Witness

Lonely Sunday: Single Christians and the Church’s Opportunity

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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