So, no one told you life was gonna be this way
Your job’s a joke, you’re broke, your love life’s D.O.A.
It’s like you’re always stuck in second gear
When it hasn’t been your day, your week, your month, or even your year
I’ll be there for you, when the rain starts to pour
I’ll be there for you, like I’ve been there before
I’ll be there for you
Cause you’re there for me too
My roommate and I like to watch the TV show Friends. Correction—my roommate and I are addicted to the TV show Friends. All throughout college, our group of girlfriends had this show on loop. It was on in the background when we were doing homework, or studying for tests, or eating dinner, or getting ready for the day. It became a bonding experience, a shared moment.
After college, my roommate and I both struggled to find employment and had to navigate the move-back-in-with-your-parents, maybe-I’ll-go-back-to-school, “are you even looking for a job?” economy. I am blessed to live with this dear friend now, especially because we are the only two women from our college group who are not married or in a long-term relationship. While our friends are registering for home furnishings, talking about having kids, and going on honeymoons, we are spending our whole paychecks on furniture from Ikea, making late-night frozen yogurt runs, and traversing the landscape of dating in our mid-twenties.
Although we enjoyed Friends in college, we hadn’t lived it. Now, we’re around the same age as the characters. We can relate to them with their eccentric neighbors, their struggles to find the right job, the mistakes they make at work, and their catastrophic dates. We even spend way too much time at our favorite coffee shop and fight about stupid things like where the ottoman should go and how to decorate the apartment (If only our walls were purple!). While our beloved friends are learning to live life with their husbands, we are learning to live life as roommates.
It is an interesting spot to be in when you throw in the fact that, unlike the characters on Friends, we are Christians. We don’t have one-night stands or plan to live with boyfriends before marriage. Friends doesn’t provide an example of how single Christians should live together in community. The problem, though, is that the church doesn’t either.
Most of the relationship advice from church is geared toward people who are married. Sermons about Christian relationships are mostly about how to be a better wife or husband, how to love your spouse through hard situations, or how to honor God in raising your kids. I have heard many pastors say, “There is no better place to learn forgiveness than in marriage,” and “You will never know how God loves his children until you have a child of your own.” Marriage and children are blessings, to be sure. And there is wisdom in those words, but what are they communicating to single Christians? We, too, would like to learn forgiveness in the context of our relationships. Can those of us without children not know the love God has for us? Do we have to be married to experience the fullness of the Christian faith?
Why are we so obsessed with marriage?
Over the last few years, as I moved from church to church as a single woman in my twenties, I realized that the idolization of marriage was more prominent in churches that taught the complementarian message of “biblical manhood and biblical womanhood” (whether they officially held that theology or not).
And it makes sense: A movement that, according to its flagship organization, the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, is based on the idea that “distinctions in masculine and feminine roles are ordained by God as part of the created order…” and that these roles include “Adam’s headship in marriage” would naturally see marriage as the best way for women to live out the Christian life. After all, if God designed the man to be in charge in marriage and the church, what better way to solidify the woman’s supporting role than to idolize marriage and child-rearing?
As a result, marriage is seen as a goal to be achieved, an ideal way to live the Christian life. This has become a prominent theme of evangelical culture. Whole organizations, Sunday school curriculums, sermon series, conferences, and Christian books focus exclusively on marriage, leaving singles to wonder how they fit in.
What is said to single Christians is usually meant to prepare them for marriage, which only reinforces the problem. I have never heard a pastor in a church give a sermon where the illustration was about single Christians living together and learning how to honor Christ in their friendship and their shared life.
This is a travesty when we consider that, according to Pew Research, the median age that an American of my generation gets married for the first time is twenty-seven. That means many of us will not get married until we’re a decade into adulthood. That leaves a decade of living with roommates, a decade of life experience missing from church teaching, and, therefore, a decade of learning from pop culture instead of the church.
And that only takes into account those in their twenties who are single and never married. The “single population” is actually much larger than most people think. According to the same study, 49% of adult Americans are unmarried. But, according to Barna, unmarried adults make up only about one-third of adults who attend church. Singles aren’t going to church. The church needs to reach out to single people. But how?
Better theology, better practices
A key way we can embrace singles is to embrace egalitarian theology, which offers churches a unique advantage when it comes to reaching singles. You see, complementarians have to idolize marriage because true “biblical womanhood” cannot be fully achieved outside of it. If they don’t hold up marriage as an ideal, what are they going to do with all their women?
