Articles

How can church leaders respond to society's changing demographics? Which are the best passages in the Bible for teaching issues around singleness? The selection of articles in this section will help to provide the answers.

They include:

New Wine 2016 talk to church leaders

Dr David Pullinger gave two talks on singleness at New Wine 2016, speaking both to church leaders and to single Christians. He was asked by many listeners to make his notes available to them. This is an outline for church leaders.

SINGLENESS IN THE CHURCH

I’ve been asked to speak on the topic of singleness and how church leaders can respond to a major socio-demographic shift in our society. More specifically, our surveys show that many churches cater poorly for single people in their congregations. We give some practical advice that single Christians say would help.

The Roman law about being married

I have a lot of sympathy with church leaders when single people say little teaching seems to be directly relevant to them. When leaders look to the Bible, there isn’t a lot about singleness itself. One reason is because most people were married. Indeed, there was a law in place – the Lex Julia – that every female citizen aged between 20 and 50 (except for Vestal Virgins), and every man between 25 and 60, had to be married – and if widowed, they had two to three years to remarry. You were fined if not. This was to deal with low birth rate. Both the Roman and Jewish authorities wanted to ensure the population was being renewed. The law was only revoked in AD 320 by emperor Constantine, as part of the Roman Empire becoming the Holy Roman Empire.

Good Biblical patterns

We can nevertheless get a good picture from the Bible about those who are single. I’m going to go through three Bible passages and:

  • reflect on what they mean for us today
  • tell you about the experiences of single Christians
  • make some suggestions for the church

SINGLE BY CHOICE OR CIRCUMSTANCE?

The first Bible passage I want to turn to is Matthew 19 v 10-12 (NIV):

10 The disciples said to him, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife [only to divorce on the basis of sexual immorality, not for falling out or childlessness], it is better not to marry.” 11 Jesus replied, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. 12 For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.”

Eunuch in this context means remaining childless. Having children was largely synonymous with marriage in those cultures, and childlessness was one reason Jewish law gave for permitting divorce (until Jesus’ teaching). Jesus introduces the idea of being single/childless for the sake of the Kingdom of God. The idea is that their interest becomes one of forming spiritual heirs not biological ones – heirs to the Kingdom of God.

But this is an offer that is not forced long-term on anyone. It is:

  • offered as a gift
  • to those who wish to receive it
  • for the purpose of furthering the Kingdom of God

It is not for everyone. Just because someone happens to be single, doesn’t mean it is a gift that they have chosen to receive.

Single by circumstance not by choice

Most single people who go to church want to marry. How do we know? We’ve conducted the largest survey of single Christians ever done. You can find all the results here. Most single Christians don’t want to be single. They feel single not by choice but by circumstance. How does this come about?

The cultural mood

First, as members of our Western democratic society, we are encouraged to marry later than ever before (on average around the age of 30) – to have the opportunity to advance careers, to travel and to pursue hobbies before so-called “settling down”. We, as members of the church, are not immune to this cultural mood.

Single people leave the church

Then when people turn around to look for someone to marry, there’s no one there! Single people start leaving the church from their 20s onwards. The number of single people in church is fewer than in society. Thus they are more thinly spread than in general society, and it is not always easy to meet someone new to date and marry.

Where are the men?

Then there is the gender imbalance. According to another piece of research I’ve done (conducted by YouGov), there are twice as many ABC1 (educated middle-class) single women as men going to places of Christian worship for the purposes of worship. And they can prefer different types of church, with more men going to traditional-type churches than women, who prefer family-based or lively-worship churches. Love and relationships are hard if the people are thinly scattered across churches and to be found in different places.

Implications for the church

Why are people leaving?

We need to deal with why people are leaving the church in their 20s and 30s. I’m astonished that so many churches don’t follow up when people leave and ask them about their reasons. Not all may give their true reasons – but do try to find out! A family wouldn’t let someone just vanish. Without single Christians staying in the church and/or a major evangelistic push, church numbers are going to steadily decline as people become estranged from church and our God.

