Lonely Sunday: Single Christians and the Church’s Opportunity

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Its name is Lonely Sunday. Most likely, you probably didn’t know it, and chances are, they didn’t know it either. You saw some of them that morning on your way to church – out running, walking dogs, grocery shopping. You met up with some of them when you gathered for worship – they arrived early or snuck in late or maybe they served communion or taught your kids or sung harmony. You said hello and goodbye, and that night, you got the family ready for a week of work and school and everything in between. What you didn’t know was that very same evening, many of my single counterparts around the nation and globe were huddled in front of screens, swiping left and right, clicking on pictures and scrolling through matches. Smiling pictures were being uploaded, and smiles, winks, and questions were being tapped through cyberspace. It was Lonely Sunday – the Sunday after New Year’s, the busiest day of the year for singles and online dating. It’s the kickoff for Lonely January, the busiest dating month of the year.

As a pastor who happens to be single right now, I think I can speak for the 45% of the U.S. population who is single right now and say it’s not an easy place to be. I have no doubt that marriage is difficult too – just an admittedly different type of difficult. It’s not that we’re not okay flying solo; it’s just that having a companion who knows us, teams with us, and is intimately connected to us is a desire found in us. There’s just something inside all of us that does not want to be alone.

It’s a God-given desire.

And some of us listen to the culture around us for advice on what to do with that desire. This culture echoes a duplicity of voices, of ways to “handle” singleness, and it shines at us on small screens and big screens. Over the holidays, I found myself watching the trailer for the upcoming flick “How to Be Single”, in which two minutes worth of movie clips communicates a message of singleness defined as an empty relational freedom to do whatever, with whomever, for however long – no strings attached. But in its next breath, the culture reminds singles that we should feel like crap when the party is over – and we are sold an image of an even bigger party – a wedding – that is the only way to rid us of that feeling. Marriage is marketed to us as a blissful, everlasting date – not as the covenant it’s supposed to be, but as an item on a shelf to be paid and bartered for. We fall in love with a wedding. Many of us not in one are told we need to do anything to get one – or else feel like the kid on the playground who is still wearing Adidas Sambas while all the cool kids are in Air Jordans. Culture says being single is fun at first, but it winds up as a problem to be fixed.

And some of us turn from the culture out there to listen to the spoken and unspoken culture of the church.

For some of us, church involved an old familiar reminder of our childhood, while for others, it involved a spiritual seeking on our own. The truth is, as a single adult, it took many of us weeks to muster up enough chutzpah to enter into a strange church building into a service by ourselves, or months of invitations from a friend from work to bring us to an event or Bible study. But then we watched, listened – and wondered. Sermons always mentioned family – which we didn’t have, and any sermons or studies about love, sex, and dating came from married men with multiple children who have never known what it’s like to date online or be single in their late 20’s, in their 30’s, 40’s or 50’s. The nice people in the church foyer told us to go to their singles ministry – but we found it to be a gathering of post-college church kids or older widows and widowers. When we joined a small group, we created the odd number. People asked us if we could volunteer to hold babies and teach other people’s kids since we didn’t have any. Later, we heard that at a recent meeting, the church board, council, or elders had expressed hesitance at bringing on a pastor who was single. Church culture said we were helpful but not normal – until we had a spouse. Some of us left, and others who were spiritually curious saw church as a place they didn’t belong. Today, eight out of ten of us choose to stick to ourselves instead of connect to a church. And so, according to the church culture, once again, our singleness felt like a problem to be fixed.

Whether looking to the culture, to their church experiences, or to other sources for a hint of advice, those who hold a single status hear from multiple people, from multiple sources, that they are not full people until they find their “better half.” We’re told to wait, yet are not validated before we fit an expected model. We go through lots of Lonely Sundays.

Singles are told to wait for marriage, yet are not validated before we fit an expected model. Click To Tweet

But what if there is another voice to be heard – in what sometimes feels like a wilderness of singleness?

Scripture and early church history bear witness to a story that bucks both culture and religious culture. It’s a story that bases a person’s value not on status, family, gender, or background but on relationship – bearing the image of and capacity for relationship with his/her creator, through Christ. While culture placed low value on single people, especially women, the community that was created by the early church defined people through their faith. Slaves, eunuchs, the lame, and Gentile men and women responded to the message of the gospel regardless of being single or married. In Acts, the Gospel breaks all types of relational walls. Historically, young first-century converts who often left their family of origin were baptized into a new family, literally. They would be adopted into a Christian family who would take them in and care for them as their own if their parents disowned them. Their “church family” did more than just pray for them; they shared life together.

