Recent decades have seen a major societal shift towards singleness in the UK. This came as a big surprise to experts when they saw the numbers in the 2011 Census, and it was the lead story in most newspapers.

It’s part of an international trend – in the USA, it’s reported that the average person spends more of their adult life single than partnered (De Paulo), and the growth of singleness is a major government policy issue in countries such as Japan and Singapore. We will define ‘single’ later on, but here ‘single’ is defined as those who are neither married nor cohabiting, so it’s not that people are choosing to cohabit rather than marry – there really are more single people in society than there used to be.

However, the increase in the number of single people in the UK is rarely discussed – probably because it has not had any major effect on population growth. Although the number of parents is decreasing, the number of babies being born is fairly constant. Singleness has not therefore been viewed as detrimental to the country or economy. General acceptance of children being born outside of marriage, and the fact that one in four British children is now born to a mother who originates from outside the country, means the birthrate has remained sustainable.

‘It’s a church for the married’

Churches, like those experts, didn’t notice the changes happening, so many churches have failed to keep up with the changes in society and changing needs of their congregations. This has led to a drift away from the church by this growing section of the population.

This drift appears to start at around 25 years of age, and is particularly acute in the 25-39 age range. In this age group, 13% of married adults in society attend one church or another at least once a month, but only 5% of single people attend church. That means, for example, that if a single person wants to marry someone sharing their Christian faith, they look around and see relatively few others like them.

To many people, the church looks like a church of the married, for the married. Whereas only 47% of the adult population is married, they make up the majority – over 60% – of the church. Conversely, more than 40% of adults in Great Britain are single (YouGov 2014), but they are not represented in the church, where only 32% are single. These differences may initially appear small, but at an adult UK population of over 42 million, these translate into a significant number who are not present.

Part of the problem for church leaders is that ‘single’ can means so many different things that they may not notice the numbers in their own congregation, nor that some types of singles are drifting away and are no longer around.

‘I’m not single like the others’

There are many kinds of singleness. People naturally tend to think in terms of the traditional stages of life – moving from singleness in early adulthood through to marriage; then to children; and finally widowhood later in life. However, whether we like it or not, the shape of families is changing in UK society.

Divorce is much more common now than it was a generation or two ago. Many people marry two or more times within their lifetime, with children born in these sequential marriages, leading to more step-families and ‘blended’ families. Children are also commonly born to cohabiting couples and single parents, and same sex couples are now recognised both in civil partnership and marriage law. The number of people choosing to live in ‘non-traditional’ relationships and family structures is increasing.

The range of situations in which people find themselves single varies considerably. These include the following:

    • Never married – no children The number of people who have never married (and are not cohabiting) is increasing. There are more never-married men than women, because men appear more likely to marry sequentially, reducing the number of never-married women.
    • Single parent – never married Nearly a quarter of families with dependent children are headed by a lone parent, and 86% of them are women. Single parents often face great financial and practical pressure trying to support their children alone. Some may have support from a co-parent, but many do not.
    • Separated Although they are a small percentage of the population, separated people are often particularly vulnerable, as they are usually still sorting out their emotions, legal matters and living arrangements. They are legally married but living as single.
    • Divorced – no children, not remarried Being divorced without children can make it easier to move on, as people can cut ties with their former spouse more easily and be open to a new relationship. However, divorce can be the end of a dream to have a family, especially for women, so can come with added grief.
    • Single parent – divorced  Being divorced or separated with children is a very different experience to being divorced and childless. There are responsibilities and demands on both former partners, and an ongoing relationship is required for co-parenting the children. 
    • Widowed Many widowed people do not consider themselves to be ‘single’.  They say they are married, but that their partner has passed on.
    • Living as single in practice  There are some married people who have to live as if they are single. For example, their spouse is away for long periods of time, or their spouse is in long-term care and may no longer recognise them.

This variety in people’s circumstances means that single people often don’t recognise themselves as being in the same category as others. For instance, a single parent does not share a similar life story or challenges as an older widow(er) or a college-leaver looking for a partner. This is one reason why so many singles events fail.

It’s also the reason why so many church leaders say they have few singles in their congregation, but when they look hard they realise there are more than they thought. In fact, one in three adult churchgoers is single. For every couple, there is a single person – across all denominations and types of church. Perhaps the presence of a couple with children is experienced to be larger.

Being able to address the issues faced by single people will rely heavily on listening to individuals in your congregation, as well as those who have chosen to leave, and those in your locality who have not yet come to faith.

‘I’m not single’

Many single people don’t label themselves – or want to be labelled – as ‘single’. It’s often seen as the modern version of ‘spinster’ – deprecating and inviting pity. This is one reason why groups lobbying on behalf of singles tend not to survive long – people don’t want to be connected with the label. The single state is generally the opposite of people’s aspirations and attempts to meet a partner – it’s a situation from which they wish to escape.

For example, young adults may feel single when their mates have girlfriends and boyfriends, but they are not ‘single’ (they say) – only on the way to marriage. There is also a strong theme in Western culture concerning the ‘law of attraction’ – the idea that if you label yourself something, that is what you’ll attract. True or not (and there is both some truth and considerable falsehood in the theory), the idea has permeated popular culture, and people feel that by labelling themselves ‘single’, that is how they’ll remain.

Trying to address ‘singleness’ with that explicit label in a church may therefore fail. It’s more a case of addressing the situations and circumstances, the issues and concerns, and including and encouraging people of all marital status. Nevertheless, there should be some real concerns for church leaders about the rise of singleness in society and their relative lack in the church.

