What matters most?

TALK In NORTH DEVON in APRIL 2018

Introduction

Thank you church leaders for inviting me to address you. I represent an organisation whose aim is to help support churches being more single friendly. We didn’t set out to do this - it emerged out of cries for help that we read in the answers to a survey of over 3,000 single Christians.

And I know it for myself. I was single never married until 5 years ago and found some churches of which I was a member some of the loneliest places to be when on one’s own. And, in general, the older the single person who goes to church, the LESS they say it is a good place for single people. Others have great experiences - and we want to learn from those churches doing it well and pass on what is helpful.

But the main reason for addressing this as a subject is not the experience that single Christians have in churches - but that our social world is changing. One of the main ways it is changing is, according to the government’s Office for National Statistics analysis of census results, that there is a massive rise in the number of single people. In fact, 40% according to a representative national survey done on our behalf. In North Devon, according to Devon County Council, 48% are single although this includes those cohabiting and 52% married, the married making up a slightly higher proportion than the average 47% minority in GB as a whole.

If we don’t find ways to welcome and include such a large and growing proportion of society, then we will be missing out an introducing Jesus to them. In general the church is currently over-represented by married couples, and massively under-represented among single people.  They are choosing not to come.  What can we do to change this?  That I will address in a short while

Why so many single people?

But first I want as background to answer why are there so many single people.

  1. We marry later on average.

The average age of first marriage is around 30 years.

From 18-30 academics describe a new period as ‘emerging adulthood’.  People spend time finding out who they are, what they want to do, dating and seeing who they suit, and developing careers.

2. We live in an affluent and welfare society

it is possible to survive on one’s own.  In times past, one needed children to work the farm, and a home to live in.  it was not really possible to live as we now take for granted as a possibility.  And many are choosing to Iive as single persons, at least for a time..

3. There’s so much choice

Choice has been promoted by governments and advertising companies as a ‘good thing’ .  In many ways it is.  But it can also be debilitating, causing us to freeze in fear of making a wrong decision. 

The Millennial generation - those born around 2000 - are described as having two great fears:

-   fear of missing out

  • fear of making the wrong choice.

This applies in every area of life - whether jobs or marriage partners, place to live or hobbies. People would rather stay single than make a mistake - indeed the fear of making a mistake is the reason I used to give too even though several generations older!! Or perhaps being a man, I had too much choice among the twice as many females attending church.

I don’t think I can state eloquently enough the enormous pressures that greater opportunities and large numbers from which to make a choice make on individuals. It can lead to anxiety and loneliness - so we observe the ‘epidemic’ of loneliness according to many of those who study society both among old and, from a survey done last week, especially among the young and, in particular, young men, who also have the highest suicide rates.

Anxiety and loneliness. Often supported and perhaps driven by technology, but addressed very specifically in the Bible even though the times are different. Do not be anxious, Jesus said. And God set the lonely in families in the OT.  Faith and a community of faith. After a time of worship of the living God that longs that all choose to know him, we will turn to some ideas of how to respond as believers in this new society of ours. TALK

 

Sometimes I work from the Bible to the general situation and sometimes the other way around.  I thought this morning I would lead from the voices of single Christians and what they say they find most helpful from their churches and church leaders and relate them to Biblical texts where appropriate.

1.  "Someone to go with and seeing other single people there so I don’t feel such an oddity."

Reading from John 1

Philip, like Andrew and Peter, was from the town of Bethsaida. 45Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”  “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked.  “Come and see,” said Philip.

Would you like to come and see what we do? I’m not the most natural of evangelists, however nearly all of those I’ve brought to faith is when I said to them ‘Come and see’.

Or to a regular - Shall I pick you up for church tomorrow/today? My aunts and uncles always used to do drive-arounds picking up various single people before the Sunday service.

No pressure, just getting people there.  There are lots of regular Sunday activities - gatherings of classic cars (or historic buses which I once met at a motorway service station), horse races, pigeon races, dance competitions, cycling races - how many think about going to those on their own off their own curiosity? It usually takes friend to say, ‘come with me, come and see’. Same with church. Invite to just come and see.

Why encouraging single people takes more than hope is that it is a downward spiral of numbers.  If a single person sees no-one like themselves then they tend not to feel identification and so less likely to stay - which means the next single person coming is less likely to stay (especially if they are a man).  It takes a concerted effort to build numbers.

It takes concerted prayer also to allow single people to make friends in gyms,in work,  in hobbies that they really enjoy and see that this is part of their ministry to reach out to others.  No good if your only friends are in church - for what contact will you have with those who have yet to hear the message of hope?

2.  Hospitality

Hospitality is often mentioned in the New Testament as a practice to be recommended among believers.

