Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The problem with "Singles Ministry"

My church closed a few months ago, and I'm struggling to find a new one. Looking for churches as a single person is THE WORST - visiting new churches seems to always be an excercize in feeling uncomfortable, and when you are on your own, there isn't even someone to write notes to on the bulletin during the service. So, I'm doing a lot of internet research to help prepare myself and minimize the amount of churches I have to visit before I find my next church home. As I scan websites, I can't help but notice links to "Singles Ministries."

Singles Ministries have never really appealed to me. I guess I haven't wanted to be labeled so bluntly, and also have thought that if I went to a singles event that it would mean I'd basically be saying I'm desperate and as such I'd feel really mean turning anybody down I wasn't interested in...I get horribly torn up when I feel like I'm rejecting people, especially ones who might already be dealing with issues of embarassment or desperation that might have led them to a seemingly safe zone of church singles ministry.

In recent years, I've felt more and more that many churches and church leaders don't really address single members of the body very well (you might want to check out my earlier post http://thesinglesadvocate.blogspot.com/2011/08/single-at-church-open-letter-to-all.html).  When segments of sermons are tailored to us, they generally just relate to waiting to have sex until we are married. There are many celebrations within the church related to married and family life (weddings, showers, baptisms, mother's day, father's day) and few dedicated to milestones in the lives of single people. There is little recognition/celebration of the ways in which single people are specially suited to certain types of ministry due to their availability.  And there's a lot of well-meaning, yet almost offensive off-handed remarks many singles often hear:  "you're just not ready yet - God's still preparing you," "The right one is out there, just stay pure," and "You should try a church with more single people."

It's not hard to see why lots of single's groups fail in churches. It's also not hard to see why lots of single people don't go to church. It's easier for me to not feel down about my singleness when I surround myself by single friends, but at church, I'm generally in the minority. But that's not a bad thing....I celebrate diversity in churches. I'm glad to see families, and old couples, divorcees and people like me - that's what the body of Christ looks like.

So, how can your church better serve singles in your body? Here's my ideas:
  • Often single people have more free time- help them find ways to minister in meaningful ways. Now this is a double edged sword - in one way, I hate the attitude that I've faced where people feel I have more time to give because I don't have kids and a husband to take care of, however, I do have the luxury of time. Find ways to offer singles the opportunity to minister in ways that they are uniquely suited to. Recognize those singles who are good listeners and see if they are willing to do visitation to shut ins. Try to find the singles who are good nurturers and encouragers and see if they are willing to help out with children/youth/disabled ministries. Some singles are great cooks but often only cook for themselves - see if they might want to help with meals for people in the midst of mourning, sickness, etc.
  • Integrate, don't separate. It is important for all of us in the body of Christ to recognize the diversity of all of the members. As I'm searching for churches, I don't really go back to ones where everyone is a 20 year old single, or all families, or churches that are all old couples. I want to grow from experiencing life with a community that is diverse in character and life situation. Yes, it is helpful to offer small groups for women, single parents, etc., but there should also be mixed options for those of us who celebrate diversity!
  • Celebrate the growth that can happen during singleness, rather than making it seem like a hardship to get through.  One of the hardest things for me to hear is when someone says "Don't worry, God will bring the right guy into your life one day."  First off, what if he doesn't? Why are you promising me something you have no control over? Secondly, what if I wasn't worrying? It is human nature to start worrying the second someone tells us not to. Thirdly, if eventually there is a "one day" when God does bring the right guy into my life, does that mean everything up til that is a waiting game and isn't important? Oh, and how I hate the "you're not ready yet, God is preparing you" arguement too - no one should speak for God on this matter, and it really hurts my feelings and makes me feel like people are assuming I have some personal sin in the way of God delivering a husband on my doorstep.  If you are talking to a single person in church, don't focus on what you might percieve as "lacking" in their life - instead let them share what they are working on in their life, how God might be moving in their experience, and support them where they are at without alluding to what you think they might be missing.
  • Have singles in leadership. When I scan church website staff directories and only see profiles of married couples I get nervous that I won't hear teaching I can relate to, or that my demographic might be overlooked. I think some churches are scared to have single ministry leaders because of the percieved risk of "inappropriate" behavior. My 21st century sensibilities label that as descrimination, but that's not the direction I want to take this bullet point. I absolutely recognize that God has used many ministry minded couples in phenomenal ways and that they are the basis of many many, many successful church ministries. But, ministers who are single are following in the tradition of so many of the early christians whom we speak so highly of in church: John the Baptist, Paul, Luke, Barnabas and many more. Moreover, single ministers have the ability to empathize in many ways with many church members who can feel broken in their singleness: divorcees, never marrieds, widows, those who are inclined to choose celibacy as they work through issues of sexuality, and more. For those outside traditional marraige, it can be incredibly hard to hear teaching from a married minister.
  • Don't just give singles the token "don't have sex" shoutout during marraige sermons. I've gone to church my whole life, and when pastors inevitably get to their marraige and sex sermons, I feel like the only message I ever hear is to wait and stay pure. I'm not denying that is an important message, but it is FAR from the only message for singles. Try mixing in some encouragement and celebration for the positives of singleness rather than focusing on one aspect that can make some of us most feel like we are missing out or in a very different category from others.
  • Singles in churches should be unified across age barriers, rather than clumped together.  Rather than focusing on having separate ministries for young singles who might be looking to date, divorcees perhaps needing counseling, single parents possibly reaching out for support, and widows and widowers who are often lumped into older adult ministires, try to encourage cross-singles ministry. As a single 30+ year old woman, I would love to get to know a single moms to offer friendship and support. I have a feeling getting to know some divorcees might help me from having the ridiculous ideas I have about marraige being perfect and solving all of my problems. Getting to know older widows would probably keep me from assuming that by getting married I'll never be alone again.  Also, what about people who are struggling with their sexual orientation (in churches that view homosexuality as a sin)? Perhaps by connecting them with heterosexual never-marrieds the opportunity to discuss the challenges of celibacy can be discussed in an honest, genuine and empathetic manner.  I'm know that these types of relationship can and do develop in churches, but are churches helping to foster them, or is it just through the work of the Holy Spirit? Can churches be more pro-active in this regard?

1 comment:

  1. I totally agree with everything you've said about the experience of being single in a church. Most people just don't understand and they never will...Have you been asking God to lead you to the right church family for you? He knows this is a great need we each have and He wants you to be in a church where you'll grow and serve. He will provide it for you. I'll pray for you too.