Singleness in Community
Some observations I made this week while reading online...
When asked the question in a Facebook post from DivorceCare, "When does being divorced make you the most uncomfortable or when are you most aware of your singleness?" -- In just the first 20 or so replies, **more than half** stated, "in church." That means upwards of 50% of the divorced and/or unmarried population likely feels uncomfortable in church.
Then, I noticed these comments (just this week) from some single women I interact with on social media...
"Sometimes it's the little things about being single that can be the hardest. Like picking up and moving a free couch that's been given to me. It's about having to strategically keep a list in your head of who helped you last time so that you ask someone different this time so as not to tire people out.” (Holly Stallcup)
"I'm asking my church family to step into roles. Yet the fear of rejection is powerful. I want to be loved and I don't want to do life alone." (Melissa Cran)
It's easy to make our hard harder than the next person. We all compare our trials. And every person's hard is legitimately hard to them. My aim in drawing attention to these stats is not to hold up singleness or single parenting as the hardest thing. But I will say that this is one of the main things that brings unmarried women into the counseling room. Loneliness and weariness from doing life alone.
Lacking the funds to hire people for a home project, so it just gets added to the list that never gets done.
Worrying about how to plan for aging alone. No 401K, no savings, no pension.
Not being invited to sit with people when you walk into the church service.
Wondering how you will ever be able to go see the medical specialist because even your co-pay costs more than what's left from your paycheck after prioritzing bills.
I know, I know. Married people have a lot of hard things too. And many married people go with unmet needs for various reasons: unemployment, illness, family conflicts, and the list could go on.
Divorced and never-married people are not more worthy of our pity or somehow more deserving of help. However, the reality in most cases is that, regardless of the cause for the hardships being faced, unmarried people have fewer resources accessible to them -- especially relational resources. There are many issues that are brought up in the counseling room from unmarried people that could be remedied with the help of others.
This is why we stress community as vital to the counseling process. In every counseling case, whether a single or a married couple, we spend time discussing how connection to a local church family is critical to the growth process.
For the single person, this may prove to be especially difficult. Trying out a small group alone can bring on enormous anxiety. Hearing couples makes dinner plans together and not be included may cause hurt. Even when singles are invited to join in with church activities, there's oftentimes the added complexity of childcare if they are a single parent. Asking for help with a broke-down vehicle or house repairs feels intimidating when you know you can't pay someone for their time.
The Church is going to have to face this complicated issue head-on and with greater fervency and love in the days to come. Why? Because the single population in the Church is increasing every year. Actually, I should say it's growing outside the Church -- but, because we've failed in some ways to create a welcoming and nurturuing space for the unmarried, many of them no longer come to church regularly.
What would it look to create a hospitable and compassionate place for the unmarried to seek refuge from the ultimately unsatisfying ways of the world? I'm in no way advocating for these suggestions based on any claimed expertise on my part. Every church is different, and situated in its own unique location with its own culture and demographics. I can't possibly suggest a monolithic remedy. Still, I'd love it if you would consider carefully and prayerfully how these few points might apply in your particular community of believers.
It doesn't mean you have to have a dedicated singles ministry or group. In fact, most singles I know above the age of 30 aren't looking for that. They just want to be a part of your regular gatherings and not feel "singled out." Ha!
Help unmarried people really sense that they are not alone by initiating conversations with them about them. Ask them what they are reading or what their interests are, not just if they can sub for you in nursery next week because you're going on a spontaneous getaway with your husband. Chances are, they don't get a lot of interactive conversations outside of their workplace. Many go home alone and don't speak another word until they get back in the office the next morning.
Invite them out to dinner or to your home with a group of friends (could include married couples, other singles, whatever works). And I'm talking about a real meal, not only when you're hitting up fast food.
Share a prayer request with them. Open up, be vulnerable about something you're facing. In doing so, you'll likely cultivate a mutual transparency.
If you know of a single parent in your church, call them up and offer to watch their kid(s) on a weekend for a couple of hours. Encourage them to use that time doing something fun or relaxing for themselves. They oftentimes don't have the option of leaving the kids at home with the other parent, and typically can't afford to hire a babysitter.
If you know of an upcoming special event at your church, offer to pay for their registration so that they can attend without the added burden of how it may impact their budget that month. Offer scholarship funds for the counseling needs of singles, or to watch their kids while they come to a counseling appointment.
If they have house repair needs or car troubles, be eager to help. Call other friends and arrange for a few people to pitch in and have a work day (with a small group, it would probably only take an hour two to accomplish what it would take the single person all day to finish). Or take up a collection to help fund the car repairs. And just know...you're probably going to have to ask them what their needs are. Most singles likely won't tell you because they don't want to interrupt your busy life.
If they miss church a lot, or stop coming to small group, reach out to them...but with more than a, "Hey, where you been?" -- Simply ask, "How are you doing?" "How can I pray with you?" "Is there anything I can help you with that would make a difference in you staying connected to the Church?" -- By inviting them into relationship with you first, they will be more likely to welcome your care and concerns if there is a particular issue keeping them away.
Model community for them by being community to them. The longer someone remains single, the easier it is to get comfortable with aloneness. I say that from experience. We may struggle to feel comfortable in social settings. Sometimes that means you have to insert yourself into the single person's life. Most unmarried people will give off a vibe of "I'm fine, I don't need anyone else," because they don't want to appear weak or needy. Or perhaps, because they honestly don't feel weak or needy since they've grown so accustomed to doing life on their own.
Church, it's going to take you intentionally placing yourself into the lives of the unmarried guy or the single mom. That necessarily means it won't come naturally all the time or happen without effort.
If you've read this and wondered why it places so much expectation on the married people...don't worry. I'll be doing another post in a few days outlining how singles can better position themselves in community. As with anything, there's mutual responsibility. The New Testament Church provides us with the best model for these kinds of relationships. In Acts 4, we read:
32 Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. 33 And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. 34 There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold 35 and laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.
We know the early Church included single people. There were many examples of men and women used by God to carry out the ministry of Jesus and the disciples, of whom a spouse is never mentioned. The Bible does not speak to singleness a great deal, though it does aim to legitimatize it in the New Testament as being one of the ways we are called to serve God and advance the Kingdom of Christ (1 Corinthians 7).
Let's not miss the opportunity to offer a place of refuge for these single brothers and sisters. This type of one-anothering and community inclusion is what will increase the appeal of Christ to a world full of temporary solutions and fleeting comforts.