Isn’t It Time the Church Gave Singles a Break?

©2008, Matthew Nasholm

©2008, Matthew Nasholm

When Christians gather for worship, it’s around the things we have in common.

A common savior. A common grace. A common spirit. A common commission.

The differences fade away. The dividing walls of hostility are torn down. People separated by things like race, gender, and economic status gather around a common table.

So why, when we have so much in common, do we spend so much time in worship focused on roles we don’t all share? Not everyone attending a Sunday service is married. We’re not all parents. We’re not all employed at nine-to-five jobs. And yet, while a majority of the Scripture applies to every single one of us, we spend a lot of time focused on responsibilities that don’t.

Now don’t get me wrong. Our roles are important, and allowing Scripture and community to inform the way we carry out our individual duties is an integral part of our maturity. But isn’t the entire community better served by focusing our worship around discussions that are mutually beneficial?

When I pastored, I refused to preach on roles. Here are a few reasons why:

1. It’s not equitable

I have heard so many messages on marriage in church services. I have sat through multiple-week-long series on how to have a good marriage. But in twenty-one years I have maybe sat through two sermons on being single, and one of them was in a college ministry (and, incidentally, it was really about saving yourself for future spouses).

2. The lack of equity creates a false standard

Marriage is not the Christian standard for being. There are people who will never get married. When we spend an inordinate amount of our corporate time focused on this one area, we communicate that somehow those who have yet to find a spouse, have chosen to stay single, or have lost a spouse aren’t really living the Christian ideal.

I can’t tell you how many single people I have counseled over the years who have this constant sense of anxiety about the need to get married. And quite a bit of it is traced back to the marriage culture in so many evangelical churches.

Incidentally, this is one reason that I find worship in Catholic, Orthodox, and high-church settings so refreshing. When I attend a liturgical service, I feel so connected to people through worship focused on our oneness in him, rather than how we are different.

3. Role-oriented services can be quite painful

We’re not just talking about singles who have chosen not to get married. There are a lot of singles who’d love to find someone to marry, but for whatever reason haven’t. Continually emphasizing marriage just twists the knife and increases feelings of loneliness and isolation.

I know infertile couples who just stay home on Mother’s and Father’s day. I have a widower friend who’s been in church his whole life, but he’ll walk out of a service if it’s marriage-centric.

It’s my conviction that we need to be empathetic to the pain this emphasis causes.

4. We all benefit from common biblical instruction

There is so much rich theology and spiritually formative teaching that applies to us all. In fact, a huge majority of the Bible’s narrative and instruction are for all people, at all time, in every circumstance.

What’s fantastic is that when we internalize these teachings, they have a positive effect on the roles that we’re talking about. Learning to submit to the Spirit is applicable whether you’re a CPA, a spouse, a gardener, a student, or a parent (and will make you shine in each of those roles).

As I said, having time to focus on our distinct roles is important. And there are wonderful opportunities in the body of Christ for mentoring, studies, small groups, and classes around these responsibilities.

Let’s spend our worship focused together on the work of Christ, and how he’s transforming us into people who excel at whatever responsibilities we have.

Agree? Disagree? Let’s chat about it in the comments.

Image: ©2008, Matthew Nasholm

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16 Responses

  1. Jake says:

    My church preaches verse by verse through the Bible and when the Bible speaks of roles, than it is taught.

    • Thanks for the comment, Jake. I think preaching exegetically through the Scriptures is a great solution to this problem. If done right, it gives most issues the right amount of emphasis.

      The only problem I can see is that many of the Old Testament’s narratives get turned into sermons on marriage.

  2. Jan Moyer says:

    As much as I appreciate talks on marriage, I always cringe a little inside thinking of the singles in the congregation. Sure, we can all learn something regardless of topic or relationship status, but I’ve wondered at times if it unintentionally causes hurt. Perhaps there are other times and places for that/

    • Often pastors get around that by saying something like, “And if you’re single out there, these ideas also apply to relationships with your friends or family.”

      Well, if the content is mutually accessible to everyone in a relationship, why focus on marriage? Share with us insights on how Christians engage in relationship, and give us the occasional touchpoint for how these principles specifically apply to parenthood and marriage.

  3. Darren Beem says:

    Another place where I see this is with professional women. The church seems very attentive to stay at home moms. There are mid week programs and there are special mommy groups.