Mission to men

There is a real problem with educated and professional men attending church. They don’t want to come to church. We don’t fully know the reasons why, so I’m getting some funding together to try to find out. [This got a huge round of applause from the women at the talk!] In the meantime, support the work of Christian Vision for Men.

Support the development of a dating culture

The church has not encouraged the dating culture we need to lead to Christian marriages. The level of dating among Christians is very low. As one attractive young woman said to me, “I used to go out on many dates. I became a Christian and I haven’t had a date for five years.” Less than half of those who tell us they are actively looking have had more than a few dates in one year. This does not lead to Christian marriages. The Jewish authorities of Jesus’ day realised they needed to find means to sustain their population and were happy supporting the Law that you had to be married. The church in the UK today needs to find creative ways of getting their single people together if they wish to support Christian marriages.

The church could helpfully:

  • support looking
  • organise groups across local churches
  • ask Christian festivals to organise opportunities for single Christians to meet each other
  • don’t dismiss online dating. One in three couples who married in the USA over a seven year period met online, and members of those marriages reported happiness levels slightly higher than those who first learned of each other face to face. It works. If you’re asked for a recommendation, I would use Christian Connection which is run by Christians and awarded prizes for its customer services.

If you want to recommend some good material on dating, you can start with the Engage website, a group of organisations dedicated to making Christian marriage possible, which not only has good content but also points you towards other resources.

HOSPITALITY AND INCLUSION

The second Biblical passage I want to turn to concerns hospitality and inclusion, Psalm 68 v 4-6 (NIV):

4 Sing to God, sing in praise of his name, extol him who rides on the clouds; rejoice before him—his name is the Lord. 5 A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling. 6 God sets the lonely in families

A recurrent Biblical theme and practice is that the single/lonely/destitute were to be welcomed into multigenerational families and cared for as if part of that family. This was practical, remembering that families were economic units where all worked for the sake of the survival of the family.

By and large, most people in the UK are not desolate (another translation of the word used for lonely), although some are and need to be reached. But whatever the state of the individual, we each need the human presence of good friends to make our bodies work well physiologically, and we need social connections that are deep and fulfilling for mental wellbeing. Each person needs to be placed in families, not to simply survive, but to thrive.

Inclusion into families

Yet this is the very thing that over half our 3,000 respondents said that they did not experience. In particular, they said that offers of hospitality to family homes were rare, and often only forthcoming once they were in a relationship.

Of course, one must practise safety, especially when children are present, but there can be unnecessary irrational fears of single men, perpetrated by the media; and a perception that single women present a threat to marriages – we hear how married women regularly move their husbands away from single women, even in church services.

Being present in a family also helps single people dispose of false images of marriage, especially the prevailing romantic myths we see in films. This has several components.

The first is the belief that there is a level of happiness and fulfilment in marriage that is just not possible outside of it. This is clearly blatantly untrue, illustrated by the number of divorces and the long-term impact they have on families and individual wellbeing. Yet we continue to believe it and, in many churches, it is implied through many church acts promoting family.

The second is that there is a long and difficult adventure to finding the right person, “the One”, after which one settles down happily and contentedly. Throughout the history of homo sapiens, the number of potential partners for each individual has been very small, but now is it large. One grows relationship as much as one finds it. Having a realistic view of marriage is important, even when we approach it with hope and joy. The “falling in love” period lasts on average around 18 months, after which we need different skills to maintain it.

Inclusion into leadership

The second kind of inclusion I want to mention is leadership. Many singles said they were excluded from leadership opportunities. This is core to love and relationship. Why? First, there is no quicker way to develop relationship skills than to be in leadership, where relationships matter. One respondent wrote in the survey that they were barred from being a youth group leader because they were single and (I quote): “What kind of model will that give to the youth?” The answers Jesus and St Paul come to mind.

