Are Single People the Lepers of Today’s Church?

In an age of rising singlehood, many churches are still focused on being family ministry centers.

There are the well-meaning ladies who ask you about your husband and children and, when you say you don’t have any, suddenly run out of things to say to you.

There are the women’s Bible studies scheduled on weekday mornings, because aren’t all church women married homemakers?

There are the sermons and activities directed exclusively at families.

There are the pastors who fault the single men for not getting married, even if they’ve tried, and who seem to think that singles are marked out for some terrible fate.

There are the Christians who tell you that life doesn’t start until you’re married. Or that you can’t really understand what love is because you’re single and childless. Never mind that this goes directly against the Christian faith, which teaches that God is the source of all love and that everyone — regardless of marital status! — can know that love.

Churches are so committed to the idea of a family-centered church that they’re just not sure how to handle rising rates of singleness.

There are the people who talk about singles in the church as a problem. There are the people who say you’re “too picky” if you have any standards at all. There are the people who hint that you couldn’t get a spouse because you’re not spiritual enough or because God is trying to punish you for something. And then there are my favorites: the people who helpfully point out that there’ll be no one to look after you in your old age. (Thanks for reminding me once again of that topic that has so often kept me lying awake into the small hours!)

In a nutshell, there are a lot of nice, well-intentioned Christian married people who say cruel, insensitive, or misguided things to and about single people.  Popular Christian blogger Jon Acuff once did a post on “Surviving church as a single,” and the comments came flooding in from single Christians who had experienced all these things and more:

“I find the ‘Family days out!’ excruciatingly painful and lonely . . .”

“. . . I still remember the mom of one of my youth group students exclaiming to me in shock (the first time we met, no less), ‘What, you own a house? But you’re single!’”

“. . . Many churches will not even consider me as a pastoral candidate because I am still single.”

Not everyone goes as far as Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Albert Mohler, who infamously argued at the 2004 New Attitude Conference that delaying marriage is sinful (leading to an outcry that made him clarify his position). And I’m not saying that there’s some sort of deliberate conspiracy to make all Christian single people feel about two inches tall.

I do think a lot of Christians are simply confused. They’ve become so committed to the idea of a family-centered church that they’re just not sure how to handle rising rates of singleness.

The apostle Paul — who was single and resolutely committed to remaining so — speaks of the church itself, not marriage, as the means God uses to bring us to spiritual maturity.

Mohler’s speech — as columnist Camerin Courtney pointed out in a rebuttal — heavily emphasized that today’s church focuses on marriage as the institution that God uses to make us mature and holy. So without marriage, what are we? The implication seems to be that we’re just a bunch of permanent adolescents drifting aimlessly and uselessly through life.

Married couples with children need and deserve support — but so do singles.  We’re practicing celibacy in a culture that can scarcely comprehend the concept. We’re struggling with the idea that, thanks to various cultural factors and trends, our desires for marriage and children might never be met. We’re trying to ward off loneliness and live good, responsible, fulfilling lives. And in the midst of all this, we’re dealing with the misperceptions I’ve described above.

This is where the church should be a lifeline for us instead of an anchor weighing us down. Contrary to the Reverend Mohler’s emphasis on marriage, the apostle Paul — who was single and resolutely committed to remaining so — speaks of the church itself, not marriage, as the means God uses to bring us to spiritual maturity. (See Ephesians 4:11-16.)

But in too many cases, today’s church is not doing this. It’s set up as a sort of family training center, which means that everyone who doesn’t fit the nuclear family model is pushed to the margins rather than welcomed and included. Nothing could be further from the teachings of Jesus Christ, who called everyone to come and follow.

Take a look at your own church and ask yourself some hard questions: Are single people naturally integrated into the life of the church? Or are singles expected to stay in their own group, like lepers in quarantine? Is there support for single Christians who might occasionally need assistance with various tasks, as there is for, say, the elderly? Do you have single friends? When was the last time you reached out to a single person in your church?

If you haven’t, are you willing to try?