What does the number of single people have to do with the church?

First, the absence of singles should signal something about the nature of our faith communities. Why do so many people feel excluded and believe the church doesn’t know what to do with them? Why do single people of faith choose not to attend church? And why are we missing out on the opportunities to include so many more in the church? Welcoming, valuing and including them would increase numbers quickly.

Moreover, without single people present and marrying in churches, there is no natural replacement for people of faith. Any maintenance of numbers must therefore come from evangelism. The past and research both show that bringing people into the church is harder than bringing people up in the community of Christian faith. Single people are therefore critical to the stability of church numbers.

Although in the UK, singleness is not generally discussed because of the overall stability of the birth rate, some aspects are. The rise in singleness is associated with a rise in social isolation, which has a major impact on health and welfare. At a national level, this places greater demands on health and welfare services. What can we do, policy shapers ask, about the numbers of isolated and often lonely people?

One might think that the church could play a role in reaching out to such people. Some churches offer coffee mornings and tea afternoons, but single people in general (according to our research) say that churches don’t know what to do with them once they’re past 25 years of age, and they often don’t feel fully included. In particular, the older the person, the less they think the church is a good place for single people. Thus, the church is perhaps unready to reach out to and include the growing numbers of single people who feel isolated.

Singleness and age

Our research (the largest ever survey of single Christians in the UK) revealed that, in addition to the life stages of singleness, there are some clear age differences, particularly as it relates to faith. Here’s a little of what we found:

  • Under 30 - People in their teens and 20s tend to consider themselves ‘not yet partnered’ rather than single. Nevertheless, they feel it deeply when their peers have boyfriends or girlfriends, and they do not.
  • 30 - 45 year olds - This age group worries most about being single. They say they start to doubt that God has a plan for their lives, since the promise of a partner has not been fulfilled.
  • 46 - 60 year olds - Single women recognise that they are now unlikely to have a family, and tend to get on with life. Many also say that through their difficulties they experience deeper faith.  However, men do not, possibly still thinking they might meet a partner and have a family.

  • Over-60s - The over-60s appear to come to terms with their situation, worrying less about the future and being more secure in their faith. However, they feel most strongly that the church is not a good place for single people.

The reasons for singleness

We often hear church leaders exclaim with frustration that they don’t understand why the single people ‘just don’t get married’. There are many reasons that Christian people find themselves single. Some are of the person’s own choosing, some cultural and some are due to circumstances. Church teaching also plays a role. This is what our research revealed:

  • Choice - There are Christians who choose to remain single. This might be for personal reasons – some say they have no physical attraction for others and prefer to be single. Others love their careers, their independence and, whereas they say they want to 'meet somebody' might unconsciously prefer their single lives.  Others respond to Jesus’ words in Matthew 19 about choosing to be single for the sake of the Gospel, we hear this particularly from those who have gone out in missionary work. Others are separated but choose to honour their marriage vows and never have another partner.

  • Circumstance - The majority of single Christians are single through circumstance. For example, there are over twice as many ABC1 (educated and professional) women as ABC1 men in church, meaning there are not enough men to provide husbands for these women – and many choose to remain single rather than marry someone who doesn’t share their faith. Other circumstances include widowhood and unwelcome separation or divorce.
  • Church teaching - Respondents to our surveys report that some church teaching has led to them remaining single, when they wanted to marry. They gave three areas in which the teaching (or lack of it) impacted their lives. Some say lack of advice or practical support (and even occasional opposition) during dating means a relationship may not develop. Others report that a strong prohibition on any physical contact has meant the natural development of a relationship has not been explored to a point where they can make a commitment. Yet others say their church has such a narrow view of ‘Christian’ that it drastically reduces the number of potential spouses.
  • Lack of relationship skills - Within our digital society, there are reports of some relationship skills being lost. In Silicon Valley, people can attend ‘flirting courses’! Struggling with social skills may be because of personality (for example, shyness or introversion), or because of family background — or simply because we spend too long in front of electronic devices. We often talk about the need for married people to develop communication skills, but these are needed just as much, perhaps even more, by those seeking a partner.

‘Feeling single isn’t just for single people’

At Single Friendly Church, we’re sometimes asked why we focus on the problems faced by single people when married people have problems too. We agree heartily! But we believe that one of the major ways to support married people is to address the issues singles face. For example, we all feel alone at some point, so we all have elements of singleness. This may be at work; in families, when other members don’t share our faith; when dealing with unwanted childlessness, especially if everyone around us in church has children; and in marriages, when the couple is struggling with relationship problems or want very different things, leaving one or both partners feeling lonely.

One of the key findings in our research really worries us: that married women often keep themselves and their husbands away from single women (whether never married, divorced or widowed), physically moving away from them -- even in church. There seems to be insufficient trust in many Christian couples, and this is one reason given in our research for the lack of invitations of hospitality. If so, then some of the problems of singleness are also those of marriedness.

In addressing issues associated with singleness, we also need to address issues among people of all marital statuses.

The singles in your church…

As a church leader, you may already be conscious of the needs of singles in your congregation, or you may not have considered the issue until now. At Single Friendly Church, we want to encourage churches to be intentional about developing an inclusive approach. You may want to look again at your own congregation and the diversity of experience within it. Once singles feel embraced within their churches, they often prove to be an energetic, imaginative and resourceful asset to the whole community.

5 Easy Steps 

If you're looking for an easy place to start, download our 5 Steps leaflet that identifies 5 key areas that make a big difference to single people's experience of church, and simple changes you can make. Download here.

David Pullinger, August 2017