And Paul takes things a step further. When it comes to singleness, Paul pushes beyond inclusion towards approval. In his first letter to the Corinthians, he discusses married and single life: “I wish that all of you were as I am. But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.” (1 Cor 7:7) To conclude that Paul is anti-marriage is to miss his point completely; in the face of the Corinthian culture and religious culture, he openly refers to both marriage and singleness as gifts – gifts to be exercised appropriately. Though he thought sooner rather than later, Paul speaks in light of the expectation that Christ is coming again. Marriage is not a way of self-fulfillment but rather of service, not a commodity to be conformed to for the sake of being like everyone else but rather the definition of relational means through which the Christian life can be lived out. But being married does not “complete” you. In the words of Tim Keller: “We should be neither overly elated by getting married nor overly disappointed by not being so – because Christ is the only spouse that can truly fulfill us and God’s family the only family that will truly embrace and satisfy us.”

Marriage is not a way of self-fulfillment but rather of service. Click To Tweet

Therefore, the Church has a unique opportunity.

In the midst of Lonely Sundays and joyous Mondays, the Church has an opportunity to be a God-honoring, literal family for single adults. Instead of just pushing them off to join segregated groups, making them help in children’s ministry, and telling them what to do and what not to do, the Church can choose to do life together. We can embody a different community who speaks in a voice that is different than that which singles hear in secular and religious culture. We can hold each other—both single and married—accountable to the standards set by God. We can look at singles not as lepers but as leaders—men and women with a call to ministry in worship, in their workplaces, and even in the pulpit. We can go out of our way to invite, to include, to eat with, and to grow close to those whose place or stage in life we may never have experienced but who we know can be complete in Christ. We can respect their struggles as real and their desires as God-given. We can guide one another and those who come after us and show them we do not need to succumb to the voices we’ve heard, which tell us to buy their fantasies and sell ourselves. For those of us who will marry, we can illustrate the reality of family life, and for those who will not, either through circumstance or choice, we can be brothers and sisters in the family connected through Jesus.

The problem to be fixed isn’t singleness—it’s a singular view of what it looks like to have a complete life.

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22 responses to “Lonely Sunday: Single Christians and the Church’s Opportunity

  1. Even though I’m not in the same age category as the writer of this piece, I can relate. Being single in the church can be awkward, even on good days, even for those of us who serve the church in ministry. The church needs to be clear that it is for all people, not just for the treasured families with young children.

    1. Hi Darcy,
      You are right on! In my area of the country, over 40% of households have no couples– lots of never-married single, divorced, and widowed folks. It’s very difficult to go to church on your own– and that’s if you desire to go in the first place! Some churches do this well though, and go out of their way to not only connect with young families but singles too. We all need community. We all need Christ.

  2. For there to be no singles ministry is a slap in face for singles who want to find a mate in a church, not a bar or dating site!

    1. Hi iphoenix,

      I totally understand your thought. Yes, it’s difficult to find a potential spouse with the same Christian values– been there done that! And while singles ministry is important, it just shouldn’t be a way of herding together the singles in the church and not integrating them into the life of the rest of the church. I know churches that do that well and others create a singles leper colony.

      1. Hello Kris!

        Thank you for writing this piece…it echoes what I’ve been (and many other single Christians) have been thinking for years! It is quite hurtful many times to go to worship service where you are not equally valued due to being single or even worse…a single parent. I know many who have left the faith behind this problem, and I’m glad that you have shared your thoughts on the matter. I myself would like to spearhead a singles ministry which focuses NOT on becoming a part of “the married clique”, but on how our wholeness/completeness comes from Christ, not being married, as well as provide meaningful tools for those who desire to marry. Do you have any materials/suggestions for this future ministry? Again, many thanks to you for this article, and thanks to all of you who are sharing your thoughts here…I see I am not alone!