The need for churches to attend to their single members is more pressing than you might realize. Journalist Julia Duin, in her book Quitting Church, talks about the treatment of singles as one of the major reasons that Christians walk away: “Many would do anything for some support. . . . The culture tells them they have missed out on life’s greatest experience, while at the same time at church, not one word of encouragement comes from the pulpit or even their friends.”

Personally, I have no intention of quitting church any time soon. I take seriously the biblical command that we are not to “forsake the assembling of ourselves together” (Hebrews 10:25). And I know firsthand that the church at its best is a help and comfort like no other.

But in recent years, the church has not always been at its best when dealing with its single members. It’s time to drop the expectations and start to see single Christians not as problems to be solved, but as people to be loved.


Image via Shutterstock.

Gina Dalfonzo
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  • Kaye Dacus

    Fantastic piece, Gina! As a fortysomething, never-married single, I am one of those people described in Duin’s book—a church quitter, though that has to do with more than just being unmarried in a religious culture that idealizes and idolizes marriage as the touchstone for “becoming an adult” and “spiritual maturity.” (There are ideological and philosophical issues that have me struggling with the idea of attending one of the many good ol’ southern-fried churches here in Nashville.) I personally haven’t felt “at home” at a church since I was in my early to mid-thirties and “the church” (certain members of my local congregation, though no one else stepped up to argue) decided I was no longer an appropriate role-model for the youth or singles with whom I’d been working for seven years because, heaven forbid, I was thirty-three (four, five) years old and not married with children. Because, as we know, that’s the highest calling for a Christian woman, right?

    I’ll stop now before I write my own blog post. But thanks for putting this out there, and for all of the links!

    • John Morgan

      As a 50+ year old single guy, I’m also one of those people described in Julia Duin’s book. I watched in horror this morning as the services at my local Baptist church ended, not with an invitation to accept Christ or join the church, but with instructions to bow down at the foot of a family and “hug a family member’s neck.” So it’s way beyond family idolatry. Speaking of role models, I wonder how Apostle Paul would fair in a church today? Would he make it up the front steps? With so much distrust and suspicion, it’s not much easier making friends outside the church either. I consistently have more Facebook friend requests than I do friends. I do mentor high school students and get some fulfillment from that and help with the various abstinence programs in my area. But as long as the church continues with ageism, sexism, and marital statusism, there will continue to be many people not reached. Marriage is not the highest calling. A society can never value marriage any more than it does celibacy. And right now that equilibrium is way out of balance.

  • Mo86

    ” the people who helpfully point out that there’ll be no one to look after you in your old age.”

    Yegads! And here I thought I’d heard all the stupid and cruel things said to singles – either personally said to me, or just in general. This was a new one. I’d better not hear anyone say it to me. They’ll get an earful in return!

    I am so fortunate in that I’ve had mostly positive church experiences. I didn’t grow up as a churchgoer, so I had none of that sort of negative baggage. And the church I started out in was made up of mostly singles for a long time. As a new Christian, I learned to have friends of all kinds – other singles, couples, couples with children, single parents, and people way older and way younger than me. I had brothers and sisters in ALL those categories. And because that was the only church experience I’d ever had, I took it to be normal. And it is. That’s how it should be!

    The cult of family in the church is disturbing at times. I’ve even heard married people say that they struggle with their spouse being a rival for God. I’ve heard a few people say that heaven will be a little difficult since spouses will no longer be married. And come on, if you’re about to get married or if you are expecting your first baby, would you really want Jesus to come back before then? How is this not idolatry?

    How I long for heaven, when all of this earthly marriage nonsense will be DONE and I won’t have to feel like an outsider any longer!

