As I was coming of age in the mid-1990s, I moved in some evangelical Christian circles that had a robust theology of marriage, and a theology of singleness that could be summarized as, “Get married.” And indeed, I wanted to get married, but that was not working out. My personal challenge was muddied by messages and church practices coming from some well-intentioned Christians.
The Landscape of Single Adults
Fast forward 30 years: I am still single, and today my vocation is equipping local churches for health and effectiveness. As I engage with local churches, I cannot help but notice that the percentage of adults who are single is higher in society than it is in the Church.
The percentage of adults in the United States who are single is on the rise. Bella DePaulo reported that in 1970, the percentage of adults in the US over the age of 18 who were single was 28%, and in 2021 was 48.2%.1 In contrast, Table for One Ministries reported that only 23% of adult churchgoers are single.2 I set out to learn from single adults themselves what church practices increased their likelihood to stay engaged and feel valued and included. But I also needed to dig deeper when it comes to a theology of singleness, because we cannot build strong practices on weak theology.
A Theology of Singleness
In the Old Testament, marriage and childbearing were an integral part of God’s covenant with Abraham, and subsequently with His people (Genesis 17:5-7). These were considered a sign of God’s blessing and vindication.
The prophet Isaiah foreshadowed a time when less would depend on marriage and childbearing. He described a barren woman rejoicing (Isaiah 54:1) and a male eunuch included in the assembly at the temple (Isaiah 56:3-5). Both of these prophesies were counter-cultural, and in the latter case, a change from prohibitions in Deuteronomy 23:1-3.
In the New Testament, there was a shift in emphasis from “be fruitful…multiply on the earth” (Genesis 9:7) to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). Jesus modeled a single life, spoke positively of both marriage (John 2:1-22, Matthew 19:2-6) and singleness (Matthew 19:11-12), and stated, “At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage…” (Matthew 22:30). The apostle Paul also modeled a single life, and spoke positively of both marriage (Ephesians 5:25-27) and singleness (1 Corinthians 7:32-35).
Both marriage and singleness serve as important eschatological (future) signs. Marriage is a picture of the relationship between Jesus and the Church. Singleness is a picture of heaven where there will no longer be human to human marriage. Danielle Treweek describes faithful single adults as “threshold people” who are in the process of transitioning from this world to the next, and whose lives are already beginning to exemplify this eschatological truth.3
The perceived value of singleness and marriage has varied greatly in the Church through the ages. After Constantine decriminalized Christian worship in 313 AD and before the Protestant Reformation, singleness, celibacy, and other forms of abstinence were perceived by some as the godliest path one could take. This was an unhealthy pendulum swing toward the superiority of singleness. Other systemic issues developed as well, including simony, indulgences, and misuse of power.
In 1517, Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the church door in Wittenberg, and the Protestant Reformation was formally begun. Luther believed that monasteries were part of the problem. In 1523, he helped a group of nuns leave the convent and he married one of them. Marriage and childbearing became for some the godliest path one could take. And so the pendulum that once swung toward the superiority of singleness then swung to the superiority of marriage. Treweek and others argue that we still find ourselves in a similar situation today in the (Western) Church, with a superior value of marriage over singleness.4
Jesus modeled a single life, spoke positively of both marriage (Jn. 2:1-22, Mt. 19:2-6) and singleness (Mt. 19:11-12), and even clarified, 'At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage...' (Mt. 22:30). Click To Tweet
The Singles Have Spoken
As crucial as theology is, in this study I did not ask single adults about theology. We talked about their experiences in church, and this group had a lot to say.
In terms of what church practices increase inclusion for single adults in the congregation, four factors came through as significant for half or more of the participants. For 87.5% of these single adults, (1) having positive relationships with other people in the church was significant to their inclusion. They valued being part of a community that spent time together both formally and informally, in ways that were designed by church leadership as well as initiated organically by other church members.
For 68.75% of these single adults, the church practice of (2) being included in a small group increased their inclusion in the congregation. Small groups were a place where participants were more likely to develop those positive relationships. Similarly, for 68.75% of these single adults, the church practice of (3) being involved in volunteer service increased their inclusion in the congregation. Participants expressed satisfaction with being part of a team, and contributing what they had to offer toward a common, significant purpose.
For 56.25% of single adults, the church practice of (4) acknowledging single adults in the worship service increased their inclusion in the congregation. Personal acknowledgement in the worship service meant physically being in front of the congregation, or having their name spoken publicly and positively. The acknowledgement might be with a group, brief, informal, or rare, but was valued.
