Statistically, single people are much less likely to attend church. I once heard someone say in a leadership institute, “the church doesn’t know what to do with single people.” While this is true, I believe the ways we connect with singles are applicable to the ways we connect with lots of different people:
Be Hospitable to Guests
Be as welcoming and hospitable to someone who comes to your church alone as you would a family with kids. It’s important that the person who comes alone doesn’t feel alone (a key gospel component!) Don’t ask if they’re alone, just welcome them. Be glad they’re present. Invite them to sit with you. My first Sunday visiting a church by myself I was wonderfully and enthusiastically welcomed by a woman who told me I could sit by myself if that made me more comfortable, but she’d love if I sat with her and her grandchildren. I had my new church home.
Not all “singles” have the same story. Some folks are looking to marry; others aren’t. Some folks are unhappy being single; others are perfectly happy. Those who are in their 60s and never married will have different experiences than those who are 22 and unmarried. Those who are single again due to divorce or death will have still different experiences and expectations for life and faith. If someone has gone through the death of a spouse or the death of a relationship, there may be deep grief in their singleness. For some who are divorced, their singleness is a very good and liberating thing that they are happy about. For others, it’s complicated and may bring liberation and grief. All people have different life experiences, and we should listen to those experiences with love and compassion.
Self-Awareness in Small Groups
Small groups or Sunday School classes are tough for new people to fit in, especially singles. To go into a new group where everyone already knows each other is hard enough, but when most churches’ small groups are made up of couples, for someone who isn’t coupled to enter may be intimidating. If the single guest shows up and hears “are you here with anyone?” or “today we’re talking about our marriage study,” it’s going to be super uncomfortable. I once had a woman say, “singles can go to a marriage study because they’re preparing for that anyway.” This may not be the case, and it certainly devalues a person’s lived experience.
When you invite someone to your group (which you should do!) or they arrive in your class and, upon getting to know them, you realize the topic you’re discussing might not apply to them, change the plan and study scripture that day instead. Having group studies about marriage or parenting isn’t a bad thing if you know the study will apply to everyone in the group. However, offering studies for people of varying ages and stages in life centered primarily around scripture or discipleship can connect with lots of folks that don’t feel like they have a place to belong.
Think Through Your Activities
In one church I attended, we had a Valentine’s Dinner every year that really celebrated the married couples in the church. On the surface, it was great! As a young single person, it was challenging to find a place to fit into this event. Yet, one year we had a church member who had just buried his wife the day before and a parent going through a nasty divorce, and I thought that while this was uncomfortable for me, this event must be deeply painful for them. At churches, we should be aware of how people with life experiences different than our own might receive these activities or programs.
Value People as People
It’s important for the church to lift people (guests, volunteers, staff, clergy) up for the gifts God has given them regardless of marital status. Once, during an interview process for a staff position at a church, someone on the committee said the church should hire one person as opposed to another because the preferred candidate was married and the church would get two for the price of one. People should be valued for themselves and God’s gifts for them, whether the person is married or not.
As followers of Jesus, we are called to welcome and embrace all people. This means getting to know people, valuing people, and then thinking about how our words and actions (and for the church, our programs and activities) are received by people, particularly people different than us. If we don’t do this, we may miss out on incredible things God is doing through God’s people.
On my last Sunday in my first appointment, my family drove to attend my last church service there and to accompany me on my move to a new city. After worship, several members approached my parents with well wishes and compliments. However, a few well-intentioned church members expressed a troubling sentiment along the lines of, “We’ve loved having your daughter as our pastor, and we were so worried when she was announced because she was so young and single.”
When this message was relayed to me, I was shocked for several reasons. This church was known as a church that welcomed female pastors; when I left they requested the cabinet send another female pastor! They were loving and accepting of me from my first Sunday (and I’m sure some of my early sermons required some grace on their part). I had no idea that they had concerns, not about my calling, experience, or abilities, but about my marital status.
Since then, I have served churches of various sizes, in different districts and vastly different communities, but despite their differences, I have heard whispers of concern about my singleness at each. I am no longer shocked by these comments, but I continue to struggle to understand the reticence of Christian communities to welcome a single pastor.
There are notable single leaders in the Bible: Jeremiah, Paul, many of the disciples, John the Baptist, Mary Magdalene, and of course, Jesus. Paul lifts up singleness as the preferred way of life for Christians in his first letter to the church at Corinth. Paul wishes, in chapter seven, that all Christians could be like him and remain single, but if one cannot practice self-control, it is better to marry. The New Testament models a new type of community that is not based on biological connections or marriage, but is based on our commitment to Jesus. Despite all the strong biblical examples of singleness, often the church continues to view unmarried people as odd, immature, or someone to be pitied.
Our attitude toward single people leads to behaviors that compromise our evangelism efforts. About 57% of millennials have never been married, and 35% of unmarried millennials do not plan to marry.
Gen Z will likely continue this trend of having lower rates of marriage than previous generations. If the church is not welcoming to singles and supportive of their lifestyle, we will not be able to reach younger generations, a demographic with whom the UMC already struggles to connect.
Never married adults are a growing demographic, and they are a group that is looking for community. The United Methodist Church should focus more on reaching single adults in order to make new disciples. To reach new single people, one of the things we must do is follow Wesley’s rule to “do no harm” by avoiding hurtful comments and actions. I do not believe many of the negative attitudes and comments toward single people are intentional. Even intentionally helpful comments can drive single, divorced, and widowed Christians away from the church.
Here are some ways to welcome single people into your church.
First, singles groups are great, but many churches do not have enough single people to form a small group or Sunday School class. In these cases, be sure to invite single people to join couples their age instead of having events and groups that are only open to married people. When you form these groups with married and single people, avoid names like Pairs and Spares; single people aren’t spare tires! Single people, especially younger singles without children, often travel for work, to visit family, or for recreation on the weekends. Offer weeknight activities so that single people can regularly participate in the life of the church. Do not assume singles without children are not interested in volunteering with children and youth ministries. Help them to find a way to contribute to the church.
Do not offer to set up your single pastor (or a single layperson) with another single church or family member. This creates an awkward situation for that person. Avoid comments like, “God has someone picked out for you,” “I’m sure the right person is around the corner,” etc. This may not be true; many people are lifelong singles. It also presumes that marriage is the only life path instead of one of several options. Many people are happily single and do not want any pity from their church family. When in doubt, it is usually better not to comment on someone’s personal life.
In the Bible we see different types of families lifted up: married couples, never married people, and widows. As the church, we should imitate the model we see in scripture by welcoming all families, whether they have one or 10 members.
-From an Arkansas Conference clergy member