    • Tyler Stevenson

      Yeah, I would have to say that my experiences with church are mostly positive. However, I, like you, definitely must say that church still has a huge draw towards family. With children’s ministry (I love that) and marriage ministry, and sermons mostly about marriage, how can you possibly say that singles don’t feel included? Anyway, my personal quabble with some of these misconceived people and their horrible statements is that they seem to think that marriage makes a person more mature, especially as a man. People who tend to think that tend to look at singles as playboy bachelor and sirens who play around like a teenager. Yes, some people are immature, but that’s not “all singles” like Dr. Mohler thinks. Most of them are not getting intimate with their girlfriends. The ones I know are the remnants who aren’t doing anything of the sort. They live celibate. There are some who are truly serving, and more importantly serving with the right heart too. It’s like “marriage minded” people cannot think of single people as responsible servants of the Most High without the ring on. Yes, there are struggles and fights with lust, but isn’t there stumbling blocks for us all? The “immature” argument is so unsympathetic to singles and such a discouragement. Here’s why.

      I may not be the perfect example of maturity, but I am not going to say that marriage makes a person mature either. There is no right way to say that. Marriage doesn’t make a person mature. Single people are not these immature aliens, but rather they are just like any married person. Matter of fact, most of them I have met are just not married, with a strong desire to be such. They try to date, but just can’t find a person to enter the covenant with for a lifetime. It’s just not for some reason “working out”. So many people who are single I have met do have pain over that too. They had plans to have a family that were culturally placed, but haven’t risen to such “cultural expectations”. Therefore, they are outsiders even to their own dreams. Now we have a “Christian culture” that says you’re a failure if you don’t marry?! Yeesh! Plus, the struggle with a God-given sex drive without a partner only makes it worse. Some have been waiting for years to find a partner. Some people have never been married and they are in their 30s as virgins, because they love the Lord of Hosts. So they weren’t having sex either. So how are those singles immature? No one was getting intimate with them, while the married people had a partner for that. You will never hear those celibate, Christ-centered singles get any applause. All the applause is reserved for the married people.

      The only time singles are ever talked about is how to fix the “singles problem”. So, maybe I just have to call for a news flash: despite great desires,some singles in church don’t have a sexual partner, despite your misconceptions. Some don’t even have another person to simply hug them. That’s what they want at the end of the day. How about giving one… and some grace please?

      • Kaye Dacus

        Tyler–you’re so right on the “marriage = maturity” attitude. There’s a certain level of maturity that people who married very young might never attain because they never had to learn how to live and be alone. How to cope when you’re single, live alone, and fall and break your ankle when you’re away from home without your cell phone. (Happened to me—thankfully I have cousins in town I was able to call to come pick me up and take me home from the emergency room.) I had to deal with that. I had to figure out how to live when I got laid off from my job as a single person with no other source of income in my home. I didn’t have anyone to help me, emotionally or financially, in my home but somehow had to figure out a way to pay all the bills and still have a few dollars each month for Ramen noodles and $1 frozen pizzas for the four years I was unemployed.

        But, conversely, there are maturing things that married couples learn that we who aren’t married don’t have to face—compromising on whose extended family to visit for what holiday. Remembering to take the partner into account before making plans or spending money or even cooking dinner. Having to deal with the loss of a job when it isn’t just one person in the home, but two–and possibly even children. And so on.

        So, from each group’s point of view, the other group will never attain the same level of maturity they have. But each group, marrieds and singles, does mature, does grow—just in different ways. And we have to recognize that and respect that about each other. For me to say that married people can never be as mature as single people because they haven’t had to learn how to do everything solo is just as unfair as a married person saying that I’m immature because I’ve never had to learn how to compromise and live with a spouse and/or children. However, we hear that kind of stuff all the time; when’s the last time you heard singles sitting around talking about how immature married people are, or singles trying to come up with a plan for how to fix the “marriage problem” in The Church? (And if anyone says there isn’t a “marriage problem,” look at the statistics on divorce and all of the headlines pastors and religious leaders make when they have affairs.) As singles, we don’t go around announcing that we’re going to fix marriages (therapists and counselors aside); so why, as married people, do they think they need to “fix singles”?

