(Note: Since many pastors, church leaders and readers of this blog are married, these tips are written for that audience. The irony that I’m writing a blog post about singleness for married people is not lost on me. :))
1. Admit that singleness is complex and that you know little to nothing about it. A lot of people seem to think that singleness is to marriage as junior varsity is to varsity. As a result, married people sometimes mistakenly believe that they know something about singleness when in fact they don’t. Singleness isn’t a junior varsity version of marriage. It’s an entirely different sport—and if you haven’t played it, you haven’t mastered it. The average marrying age is 29.8 years for men and 26.9 for women. If you got married before these ages, then it makes sense to acknowledge that your experience as a single adult is below average. In other words, you don’t know a lot about singleness. This calls for humility.
Like marriage, singleness is complex. The challenges and joys of singleness are equal to but different than the challenges and joys of marriage.
I talk regularly with a white pastor who got married when he was 21. Most of the time, we talk about our racial differences and how we can build bridges across them. But recently we struck up a conversation about how my experience as a single person in the church differs from his experience as a married person. As I was sharing my experiences, it occurred to him that my singleness is just as foreign to him as my blackness is. He said, “Wow! Our conversation about singleness and marriage is just as cross-cultural as our conversations about being black and white.”
Treat singleness like you would treat any other cross-cultural exploration. Listen. Read some books. Don’t even think about preaching about singleness if you don’t actually have substantial and meaningful experience with it. Or, if you do choose to preach on the topic, enlist the help of an actual single person (like Greg Boyd did a couple of years ago when he asked me to team-preach this sermon with him.)
2. Recognize that as a married person, you are privileged. Married people run the Christian world. For example,
- Since many pastors, board members and organizational leaders are married, the married perspective is well-represented in the church in ways that the single perspective is not.
- Married people are much more likely to get hired as pastors.
- A quick search at Amazon.com reveals that for every one Christian book on singleness, there are 298 Christian books on marriage.
- Just for getting married, friends and family members buy married people expensive gifts like Kitchen Aid mixers (a mark of privilege if there ever was one).
- Marriage is the norm, the gold standard. If you don’t adhere to it, people ask questions. Case in point: I’m out-and-about in the Christian world a lot these days. As a result, I meet new people all of the time. The fact that we’ve just met doesn’t stop Christians from asking me why I’m not married. Out of the blue, and with a quizzical look, they’re like, “How come you’re not married?” It’s my most frequently asked question. Seriously.
When married people recognize their privilege, they can work to restore balance by:
- Listening well
- Being an advocate and raising questions (e.g., How can we make our “family camp” relevant and inclusive for singles?)
- Inviting single people to the table (hiring, boards, preaching, conference speakers, etc.)
- Making sure that issues that are pertinent to singles are raised in meetings, from the pulpit, while vision casting, at retreats, at conferences, etc.
- Reframing policy, values and expectations so that married people are no longer the gold standard.
3. Affirm that marital status isn’t correlated with godliness or maturity. Many single people feel that they are often automatically stereotyped as spiritually immature, morally dangerous and unsuitable for leadership simply because they’re single. I’ve even heard pastors unapologetically and explicitly discriminate against single people: “I don’t want to hire a single woman to direct the worship arts ministry because she’ll probably end up sleeping with all of the guys in the band.” This is both hurtful and wrong.
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote that financial independence is not a fruit of the Spirit. Well, marriage isn’t a fruit of the Spirit either. Married people aren’t more holy or godly or mature than single people. Married people haven’t “arrived” in a way that single people haven’t. Married people aren’t even “on track” in a way that single people aren’t. I can see why people are confused about this though. There are plenty of (married) Christian leaders who teach that married people are better candidates for holiness than single people. For example:
“In heaven, is the crucible of our saint-making going to have been through our jobs? I don’t think so. The Scripture makes clear that it will be done largely through our marriages.” —Dr. Albert Mohler
I disagree with Dr. Mohler. I don’t believe that Scripture makes it clear that marriage is the primary route to holiness. (And Dr. Mohler doesn’t offer any scriptural basis for his assertion.) But, I can see why the married people (like Dr. Mohler) who run the church are more inclined to believe that God makes saints exclusively/primarily through marriage. Research shows that humans intuitively trust people who share their life experiences.[iii]
When I meet another single Christian woman in her 30s, I automatically envision how God has used her singleness to teach her wisdom, selflessness, self-control, joy, patience and faith because that’s what God has done in my own life. I can’t easily envision the same for someone who is married, so I’m less inclined to trust that God has used marriage to produce similar fruit in her life. But I can’t let my inadequate imagination limit my view of the Holy Spirit’s work in her.
The Holy Spirit isn’t boring; it doesn’t have a cookie cutter plan for how it brings forth fruit in people’s lives. Marital status isn’t correlated with godliness or maturity. John 15:5 says that we bear fruit when we are connected to God. Period.
4. Celebrate single people. If you get married and/or have a baby, Christians will pull out all the stops to celebrate you. That’s a good thing! But Christians should also recognize that many single adults never get celebrated with such fanfare. We might not be walking down the aisle or gestating a baby, but God is doing some amazing things in our lives—from the “monumental” (such as helping us obtain degrees, launch ministries/businesses, pay off college loans) to the “mundane” (such as helping us serve our neighborhoods, pray for each other).
We must celebrate what God’s doing in people’s lives, whether it’s similar to what God’s done in our own lives or not. So, find reasons to throw big parties for the single people in your community. And if you have the resources, feel free to buy them expensive gifts as well. Single people use Kitchen Aid mixers too.
5. Recognize that you need single people to show you what the resurrection is really all about. Rodney Clapp (and Stanley Hauerwas) said it best:
“Without children, the Israelite fears the single’s name will burn out, sift to ashes and be scattered and forgotten in the winds of time. But Paul has seen the arrival of a new hope. Jesus has risen from the land of death and forgetfulness, and so someday shall all who have died. And Jesus has inaugurated the kingdom, a kingdom most fundamentally known and seen not among brothers and sisters in kin, but among brothers and sisters in Christ. Thus Hauerwas says of singles, ‘There can be no more radical act than [singleness], as it is the clearest institutional expression that one’s future is not guaranteed by the family, but by the church. The church, the harbinger of the Kingdom of God, is now the source of our primary loyalty.’”
6. Invest in the single people around you. If you want to know how to honor the image of God in single adults, get to know the single adults around you. The singles-marrieds divide in many churches is just as powerful as other cultural divides. Be intentional about crossing that divide. It’s only then that you’ll begin to understand how to love single people well.