Egalitarians don’t face the same limitation. The effectiveness of our theology does not depend on how prominently we preach about marriage, because we believe that both men and women can lead and serve outside of marriage. Women do not need to be married with kids in order to live a full Christian life, so the domestic realm becomes one of many options for women. This leaves room for both men and women to remain single and still fill an important role in the Christian community.
Despite this, the quantity and prominence of complementarian resources over the last forty years has caused many egalitarian churches (including mine) to adopt marriage-centric language and practices. So, how do egalitarian churches break free from this influence and become more inclusive to single people? Here are five suggestions:
1. Stop talking about singleness as a “pre-married” state, and instead treat it as a legitimate way of life.
Understand what the single life looks like and reach people where they are—with their roommates and friends, in their dating lives, and in building God-honoring community outside the nuclear family. Preach about the friendships found in Scripture: about Paul and Silas; Mary and Elizabeth; or Jesus, Mary, and Martha. As singles, we share lives with people who are significant to us, even if we don’t make up a traditional family.
2. Rethink the language used in sermons.
Instead of teaching that the best place to learn forgiveness is in marriage and the best way to learn about the love of God is to have kids, how about giving a few different examples of how forgiveness and love can be learned and experienced in Christian life? I realize that many pastors are simply talking out of their experience, but wouldn’t it be great if our sermons spoke to the lives of everyone in our congregations, not just those whose lives are like the pastor’s?
Rethinking the language we use might just help us be more truthful in our teaching as well. Think about it: by saying that we must be married in order to understand some of the greatest Christian teachings, we are saying that a plethora of unmarried Christians and biblical figures never understood these things—people like Mother Theresa, Thomas Aquinas, the apostle Paul, and even Jesus. Do we really think that they never knew the fullness of God’s love or learned true forgiveness?
3. Don’t make marriage and childrearing goals to be met or callings to be fulfilled.
When we treat marriage as an achievement or a sign of spiritual maturity, we devalue the lives of singles in our communities and ignore scriptural teaching that encourages the single life. Scripture describes marriage and singleness as “gifts” (1 Cor. 7:7)—not callings, not identities, and not promises. I think the church could benefit from using this language to describe marriage and singleness. Both of these gifts have advantages and disadvantages, blessings and hardships, and both can bring glory to the kingdom of God.
4. Remember that singles don’t all look alike.
Some of us are in our twenties and some of us are a few decades older than that. Some of us are sincerely hoping to get married someday, and some of us aren’t so sure about it. Some of us plan on having a traditional family, and some of us are dreaming up unconventional ways of living in community. Some of us are single and never married, and some of us are divorced or widowed. Singles don’t fit into one demographic. We bring many different gifts, life lessons, and perspectives to the table. Which leads me to my last point…
5. Stop using marriage as an entry ticket into various church activities.
When Bible study groups, Sunday services, and church outings are segregated based on whether you are married or single, singles groups start to feel like a temporary community or a holding pattern for future church engagement. With this setup, one’s community in church is dependent upon marital status, instead of gifting or calling. This can be especially difficult for single parents and those who have gone through divorce. Let’s be more creative with our ministries so that singles, instead of all being relegated to one particular ministry, can be incorporated in every aspect of church life, and for that matter, church leadership—your church needs their gifts and will be better for it.
The church can be a difficult environment for single people to navigate. Theologies that emphasize Christian fulfillment through marriage and parenting have caused marriage and the nuclear family to be so elevated that many singles feel like there is no place for them in Christian community. Egalitarian theology can better equip churches to reach out to single people, but until it is practically implemented into everyday church practices, singles will continue to feel out of place in the church.
And while the church is largely ignoring singles, pop culture is not. In fact, the world outside our church doors can be a much friendlier place for single people than the one within them. Which is why, when my roommate and I are tired of trying to carve out a small place for ourselves in Christian community, when we need direction in certain aspects of our lives, when we yearn for something to relate to in our singleness, we turn not to our churches, but to our favorite TV show.
Still, we are determined to stay connected to a church. We can see change on the horizon. A groundswell of support is growing for egalitarian theology, and as its influence grows, narrow definitions of manhood and womanhood will fade. When they do, singles will discover a new kind of church—one that embraces and affirms them as they are.