        • Tyler Stevenson

          First off, sorry about the whole thing with your lost job. However, at that time, wouldn’t it be better to say that there was no church involvement at all? I don’t get the church not coming in to help you out when you lived on frozen pizza and top ramen. We are all one in the end anyway. We are the body at the end of the day. That’s what I want to stress now. The married/single division really brings such division in churches, with marriage being the supposed “top position”. There aren’t top positions in the church, other than the head of Jesus Christ. Other than that, we are just hands and feet. By saying that the singles problem needs to be solved, there is an implied inferiority of single people. Single people mature too, and marriage doesn’t equate maturity. You said it right.

          Oh, and for sure there is such a marriage problem man. It’s not just marital unfaithfulness and divorce, but domestic abuse and low marital satisfaction as well. With all this going on, is there any wonder why so many children are turning from the church?

  • Edie

    Excellent article. I’d need to say that my experience is that it is harder to be single in the church than it is in the world. One of the worst experiences happened while visiting a church. I was passed from person to person, as they discussed (as though I wasn’t there) what to do with a single person during the Sunday School hour. Needless to say, I haven’t returned. Despite a college degree in Bible I am not qualified to mentor anyone in the women’s ministry. I also can’t be mentored since no one has any idea what I need since I’m not dealing with a husband or children. I’m stubborn enough to keep going back, and there are a few folks how have taken time to get to know me and include me. I truly believe that a good marriage is a wonderful thing. But, if it is so perfect and full of happiness why do we need so many ministries like “Focus on the Family” or “Family Life Today?” I’ve learned a lot from those family oriented ministries. It is unfortunate that so many in the church ignore the lessons they could learn from the single folks who truly have learned to rely on Christ alone.

  • The Bechtloff

    Good article. I have long felt the church has borderline made an idol of the family and those who are single or even married without kids are often looked at as incomplete or immature by their fellow Christians. Although I disagree with the single moms comment, if anything I think, at least in recent years, the church treats them like heroes which is ridiculous.

  • Jerry Adams

    A single visiting the singles’ class at the church I go told me about a negative singles’ experience he encountered in visiting another church. The pastor of the other church he visited took him aside and told him that the church is a family-oriented institution and that the church doesn’t want singles.

    • dazpacket

      Singles class? That alone needs defining a bit for those who dont go to churches that have them. Sounds creepy whatever it is. Is it for singles who want to get married? for marrieds who want to be single? or for single people who want do be better single people? Or is it just a meet market?

      • ElrondPA

        Yes to all except marrieds wanting to be single–that is, depending on the church, the answer could be yes. More generally, it’s a class that is intended for those adults who are unmarried, just as other classes may be intended for women, or men, or parents, or retirees. Once you have such a group, the direction it takes is up to the leader(s) and participants. No doubt some singles will attend such a group in hopes of finding a mate; but others may be perfectly satisfied being single, yet like to have an opportunity to discuss issues particular to that situation. A meet market atmosphere will tend to attract certain people and repel others, so it may or may not characterize any particular class (or singles group outside of Sunday morning). Singles groups/classes are, of course, only viable once you have a critical mass of singles in a church. And there are some singles who avoid them like the plague, because that’s not how they want to be defined.

  • Dennis Crowley

    Great article. I am single and still holding out hope for a mate. I have been accused of being “afraid of commitment” “not liking women” “homosexual”. I even attended one church here in the Washington DC area where the couple running the youth-ministry was concerned that I liked working with kids so much, and yet, didn’t have a spouse or a girlfriend etc: Yet the evangelical church whines about sexual sin, divorce, etc: I have attended most evangelical churches here in the DC area, and gave up trying to be included in the life of the church, because of all the reasons mentioned in this article. I have renounced the Southern-Baptist type approach to Christianity, and I am now very active in the charismatic-pentecostal renewal.

  • Nate Day

    Single/Married is a poor paradigm. If you believe that God mandates culture (Gen 1:28), then we are to cultivate an earth (including people) to better glorify God. Marriage is but one profession of many toward this goal, and is usually not exclusive of practicing other professions (I can be a Dad & an Accountant.) Being single, by itself, is not a profession.

