• Kaylee Estes

3 Subtle Changes to Support Singles in your Church

The other day, I went to lunch with an older couple from my church. During our conversation, they asked me how they can "better invite singles into the adventure of being a Christian." Without hesitating the first thing I said was that we don't need to be invited as we are already "in the adventure" with them. Instead, we need to be recognized as already being here and then included. As usual, this wonderful couple responded by asking what that would look like and how can they help. (I love it when people ask how they can help instead of assuming they have the answer!) My initial response was that the church in general (ie: pastors and staff) needs to change their language. Specifically in two ways: how they frame groups/ministries and the types of stories and metaphors that are used in weekend messages, social media, and other communication platforms. A third key thing I mentioned was to actually ask singles how they want to contribute instead of just putting them in positions that are hard to fill.

Before we dive into the three things the church can do to support singles, I want to briefly address why this is important. People are choosing to not get married longer than ever now. Additionally, there are more divorces now as well, so there are more divorced singles with or without kids. Lastly, as people live longer, we will continue to see more and more widows and widowers. As you can see the term "singles" does not just mean unmarried young adults in their 20s, even though that is what the church generally identifies as "single." And, you can see that means there are a lot of singles in our churches! Another reason this is important is that when the church emphasizes married couples and "families" more than anything else, then those who are single (at any age or stage of life) begin to feel ostracized. Now, I know that is not the intent of people in the church, but that is the impact. (A brief side note: "family" is typically assumed in the church to mean two parents and school-aged kids - I know that there are all kinds of families out there, but for the sake of simplicity in this blog, I'm going with the assumed definition.)

Now that we understand some of the importance of this topic, what can you or the church do? I'm glad you asked. There are actually quite a few things that can be done, but I decided to focus on the three things I mentioned above in the hope they will be a good start.

  1. The language that is used in your groups and/or ministries names. When I was the Connections Pastor and ran the small groups at my last church, I intentionally avoided using the word "single" or "singles" in the title of a group. Additionally, I intentionally avoided the idea of a singles ministry. There were some people who were unsure about that decision, both singles and non-singles. However, once I gave some context, they got it and were on board. Most single people I talk to, including myself, don't like the implied pressure that a singles group or singles ministry brings with it. The moment you add the word "single" or "singles" to a group or ministry it creates the assumption that everyone in that group or ministry is looking for their next date or spouse. While I understand that the church is a great place to meet one's future spouse, that doesn't mean that the church needs to be an IRL dating site. Besides, if you put a bunch of people in a group or large gathering, they can figure out on their own who is single and whether they want to mingle with them. Small groups especially are a place I strongly avoided the singles word. We should be going to a small group to cultivate friendships, grow deeper in our faith, and hold each other accountable to the growth points we are working on. Please hear me correctly, am I opposed to dating someone in your small group? No, I am not. But, am I opposed to setting the tone for the group to be a dating pool. Yes, I definitely am. One of the ways I avoided the word singles in groups is by encouraging group leaders to title their group according to their location or age demographic and then list it as co-ed. That way, should someone want to be in a co-ed group in the chance that they meet someone they want to date, they can be. But, the tenor of the group is established for the purpose of the group I mentioned above. Similarly, I avoided establishing a large singles social ministry. While I avoided it for similar reasons above - not wanting to set the expectation that we are creating a dating pool - I also avoided it because not all singles are the same age. As I mentioned earlier, there are singles in every decade of life for all kinds of reasons. So, you may end up with a 20-something, never-married single attending a singles ministry with a 40-something widow and 60-something divorcee. Would those three types of people have fun together, maybe, probably. But, long-term, that isn't ideal for each of those age groups. As I said above, if someone does end up dating someone from a group or social ministry, that is great! But, a 20-something doesn't want to date a 40 or 60-something and vice versa. As with the groups, I encouraged the larger social ministries to be appropriately age-specific. This also allows for couples (dating or married) to be included in these social gatherings which is wonderful! It is so healthy for both singles and couples to continue to be friends with each other and learn from each other!

  2. Stories and metaphors used in weekend messages, social media, and other forms of communication. One mistake I see most married pastors and staff use is to only use marriage or their spouse as an example or metaphor for something. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, but if those are the only types of stories one uses, then those who are not married will feel left out, or worse; like their life is somehow wrong or incomplete. And, as we saw above, singles could potentially be a large portion of your church! When a pastor preaches on being neighborly and gives an example of how she and her husband had their married neighbors over for dinner, or preaches on loving one another and gives an example of how he treated his wife to a massage and dinner out, those who are single are subconsciously being told that they can't be neighborly or love one another until they are married. As a person who has been single for a couple of decades now, I can say that that is bunk! And, hopefully, my married friends can see that as well. You do not have to be married to invite your neighbors over or to love one another well. In fact, some of my best memories have been of the loving things my single friends have done for me, not the guys I've dated. The solution to this one is pretty easy: use a variety of example stories and metaphors when preaching or in your marketing materials. And when you give different examples make the married one the last on the list of examples. When sharing stories in marketing materials or on social media, don't have every story be from a married couple. Include singles (of all ages and stages) as well. For example, if you are doing a series on giving and financial stewardship, don't just highlight the married couple who has seen many blessings because they have increased their giving. From a single person's perspective, I almost always dismiss those stories because I do not have a dual income. Include a story of a single person and their awesome financial stewardship experience. That will engage many of the singles in the room, and most likely some of the marrieds as well.

