My minister was blurring all women together with the term ‘wives’ in his sermon,” my friend told me over a cup of coffee. “It was so disheartening. It was really hard to hear. I felt like I was not valued as a woman because I was out of God’s will somehow in being single. I’d love to be married and have children. The fact that he didn’t recognize any of the single women in the congregation made my singleness twice as painful.
She admitted that by the time the minister at her complementarian church asked all the women to stand at the end, praying for them in their roles as wives and mothers, tears had begun to stream down her face.
It was the first time I’d heard of such typecasting from a pulpit, so I began to ask questions of other friends attending complementarian churches like hers. A single guy in his thirties admitted, “I’ve been told I need to ‘man up’—the implication is that I’m not married because I’m not mature enough.”
I became curious about how single adults were being cared for in the church and began studying the issue. My assumptions were immediately challenged. Because most people in my generation at church are married, I had thought single adults were a minority. I was surprised to learn that within Western populations, there is a steady increase in unmarried adults and one-person households. Many variables can account for this change, but the reality is that this is an expanding demographic. Yet, relatively few single adults are involved in churches.
Statistics tell us something about who attends church. But they don’t tell us what people experience or how they experience it. That’s what I wanted to find out. How is the church seeking to understand and respond to this reality? Do our teachings lead to practices that affirm singles in their lives and callings? Or do we isolate and exclude them, as my friend had experienced? I was specifically interested in learning from single adults in complementarian churches like the one my friend attended—churches that often teach or imply that marriage and parenting are the Bible’s ideal for men and women. These questions became the basis of a six-month research project.
I set about interviewing single (never married) adults between the ages of thirty and fifty who attend complementarian churches. These adults are old enough to have witnessed peers marry and have children, but are probably not young enough to still have a secure hope of marrying one day. The individuals interviewed represent six different churches across three different denominations in Melbourne, Australia. Their names have been changed.
Single adults are diverse, unique individuals, and the participants interviewed had differing ideas, opinions, and experiences. But their experiences have several features in common, summarized below.
Single adults receive little pastoral care. When I asked individuals about their experience of pastoral care in their churches, people seemed puzzled. Abbey stated bluntly that she didn’t know what to say. Scott described his personal experience of pastoral care as “spotty” and “patchy.” Nikita laughed at the question and responded, “You have to be proactive in order to receive care.” Many of the participants noted that that the onus is on them to ask for care.
Single adults’ needs are not understood. When asked why single adults receive little pastoral attention or care, Nikita commented that singles may have fewer perceived needs. “Your young families, and new moms, and those who are sick—there is an emphasis on supporting them or providing for their needs. Whereas I suppose we’re just seen as being quite competent adults, and we’re able to look after and care for ourselves.”
Dave echoed this idea, observing, “If someone comes in with a broken leg, everyone can look after them. But with [relational or emotional concerns] it’s much more difficult because it’s not visible on the outside unless you know what to look for.”
“A large proportion of people at church would not have a clue about the grief associated with not marrying or having children, and this could in some way be acknowledged by the church,” Nikita remarked. “This would have a lot to do with most of them having been married since they were in their early twenties, so they have spent most of their life living with someone—that is, moving from their parents’ home to then live as husband or wife. I don’t think they realize [single adults feel] a significant loss. Just because we are single doesn’t mean we don’t or didn’t want to be married with children. I don’t think it would register on their radar.”
Church demographic divisions leave single adults out. Participants repeatedly noted that divisions of the church into various groups based on age and stages of life are a barrier to connection and rob the church of diversity. They miss the connection with friends who have married, had children, and moved to a “young families” congregation or group.
Single adults also realize the importance of having spiritual mentors from diverse age groups and backgrounds, but homogenized congregations have limited opportunities for these relationships and make the church feel less like family. “Sometimes you kind of have a ghetto-ization of age groups within a church community,” Scott said. “It’s very difficult.”
Though the single adults I talked to realize that the reasons behind these decisions may be positive, it is also a source of sadness for those who find it difficult to locate their own place within such targeted congregations.
Single adults find the church a challenging place to cultivate friendships across genders. “I have good friends of both genders, inside the church and outside,” Abbey said. “It really, really bugs me that as a single female, being friends with a male person [at church] causes people to look with either excitement or suspicion or concern. People outside the church care much, much less about this.”
Single adults feel that their lives are not perceived to be as significant as married lives. In comparison to engagements, marriages, and births, achievements in a single adult’s life are less acknowledged and celebrated.
“Sometimes there is a sense, not just in churches but in society as a whole, that if you are single, then you are half-formed in a way,” said Scott. “That’s just my feeling, but I’ve yet to have a church experience where that feeling proved to be unfounded.”
“I know that single people have achieved amazing things at my church,” Abbey said, “but I only find out about those things after the service, not during.”
Conclusion: the church needs to be family
My overall observation is that single adults, like anyone else, need a nurturing family environment. Where traditional families have this support at home, singles often don’t. They may live alone or with other single adults, each with their own lives. Some live far from their biological families. This makes it all the more important for the church to affirm and include single adults as part of the church family.
Jesus knew his disciples were his true family (Matt. 12:47–50), and all Christians are part of this family. But single adults often don’t experience the church as the loving and caring spiritual family it should be. When church programming is built around traditional families, it only emphasizes the divide between single and married. Church leaders, therefore, have a great opportunity to facilitate churches that are spiritual families, and need to respond to the reality of the growing demographic of single adults within the Western world.
What about your church?
The complementarian churches of the single adults I interviewed reflect complementarian theology, placing emphasis on fulfilling marriage-based gender roles in the Christian life, and not knowing what to do with single adults.
But would the responses of single adults be different at egalitarian churches? Egalitarians strongly believe that serving God as male or female is not about fitting a particular mold of gender roles. Rather than pigeonholing men and women, egalitarians seek to encourage individuals in their God-given gifts and abilities. And egalitarians believe that the biblical ideal for community is one that invites all members to serve and benefit fully. Yet I fear that gender roles, along with societal expectations, infiltrate doctrine and practice more than we realize.
So, I issue a challenge to egalitarian churches: ask your single adults for honest reflections on their experience in the church. And really listen to them. What does their experience of church tell you about your theology and your practice? Do the two align? The results could be helpful in continuing to change the church into the family. For everyone.