the future). But Paul makes significant room for singleness as a viable, or even preferable way.

So, what do we do with that in the here and now? The Christian cultural bubble seems to prefer marriage. There certainly seems to be a significant push on young folks in the Christian community to “pair up” and make babies for the glory of God. The “family values” ideal of dad, mom, 3 kids, a house, a dog, a minivan, etc. has become assumed as the vision for Christian life. Those who remain unmarried sometimes receive some funny looks and strange questions (“when are you going to settle down?”, “haven’t met the right person yet?”, etc.) There is pressure in Churches to build ministries to young families. But how many ministries to young singles exist? And are the ones that do exist mainly focused on creating opportunities for singles to meet potential spouses? I suspect that part of the reason I was called to my current pastoral role was because I was married and expecting a second child when I interviewed. A young family man will attract the young families to Church. But this of course denigrates singleness. We certainly wouldn’t consciously exclude singles, but what part do they have in the overall vision of the Church’s mission? (Also, it’s bizarre that folks in the congregation I pastor emphasize young families, when our building is located in a neighbourhood which is mostly made up of folks who aren’t young families).

Also, it’s worth asking, is there a double standard? Are single men finding a different experience from single women? I’d certainly be curious to hear the experiences of both sides on this front. Are single women honoured in their singleness or is it viewed as strange? Do men receive similar pressure to find a nice girl to build a family with? The demographics of my own congregation suggests that singles are not flocking to Church (at least not this one). We have a few, but they are far outnumbered by married couples, widowed folks, and even by divorced people. The number of never married folks is a very slim percentage here. Is that because of the assumed expectation of marriage?

So to summarize and suggest some ideas to cover in our conversation:

1. What assumptions do we see at work regarding the relationship between Christianity and marriage?

2. Can we establish a biblical foundation for honouring singleness in the Church?

3. Has the Church over-emphasized the ministry to the young families demographic?

4. Do we see a conscious or unconscious bias toward having clergy be married?

5. Is there a difference in the experience of men and women towards singleness?