Inclusion into a support and prayer network

The third kind of inclusion is one into a support and prayer network. Groups are very good at telling what someone is like. Groups of friends can accurately predict how long one of them will live (they’ve tested this over decades). Large groups unknown to each other can assess personality from photos – individuals don’t do nearly as well. Groups can be really supportive to any single person seeking love and relationship or discerning their future.

There is real value in supporting anyone experiencing rejection. Someone may be fortunate and marry the very first person they date, but that is extremely unusual. They need to develop skills in building relationships and identifying the sort of person they want to be with. Men handle rejection far less well than women and need particular support.

Finally, being part of prayer support that is non-judgmental but full of wisdom is so valuable.

GOD’S NEW FAMILY

Matthew 12 v 46-50 (NIV):

46 While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to him. 47 Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.” 48 He replied to him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” 49 Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. 50 For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

This was a new community, not based on families, tribes or race, but based on faith in God doing his words; a new family in which what matters are spiritual heirs, those left behind when we pass on, who are practising the faith, showing what our God looks like to others, and transforming the world towards his Kingdom. I don’t believe he meant that biological families were unimportant, but that seeking the Kingdom of God takes precedence.

I want to say this very clearly: without thriving single people, the organisation of the church could look like a club for families. Single people are one of the most visible signs of something extraordinary going on, the formation of the Kingdom of God; of making spiritual heirs, not just biological offspring.

However, many single Christians say they feel invisible in their own churches. This is not surprising. When a church leader looks out over the congregation they see two-thirds of people are married (an average across Britain), disproportionately higher than in society. Many of the activities, sermon illustrations and social events are therefore likely to be targeted at the majority, rather then the third who are single on average.

Perhaps some churches might reflect on whether they’re predominantly institutions for families – or a community that operates as a family. The image of a new family introduced by Jesus is one of a close-knit community of faith that includes all who work together to reveal Christ to the world.

What in the Bible is relevant to the issues around singleness

Dr David Pullinger writes about his analysis of responses by 400 church leaders in a survey done by Christian Research Ltd.

Christian Research Ltd carried out a survey of 400 church leaders about which passages of the Bible they would choose to teach on issues around singleness. Dr David Pullinger of Single Christians has been analysing the results and exploring some of the themes coming out of the research. What Biblical passages would church leaders turn to if they wished to address issues around singleness?

Models of singleness

The most commonly mentioned Biblical passages point to models of singleness found in the Bible. Church leaders would point their congregations to the singleness of Jesus, such as his freedom to do God’s will (which he suggests in Matthew 19) and his ability to gain solitude to pray (temptations and Matthew 14:22). However his loneliness (as some see in Luke 9:58/Matthew 8:20) is also relevant as expressed through the need for and creation of friendship communities (Mary, Martha, Lazarus in John 11:5) and the three closest disciples (Peter, James and John, as for example in the account of the Transfiguration Matthew 17:1/ Mark 9:2/ Luke 9:28).

The second great model of singleness in the Bible is Paul. His singleness (assumed in practice after his conversion) enabled him to travel, be single-minded about building the church, but also feel isolated (2 Tim 4). Yet Paul learned to be content (Phil 4:11).

Another model comes from Anna, the widow in her practice of worship, fasting and prayer (Luke 2: 36-38), although this would not be directly applicable to all who are single.

The new family

The second set of Biblical passages mentioned by church leaders were the Gospel and Acts accounts of the formation of a new family. The people gathering to the Kingdom of God are to form a community. Jesus describes the believers following the Word of God as a new family: ‘For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.’ (Matthew 12: 46-50, Mark 3:33-35, Luke 8:2) And later ‘Woman, here is your son’ pointing to John (John 19:27).

The disciples then work this out through sharing (Acts 2) and practising hospitality (1 Peter 4:8-11), with the whole church living as a family with rules of behaviour (Eph 4:25-32) and each finding their place, ministry and fulfilment within it.