    From an education perspective, this might present some logistical problems for a congregation. After all, how many professions make up your church? Married & Parents will almost always make up the larger category of professions. To lump everyone else into another category as if each will have similar needs is ludicrous.

    I would love to see a church that has profession specific messaging arcs. Maybe not as granular as Accounting, but definitely at least between Sales/Networking, Technical/Creativity, Service/Hospitality, Leadership, and Charity.

  • Mick

    I was a single parent in our church and never felt to be a leper . Did at times feel like I was alone ,, but at times I was . Hard to deal with children when you are single , should the child use the fork or keep using the spoon .Questions that sound trivial become monumental when your a single parent . Same with single adults. I do not blame married couples , obviously many people come back to church after they start a family , originally perhaps for their children to receive Christian teachings . The problem dealing with single people is numbers , when more show up in a congregation often single groups arise . Perhaps a good way of dealing with is also asking why single people like their churches .

  • Sheryl

    What I find extremely painful is the concept that women are to be quiet in church, and that the man is to be the spokesperson for the woman. Where does that leave single women? At least a married woman has a voice through her husband, but a single woman doesn’t seem to have a voice, period! The church can be so cruel sometimes. I was a single mother for years. Since then my daughters have grown, and I am married. But I still remember how painful it was to be single in the church, and to be treated like a second class citizen. People seem to think that because you are single you are a threat to those who are married.

  • John

    The number one reason I no longer attend church, because many churches don’t have any singles, and those do…put a strict reign on them. In 2005, I went to a large local church (over 3000), asked them about their singles group. I was told by the front office, they stopped the singles group. The pastor did not want to deal with them. This was a family church only. Nothing for singles.

  • John

    One church I attended for many years. A new couple took over the singles group. They told the group, you’re not here to date or meet anyone. We’re here to worship Jesus….even though this couple met in this same group, years before.

    • Rachel D

      that is sooo lame!

      • John

        I agree, many people left the group. They still did not change their minds.

  • John

    For some, being single can actually hurt your walk with Jesus. “But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.”….1 Corinthians 7:9…..I personally, hate the singles life, never wanted it. Even at 60, I would prefer being married than being single. Being single, has really hurt my walk with the LORD.

  • John

    Two interesting verses….”This is what the LORD commands for Zelophehad’s daughters: They may marry anyone they please as long as they marry within their father’s tribal clan.”…Numbers 36:6….. she is free to marry anyone she wishes, but he must belong to the Lord.”….1 Corinthians 7:39 ….who you marry is YOUR choice…so choose wisely.

  • Rachel D

    Totally true..What i don’t understand is why Churches run away from having singles events for people in different age categories… that makes absolutely no sense! It makes me incredibly frustrated.. the answers churches always have are “get more involved so you can meet people.” That doesn’t help. You have to find others in churches who are also looking, that isn’t so obvious as it may seem. It is frustrating when you are in the 25-35 crowd. Either the singles are too young, or too old…. and NO ONE offers to help at all. It is like they are afraid if they even TRY. Perhaps it is because of legal issues, but I think honestly it is just fear. I went to one “singles meeting” at my last church and it was primarily old women (in their 60’s) and three men who said how they were backslidden and not really church members.. REALLY? And that was at a large charismatic church… Pastors should actively get involved with helping people ( legit church members) who WANT to be dating find someone suitable.

  • Joseph Dear

    I once had someone comment on a friend’s post, in passing, that you can’t really be selfless if you are not married. Needless to say, it wasn’t long before he ran with his tail between his legs, doing the whole “I didn’t mean to cause division in the body of Christ” bit to bow out without actually apologizing or continue defending his outrageous statements.

    It happens :/

  • Shelly Horetski

    This article is true . I started going to church I was raised a Catholic . I have never been married and I do not have kids . Last Saturday the woman at the altar had a list of people to pray for . She said Pray for all the married couples and people with children .The priest will welcome the families in the church but not me. I would like to go to church but there isn’t a church for me