  3. When I was single in my 20s church was fun because generally being single at that age is still “acceptable” and you don’t feel like you stand out. However, when I was in my 30s and single, it just totally sucked. The pain of singleness really cuts in so deep when you desperately don’t want to be single anymore and you feel like you stick out like a sore thumb to your extended family and church family. What bothered me the most were the insensitive comments I occasionally received from insensitive married people who married young. I’ve been happily married now for 12 years but I will never forget the pain of those days. Please people, if you are married and have single friends please be respectful and don’t embarrass your single friends by highlighting their singleness in front of others.

    1. Thanks for your words, Gabe! Little things like just including singles in outings and events can go a long way– and especially being intentional not to crack jokes or make singles feel awkward or like they’re big teenagers and not full-adults. It sounds like your experience shaped you into having a unique eye out for singles in your community!

  4. One of the greatest pieces I’ve read on Singleness in the church: http://www.christenacleveland.com/2013/12/singled-out/

    I would say the church referenced in the piece above is miles ahead simply by hiring a single pastor. Finally someone who can speak on my experience with authority! Most of the churches I’ve attended wouldn’t even hire Paul if he were applying for a ministry position today simply because he was single. There’s a real threat of marriage being an idol in some Christian churches right now.

  5. Today is Easter Sunday. I stayed home from church because I couldn’t bear to see all the happy families and couples. Usually I don’t have a problem with being alone on Easter. After all, it’s not one of the warm fuzzy holidays like Thanksgiving or Christmas. But this year is different. Maybe because I’ve been scanning old family photos the last few days, of loved ones long gone. It isn’t just that I loved them but they loved me too. I don’t feel loved by anyone at church because I’m single. It’s as if they wrote me off without even trying to get to know me. Yes, I know Jesus loves me but He can’t very well meet me at Starbucks for coffee.

  6. I’m a single guy in my 40’s. My church doesn’t have a singles group. I feel left out when events are held for families and won’t attend as to avoid the happy families cause it make me more aware of my singleness and things I long for. I have friends at church and they are all married, even though they were one time single they don’t have any words for my situation of being single and give the normal advice of just wait or what if God intended you to remain single. This off the cuff advice is troubling and I often think why would God give me the desire for a spouse and children and never see fit to bring that into my life. It makes me angry. I pose this question God can do anything, if this is possible then if I was indeed to remain single why does He not take the desire for a spouse and children from my heart? Its not like I’m a 20 something, I’m approaching 50, biological children with someone close to my own age is going to be almost non existent. I weep daily for things I want, but God does not provide. I’ve been blessed in much and I’m thankful for it, but I’m not happy.

    1. I can relate I am 41 and still single. I recently left a church where I was the only one my age and single. I was very busy in ministry, and literally had no time to look. Being of Asian decent has not helped either as I have not faired well at all trying to date here in the states with any Christian lady. I want marriage, I am also almost 50. When people see me they think I am 28 another pitfall I face all of the time. There is no way I would date someone in their twenties we have different ambitions, I do live a very blessed life I’m just very lonely. Thank you for sharing.

      1. I can deeply resonate with you and @Robert Cullen. I am 46, and I’m on the verge of leaving my home congregation due to loneliness and the constant exclusion experienced when the church leadership either refuses to acknowledge singles (or rush singles who are dating/fornicating into marriage) and placing married couples on a pedestal…it’s almost as if we’re treated like lepers, especially if you are a single parent! I myself have never been married, but find myself frustrated/angry due to the insensitive comments of married people and the over-emphasis of married couples in the church, as if marriage is the ultimate goal instead of salvation. I am very blessed to have accomplished much in my life, but often find myself very lonely and beating myself up for lamenting my own singleness.

        1. Thank you for responding. I have since removed myself from the church to another where there is a singles ministry, yet find myself in quite the conundrum again getting busy in ministry and being avoided by most. All of my friends are married and we never hang out. I am the only guy in singles class, and not looking to date just would like to hang out, but only divorced women in the class. Does not seem like a singles friendly church as people who spoke to me no longer speak to me. Just going to stay for now until I graduate from grad school to see where the Lord leads.

          1. If you are not looking to date then why are you in singles class? “Just hang out” is what the world does. If you simply want to fellowship then events with the general assembly will suffice. I assume that you don’t consider the Christian women who are divorced in your group to be eligible mates by the way you referred to them. There is a such thing as grounds for biblical divorce as well as forgiveness. Nevertheless we all have deal breakers; mine is men with mulitple children outside of wedlock. It tells me what I need to know about their walk with the Lord or lack thereof.
            God bless

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