Decisions about whether to stay single or get married

It is in this context of a new family that questions arose of how to handle those wanting to marry. 1 Cor 7 is the passage that most church leaders would turn to on whether to marry or stay single. This is summarised by some leaders as ‘It is good to be married, it is good to be single.’ Others disagree and say that the passage is really saying that it is better not to be married.

We should note (as I do at greater length in my book A Desire to Belong) that commentaries take two different lines on 1 Cor 7 as there is some room for interpretation as to exactly what is the ‘gift’ that Paul refers to. An older interpretation is that the gift is singleness itself. But now it seems to be generally accepted that the ‘gift’ in this passage is instead self-control. Matthew 19 does talk about the gift of singleness for those who can accept it, but the Matthew passage was only rarely brought up by church leaders.

We should further note that marriage was not the same then as it is in today’s society. This affects how we consider the decision to marry or not. In Biblical times it meant marrying into the roles and responsibilities of an extended family that worked and traded to support itself (see for example Rodney Clapp’s book Families at the Crossroads). The current notion of a nuclear family largely did not exist, especially the 21st century idea of self-fulfilment through being a couple or having children. I suggest that one interpretation of Paul’s advice in 1 Cor 7 is to consider whether one’s primary public role and responsibility lay with an extended biological family group or the new family illustrating what the the Kingdom of God is like.

Working through pain and heartbrokenness

The Christian Connection survey reported on this site show that many single people would love the opportunity to consider such whether they should marry or not. Many women long for a Christian husband but there are too few men in the church (YouGov 2014), so feel that they do not have the opportunity (see research on www.singlechristians.co.uk)

In response to this, church leaders recognised the pain, loneliness and broken-heartedness of (some) single people. They made reference not only to passages that Paul writes but also to a wide variety of the Psalms, particularly those in which we pour out his heart to God when feeling abandoned or wronged, for example Psalms 62 and 22. Others chose reassuring Psalms such as 139, 40 and 51.

Speaking into a situation

The choice of Biblical passage is only one aspect of preaching - the other is the situation into which the Word is spoken. The data shows that there appears to be a difference in how preaching topics are determined by church leaders. Some churches use a lectionary or work through particular books. This means that although singleness as a subject is occasionally covered, the issues may be different in that the norm then was to be married in teenage years and to produce children. In our culture 40% of adults are single: unmarried, unpartnered, divorced or widowed – this wasn’t the case in Biblical times.

Another approach to preaching is to identify those things affecting the congregation and use select Bible passages to address them. The question asked of the leaders about passages was following this approach. However that demands the answer to knowing what people think single people’s issues are.

A question in the CRL survey asked about issues facing single people. We are analysing the responses of the 1,000 people who were non-leaders to see what they thought. Although loneliness and isolation head the list, there are also practical matters such as babysitting for single parents, housing and accommodation, finance, and being cared for while ill. Although I am still analysing this, many mentioned the often unhelpful attitude of churches - including the stigma associated with being single and assumptions made. As I develop and complete the analysis, both the research and advice to church leaders will be available on this website.

A view from the USA on how churches can embrace single adults

Christina Cleveland in the USA offers a 6 tips on what married people can do in order to improve the the experience of single people in their churches.

This is a summary from Christina Cleveland's blog.

  1. Admit that singleness is complex and that you know little to nothing about it. Singleness isn’t a junior varsity version of marriage. It’s an entirely different sport – and if you haven’t played it, you haven’t mastered it.
  2. Recognize that as a married person, you are privileged. Married people run the Christian world.
  3. Affirm that marital status isn’t correlated with godliness or maturity. Many single people feel that they are often automatically stereotyped as spiritually immature, morally dangerous, and unsuitable for leadership simply because they’re single. Marriage isn’t a fruit of the Spirit either. Married people aren’t more holy or godly or mature than single people.
  4. Celebrate single people. If you get married and/or have a baby, Christians will pull out all the stops to celebrate you. That’s a good thing! But Christians should also recognize that many single adults never get celebrated with such fanfare.
  5. Recognize that you need single people to show you what the resurrection is really all about. Rodney Clapp (and Stanley Hauerwas) said it best.
  6. Invest in the single people around you. If you want to know how to honor the image of God in single adults, get to know the single adults around you
  7. The full article can be found at christenacleveland.com/2013/12/singled-out/

 

Married? Why you should be interested in single people

David Pullinger discusses why the issue of singleness in the church is of great importance for the whole Christian community, including those who are married.