1 Peter 4:8-10

Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. Show hospitality to one another without grumbling. 10 As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God's varied grace:

However, the more common experiences is this one:

“When I was single I never used to get offers of hospitality to family homes, wrote one single young woman, when I started dating regularly, suddenly we were inundated with weekly invites.  How much more did I need those when I was alone.”

ReadingHebrews 13.2, Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.

When I was a child, I am not sure how much I wanted my mother to do this at Christmas, but she always did,. We had to wait to open Christmas presents until they had left after cake and tea and they had had a present (and sometimes wait until Boxing Day).  She chose one or two on their own, often students from abroad unable to get home. Most became lifelong appreciative correspondents and I respect her so much for doing so.For she modelled that sharing meal, friendship and home was what was important in a household of faith, not presents,and those coming always opened our eyes to other countries and ways of celebrating the birth of Christ. How many were angels and blessings they gave I shall never know.

And why is hospitality such a problem?  Number of reasons:

  • not regularly practiced as much as in former times - individualisation of society
  • fear of who you are inviting, especially if single men (safety etc.) or single women (widows, divorces, even more than never married) Question of checking some things out and TRUST within marriage. It’s one of the areas where the issue is associated more with the married than the single.
  • single people say they invite married people but it is often not reciprocated. A gift need not be, of course, but it is striking how many told us this.

As a community of faith, we are first and foremost a community. That is a social body of people who explore their faith with each other. I used to love the discussions about sermons over Sunday lunches whenever I was invited out as a single person.

3.  Single leaders as role models

What does a well-lived Christian life as a single person look like? This is where good models both for men and women are especially helpful, especially among the leadership team.  Our respondents say that the presence of someone they can aspire to is very encouraging in their faith journey.

On the leadership team there is a good mix of all ages, stages and single/marrieds. Some of the strongest, most full-on Christians in our church are single people who are comfortable in their own skin, accepted, secure and are generally brilliant role models.

We have other respondents that tell us that their churches only accept married people in leadership…  I want to mention names like Jesus and Paul to them!

4.  Sermons and talks of relevance to my situation

Often, our respondents told us, leaders make the assumption we are married, usually with children.  That makes us feel excluded and as if we don’t belong. We want to hear things that are relevant to us.

And what is relevant? They told us - it is relating faith to decisions in everyday living was particularly important

  • earning a living and vocation
  • If I have choice, where should I live,
  • I feel isolated or lonely - and most people do at some point (including the most lonely place as a marriage that isn’t really working)

In fact, I would argue, addressing the things that directly impact on single people really helps everyone - these are issues at some time or place face everyone…

5  Keeping in touch

Families who attend church regularly have many touching points - whereas single people tend to have few.  This means it is much easier to them to lose sight of what is happening and to feel less involved - even if on average they are more regular than church families (as shown by the YouGov national survey). They report appreciating informal contact by email or text - wanting to be missed when absent but not chased!

Sometimes the church is so worried that we are intruding that we fail to extend the contact that shows we care. 

There are three stories Jesus told about misplaced items or wandering away - images of how God worries when we wander.  He doesn’t castigate them, or drag them back.  We should do likewise.  As a leader and single person, I used to ask the others (all married) ‘will you come after me if I wander - I need that reassurance you will.’

6  Support and prayer through dating and not dating

I’d like to mention that the majority of single people say they would like to find a partner who shares their faith with whom to spend life.  But, we’ve learned, never make the assumption one way or the other.  We know many who wish to stay single and many others who wish they were not.

For those seeking a partner, there are some immediate difficulties they tell us:

  • the numbers are much smaller from which to choose - there are simply fewer single people in church and they can tend to cluster where others are, t
  • here is a massive imbalance between single men and women, with a common ratio of 2 unmarried women to each man, again with uneven distribution (some churches have a preponderance of men!), a
  • nd the environment of church can be highly problematic - not knowing how to support modern dating. 

So how do we help people seeking?

Here’s some ideas :

  • Encourage area meetings of single people.
  • If someone wishes to find a partner, pray and support them actively.
  • The most common way now is through online dating - don’t dismiss it because it didn’t exist before, or because of a few horror stories in the media (they happened before too!)
  • Recognise that most marriages are not between people with similar personality traits, but complementary ones that allow a flourishing relationship to work, each with different strengths (however frustrating their weaknesses).
  • Offer to be part of the process, encouraging, not judging too quickly and praying.

 

BUT MOST IMPORTANTLY

 

Jesus introduced a new kind of community based around doing his words that was sharply contrasted to the extended family businesses that comprised the society of the day. Single people flourishing is one of the main signs that the Church is not just another social organisation based on biological offspring, but one pointing to the Kingdom of God with spiritual heirs. Do this church respect, honour and lift single people to flourish in such a way that they are a special sign to others of the presence of the Kingdom of God?