  3. Ask questions; don't make assumptions. Last, but certainly not least, ask the singles in your church community how they want to contribute to your church. Or how you can support them. Many times, married couples assume they know what a 30-something never-married single wants or needs from their church because they were single in their early 20s before they got married. Let me tell you right now, that is not the same. Or, maybe that 30-something is divorced or widowed...that married pastor who has never been divorced or widowed is now making even bigger assumptions. It's amazing to me how frequently we all jump to assumptions (myself included) rather than asking someone what they need or want. I frequently hear from singles (or have observed it myself) that when they wanted to serve/volunteer, they were immediately asked to serve in the kids ministry (the women especially). Then, what also frequently happens, is they are also asked to serve in at least one other capacity, if not two other capacities. I have literally heard my co-workers say things like, "it's okay, they are single so they have a lot more time on their hands." This really irks me. It seems like married people think that singles just sit on their couches twiddling their thumbs. We don't. We make plans, we work, we spend time with friends and family, and some of us go on dates. Don't get me wrong, I do see and understand that as a single person I do not spend time cultivating a relationship with my spouse. But, as a single person, I also don't have a spouse to help me out with all the regular day-to-day, week-to-week household chores and regular life responsibilities. And, for those who want to date, they are also trying to find a significant other or cultivate a relationship with their significant other. Plus, just because someone is married, doesn't mean that they should get a pass on serving or volunteering. The majority of the people in the Bible were married and did a lot of amazing things while married, and some with kids. Being married doesn't give you a pass to get out of serving and being single doesn't mean that we have all the time in the world and should be asked to over serve. There was a young woman who started coming to my church in the early fall when her college semester started. She told a colleague that she wanted to volunteer on a serve team so he immediately asked her to start greeting. After a few months of greeting and getting to know our church and staff some more, she let us know that she actually didn't like greeting because she is shy and would rather be on the tech team. We were thrilled because we needed more help on the tech team! Thankfully, she was able to tell us how she felt and we were able to get her on a team more suited to her desires and gifts. However, that could have easily gone the other way and she could have felt unseen and like we didn't care about her. In order to avoid the three months she spent being uncomfortable my colleague could have asked her where she wanted to serve and she would have been immediately put on the tech team.

Bottom line, I want our churches to start seeing the value of those who are single, at any age and stage of life, and not pigeonhole them into an assumed role. Being single is not a curse. It is not a waiting period until you're married and then life can happen. It is just a part of life. For some it is a life-long choice, for others, it is a shorter period, and still, for others, it is an unexpected and hurtful turn of events after a divorce. We shouldn't judge whether someone is able to do something in our church based on their marital status. Nor should we set the Christian standard to be one of marriage and having kids when that is just an option. Maybe, just maybe, if we set the Christian standard to be a mature, emotionally healthy, Jesus follower, we would find more unity amongst each other rather than disunity and divorce.

If Jesus and Paul could do all that they did and be single while doing it, then I think we can give the single people in our churches a little more encouragement and respect. I mean, can you imagine if the people in all the cities Paul went to didn't listen to him because he was single!? The spread of our faith would not have happened and we wouldn't have a successful model for the church today. Thank God that didn't happen.

I'm going to leave you with a couple of stories. The first is about Jack who is a single man and the second is about Sally, a married woman (both names have been changed). Jack had been attending my church for about a year or so when he came to me looking for a group to join. He had just ended a 2.5 year relationship and specifically wanted a co-ed group, but not a "singles" one because he wasn't yet ready to date. I had just started a new co-ed group for 30 somethings a month before, so I asked him if he wanted to join my group. He said yes. After a few weeks, he started opening up and was engaging more in conversation. I quickly saw a lot of leadership potential in him and asked him if he would want to be my apprentice and someday take over the group. He prayed and thought about it and agreed. We spent the next few months allowing him the opportunity to lead the group prayer or the group discussion. He continued to mature in his faith along with a number of other single and married people in the group. He has led that group for a couple of years now and has told me that he appreciated the space he was allowed and given to just be in the group without any thought or pressure to date. He also said he probably would never have thought to be a group leader had I not called him into it and he never would have been in my group in the first place had I called it a singles group!

Now Sally is the flip side of the coin. I started another group for people in their 30s and again it was a co-ed group. Sally started coming and shared with me that she was in a long-term relationship, but her boyfriend wasn't a Christian. She had been going through a rough spot at work and really felt like she wanted to dive back into her faith. She said she wanted to be in a co-ed group in case her boyfriend ever wanted to come, then there would be men there for him to talk to. But, she didn't want to be in a couples group because she would feel uncomfortable being the only one whose significant other didn't also attend. It took her about a month before she shared that she was in a long-term relationship and everyone was quite surprised. However, everyone was also very understanding and supported her. After a few months, her boyfriend came to a Christmas service and got to meet some of the people from the group that he had been hearing about. Sally told me later that he was surprised by how kind everyone was and that he would be open to coming back again! Had the group I started been a "singles" group, Sally would never have joined and she wouldn't have received the support she so desperately wanted and needed. And perhaps, her boyfriend wouldn't have tried coming to church.

My hope and prayer for you is that you can see the singles in your church in a new light and take some of these suggestions and use them in your church. At the very least, please go ask the singles in your church about their experience and how you, as the church, can better serve them instead of asking them to babysit your kids next Friday night.

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