Single people can find our churches difficult places to be. To effectively minister to our community, we need to get more interested in the needs and lives of single people. There are some obviously personal reasons why married people should be interested in the issue of singleness.

It is an issue that is likely to affect them again at some point in their lives - at some stage over half of married people will be single again. Another obvious point is that their children or close friends and relatives may be single, and they may want them to ‘meet someone nice’.

But it’s also a crucial issue for anyone who cares about church growth. The community we are reaching out to is increasingly single - the number of single people in society is growing. So much so that in 15 years, it is predicted that there will be more single adult households than those headed by a couple. Also, adults are likely to remain single longer. Already in US, each person spends on average of over half their adult lives single. In the UK it will soon approach this too.

Life for singles in church

It is perhaps too easy, for the 60% of people in church who are married, to forget what the 32% of singles experience in life and, especially what they experience in church (Data from YouGov/SC 2014).

Our research has highlighted a problem. Many single people feel as though they are not being fully included into the social life of church. Generally they report a warm welcome and acceptance, but feel that the social life of their churches is oriented around families. They are not invited for hospitality in the same way as they hear others are (CC 2012).

This is particularly evident for those who are widowed. Some describe wonderful support from their churches, but we also received upsetting stories of sudden exclusion from social groups of which they had been a part for decades. Here’s a quote from one widow:

“I noticed the change when I was widowed and became excluded virtually overnight, a very strange reaction, as previously my husband and I had been in leadership but also had singles as part of our extended family.”

So what can married people do to help their single brothers and sisters?

Include singles into your church and social lives

Hospitality is a key element that was frequently named as being wanted by single people. This was at the core of the prophets’ and Jesus’ sense of radical hospitality as recorded in Isaiah and the Gospels and Acts of the Apostles. The single people - including widows and orphans - were to be supported and affirmed as part of the community of faith.

Include issues that face single people into sermons and talks

The issues that single people face are rarely discussed in church. There are good reasons for this. In first century Palestine, there were not the kind of singleness we find in modern Western societies. It is rarely mentioned in the Bible. And many think that by including singleness issues, the majority in church will be excluded. They are wrong.

What are their issues? Top of the list when we asked 1,401 church leaders and congregational members, was loneliness for all ages (CRL/NC 2014).

But there is more loneliness inside marriages than most will readily admit. Sometimes one spouse will attend church on their own and feel lonely in their spiritual lives. Sometimes the spouse is away every day at work or at home busy with children and they seem to live in parallel worlds, two different lives and they have difficulty connecting. At other times unfulfilled desires and goals lead to frustration and loneliness. Some have described being childless as difficult in church and they feel lonely amongst all the couples with children.

Addressing loneliness will not only support single people, but all who experience loneliness and isolation in parts of their lives for one reason or another. Talking about it will help everyone.

Encourage mission to single people

Already the church is not reaching single people as readily as those who are partnered. 40% of people in society are single, but only 32% in the church attending regularly are single. That’s nearly half a million people who are not attending who you’d expect to be there. Is that your child, your nephew or niece, or friend?

Whereas some churches, we are told, are wonderful places for single people, many are not (CC 2012). How do we make them attractive and then reach out to single people?

This is not a singleness issue - it’s a church one. If the proportion of married people are relatively declining in society and that is the current majority of the church, then that could lead to an inevitable decline unless we do something about it.

Summary

So for five reasons, married people should be interested in singles:

  • Married people will statistically be single again