In terms of what church practices decrease inclusion for single adults in the congregation, three factors came through as significant for half or more of the participants. For 75% of single adults, the church practice of (1) underrepresenting singleness in sermons decreased their inclusion in the congregation. Most them said that they had heard sermons on the subject of marriage with some regularity, but heard sermons on singleness never or barely at all. Additionally, marriage came through in illustrations and applications regardless of the sermon subject, while singleness rarely or never came through.
For 66.7% of (2) single adults under 45 years old, underrepresentation of people in their age group in the church decreased their inclusion in the congregation. While younger single adults do not want to be the only person in their age group in a situation, most are open to, even desiring of intergenerational interaction.
For 50% of (3) single adults over 45 years old, discomfort with being the only single adult in a situation with couples decreased their inclusion in the congregation. The discomfort is not with being with other couples, but rather being the only single when everyone else in the situation is present as a couple.
What about “singles ministry”? All of the participants answered that their current church does not offer separate, targeted single adult ministry. When asked if they would attend such a ministry if it was offered, 31.25% of single adults said yes, that they would attend; 31.25% said they might attend; 37.5% said that they would not attend.
Half of the participants expressed that their churches did not adequately address issues relevant to single adulthood. Those issues fell under three headings: dating (dating non-Christians, dating after divorce, dating after death of spouse, social skills), contentment (understanding why one is single, knowing what to do as a single, dealing with desire, dealing with loneliness), and sex (celibacy, pornography, masturbation, LGBTQ+). In the absence of resources from the church on singleness, younger single adults identified other sources of information. One stated, “I don’t really know who to ask, other than Googling things.”
Marriage and singleness serve as eschatological (future) signs. Marriage is a picture of the relationship between Jesus and the Church. Singleness is a picture of heaven where there will no longer be human to human marriage. (1/2) Click To Tweet
Danielle Treweek describes faithful single adults as 'threshold people' who are in the process of transitioning from this world to the next, and whose lives are already beginning to exemplify this eschatological truth. (2/2) Click To Tweet
For churches who will answer the call to include single adults in the congregation, the following five practices are indicated as helpful postures for inclusion:
- mobilize the congregation to build positive relationships,
- engage single adults in small groups and serving,
- represent singleness and marriage equally in sermons,
- help younger singles connect with others in their age group,
- and help older singles into situations where they are not the only single among couples.
And whether it is in a separate, targeted ministry for single adults, or through a more integrated approach, the church that wants to disciple single adults will step up to the plate when it comes to equipping around dating, contentment, and sex (Let’s not leave it to Google). All of this must be undergirded by a Biblical theology of singleness and marriage.
Just as married adults are a sign, pointing to the marriage of Christ and the Church, single adults are also a sign. They point to the reality that believers are complete in Christ regardless of their situation, part of His family, and commissioned to bear spiritual heirs. Single adults are “threshold people,” living on earth now according to the realities of heaven later, where there will be no human marriage. Not only do single adults need the church, but the church needs single adults. Let’s excel still more at including them.
Single adults are a sign pointing to the reality that believers are complete in Christ regardless of their situation, part of His family, and commissioned to bear spiritual heirs. The Church needs such mature sign-bearers. Click To Tweet
Rev. Jen Ashby, D.Min. has been serving in local Christian & Missionary Alliance churches since 1999, primarily in outreach, discipleship, and other pastoral ministry. Her passion for the health and effectiveness of local churches led her to the role of Director of Church Health for the Metropolitan District of the C&MA in 2023, serving churches in New Jersey, the greater New York City area, and Philadelphia. Jen holds degrees from the University of Kansas and Alliance Theological Seminary, and currently serves on the Board of Directors for the C&MA in the U.S. She enjoys exploring new places, dark roast coffee, and a good story in any form.
1 Bella DePaulo, Bella, “The Number of Unmarried Americans Continues to Grow, Latest Census Report Shows,” Unmarried Equality, December 4, 2021, https://www.unmarried.org/featured/the-number-of-unmarried-americans-continues-to-grow-latest-census-report-shows/.
2 Table for One Ministries. “Americans Are Single.” Single Stats. Accessed August 7, 2023. https://tfoministries.org/single-adult-statistics-in-america.
3 Danielle Treweek, The Meaning of Singleness: Retrieving an Eschatological Vision for the Contemporary Church. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2023. 187.
4 iBid, 29.