    Professional moms who work a full week and come home to take care of the their kids are not as resourced in the church. Although the church has really advanced with respects to gender roles, I think there is still a kind of assumption that seems to favor women staying at home with the kids. This leaves professional mothers left to feel “less than”. As a guy this is something I’ve noticed.

  4. I can’t really speak for all denominations, but I do know that in the Catholic Church, where there is a strong drive toward marriage and family life, being single isn’t inherently bad. In some cases, it’s useful if someone wishes to take the consecrated life as a member of the clergy or be part of a religious order like the Jesuits or the Carmelites.

    The point, I think, is that you give your life toward a greater relationship with God, whether it’s with the help of a spouse and children or through a life of personal devotion and reflection.

  5. (Beware of parentheses):

    These are all really great points, but I think you missed an important and subtle one that ties into #2.

    Often the reason marriage is held up as the ideal is because it is the most tangible thing listed in the Bible as a metaphor for the church’s relationship with Christ (and don’t we all wish THAT were more tangible). This is almost always emphasized during sermons on marriage, since Ephesians is such a great reference for talking about marriage (not being ironic, though I do think it’s also a great reference for talking about mutuality within the body of Christ in any form). Because of this emphasis, there tends to be a blurring of the lines between the significance of marriage and the reality of relationship with Christ.

    Add to that the lack of social taboo for a married person to say to a single person, in front of people, things that amount to “You think you know what marriage might be like, but you could never possibly know until you are married.” In fact, I’ve often encountered groups of married people who simply revel in the ignorance of single people regarding marriage in ways that make me think they are pretending they have a time machine and are berating themselves the night before their weddings…But they are not. They are berating me instead. Not uncommonly in a church setting. (This is the same “in crowd” phenomenon seen across all sorts of demographics.)

    The combination of these things taught me that I can’t possibly know what it’s really like to be a member of the church or united with Christ, because I can’t leverage my knowledge of marriage to understand this metaphor. As long as I remain single I am inexorably and woefully ignorant of the reality of relationship with Christ.

    The best thing I’ve found to combat this terrible theology is the Eucharist.

  6. Jennifer says:

    Although I don’t disagree by any means, at the same time, when I was single, which was pretty much until I met my husband at age 24, and though it did so often feel like a knife being twisted inside, every sermon I heard or when a mentor encouraged me to pray for my future spouse and for the spouse I wanted to be, even though it was painful, I grew exponentially. I don’t think it should be cut out completely from church services, but rather I wish pastors/couples/the church tried to find a better balance between emphasizing what the Bible speaks on marriage and on singleness, more importantly on the relationship that God wants to have with us regardless of who we are, where we’ve been or what we’ve done, and that it’s unlike any other relationship you will ever possibly have, married or not. I like your blog posts – I just stumbled among them today. Have you ever read the Meaning of Marriage by Timothy Keller?

  7. Kerith Stull says:

    I also cringe at role-oriented sermons, especially series. Although I have been married to a wonderful man for 23+ years, I church alone. Sermons on marriage make me feel uncomfortable. I am the mother of two daughters ages 19 and 17. Parenting sermons also make me feel uncomfortable. My 17yo has moderate cerebral palsy. Certain parenting principles just don’t apply. Not every sermon can apply to every congregational member. But, I think church leaders really need to consider those who fall outside the parameters of the sermon and work to include them. Perhaps some of the topics could be designed for a short-term Sunday school class or retreat or some other forum. Those who feel “uncomfortable” need to speak up more often. Thanks for the nudge to do that next time!

  8. Marsha says:

    I have been divorced since I was 25. I always wanted a family. After dating for many years, I decided that re-marriage was not in my future, so I adopted a child as a single parent. I also am an attorney. So, if you really want to know what it feels like to “not fit in” at church, try being a divorced/professional woman/single adoptive mother of a special needs child! Further, at age 9 my son was diagnosed with a fatal genetic disease. Our pastor at the time often preached sermons involving stories about families who had lost children to accident or disease. I left many sermons in tears, and finally asked him if he could avoid the subject because it was so painful to me. The thing that I dislike so much is that so many “church women” act like I am some kind of freak because I am not married. Our churches are really missing a great opportunity by making singles feel like they have a contagious disease. Singles should be accepted in ALL sunday school classes and in ALL areas of leadership in the church. You do not have to be married to be successful, trustworthy and dedicated.

  1. August 31, 2013

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