‘I don’t like attending church’

 

By this everyone will know that you are my disciples: if you love one another.’ John 13 v 35

Many single Christians choose not to attend church. In our survey of 3,000 single Christians (the UK’s biggest ever survey of its kind), many respondents told us they no longer attended church. So we asked what would encourage them to do so.

Some said little could persuade them to attend church again, having been put off or hurt by previous experiences. However, others told us there are several significant aspects that could encourage them back into church life. Here’s what they said…

‘I don’t like going to church alone – I’d like someone to attend with’ 

The top reason offered by single people for not going to church is that they find it difficult to attend services alone. They want a friend or companion to attend with, or to find friends within the congregation.

Gathering together as human beings is inherently a social activity. Sadly, church services are often one of the loneliest places for single people. Those who do attend often report that no one talks to them. That loneliness can be increased when having to leave alone at the end of the meeting. Having a friend with whom to attend eases the isolation, both during the service and at leaving time.

One idea that has been tried successfully in some churches is a ‘buddy’ scheme. You can try this in your own church, or link with other local churches to create buddy partners with whom to explore faith. If you know of single people on the fringes of the church, suggest that they might like to ‘buddy up’ and attend together. Men particularly like to bond initially with one or two others. Mentoring from an older man often works for them.

‘I’m encouraged by the presence of other single Christians around my age’

Our research shows that single Christians who report being happy and content in their churches have a group of four or five good friends in the church, and these relationships can make negative aspects of church less of a deterrent. While valuing the age range and cross-section of society represented in congregations (one of the unique features offered by churches), they wish to find others who understand their situation and can share their journey of faith.

This may appear to be just social, but in fact, sharing the journey with people similar to ourselves is one of the reasons faith increases both psychological and physical wellbeing (as shown by numerous studies). Friends who see each other regularly week by week report that their conversations cover three areas: emotional (‘Argh, this happened and is terrible/wonderful’), intellectual (‘How do I think about this and make a decision on it?’), and practical (‘Can you help me with…?’). Each area deals with the development of trust in God and the development of faith. 

If you know of single people of a similar age who only attend your church occasionally, you might want to consider inviting them all to a particular service (not something special), and perhaps even for lunch afterwards, so they can meet each other and see there are others in their situation.

‘I don’t want to be judged for not being married’

Many single people say they stay away from church because they feel out of place among the majority group of married people. They report that others try to ‘fix’ them and tell them what they should do to meet a spouse. One person even reported that they were told by their leader they were ‘full of sin’ for not being married, which takes no account of the fact that there are at least twice as many single women in the church as single men. 

Married people often feel they’re in the ‘normal’ state, simply because they’re in the majority. Single people frequently and consistently report that they are questioned, often intrusively, about their single status. If you take St Paul’s instructions in 1 Corinthians 7 as they are written, single people should feel equally able to question those who are married about their lack of sexual self-control, which led them to getting married! The fact that we don’t do this shows it’s not a reciprocal discussion. It is not appropriate to judge people for being single or question them on why. 

Church leaders could help by restating the facts to all church members from time to time. There are good reasons why people among them are single, and are to be welcomed. For example…

  • There are far fewer single people who attend church than married. We welcome them here.
  • Single people are more thinly spread across the churches and, if they wish to get married, find it harder to meet potential partners. We will help them if they wish it.
  • There are double the number of single women in churches than single men. We honour their extraordinary commitment to faith.
  • Some single people choose to be single. That is a Biblically valid choice that we respect and support as a sign that the church is about spiritual heirs.
  • Others are single by circumstance, including those who are widowed, separated or divorced (often not by their choice). We promise to extend loving care to them and to be with them through their changing situations.

‘I want be welcomed and included, and missed if I’m not there’

A community misses those who are not present. Single people want to feel cared about sufficiently that, if they are not around for some reason, someone from the church will follow up and check – are they ill, is everything OK? Single people who love their churches report receiving messages saying they’re missed if they’re not there. If done sensitively, a text or email makes them feel loved and included. 

There is a perception that single church members are less regular attenders. In fact, they attend more regularly than married people (according to a YouGov survey). It’s just that their presence tends to be less noticeable than members of a family.

So if someone is absent, it’s a good idea for you or a group leader to send them a message. This should be personal (noting something you know about their situation), and saying you miss them (which is only true if others engage with them and have conversations when they are there!).

‘Services at different times would make it easier to attend’

There are other practical aspects that can make it easier for single church members to attend services. For example, the times of services tend to be geared to families, often (and reasonably) suiting the majority rather than everyone. However, single people often take jobs that would impose on family life, so may work on Sundays or have shift work. When it comes to joining a community of faith for worship, they may look for weekday, Saturday or Sunday evening services.

Church leaders can ask the question, ‘What would we do differently if all the congregation were single? What times of services would we have?’ Then perhaps offer one or two alternatives to see if single people can be attracted. Advertise them where single people are likely to see them. 

Speaking personally, at our churches we’ve always offered a 7pm service on Sunday evenings – either reflective or lively, depending on the local sociodemographic profile obtained from Neighbourhood Statistics. These have attracted mostly single people. Others have offered mid-week services and central London churches often use lunch-times for worship.  In Vancouver, Canada, they've had great numbers attending post-work reflective services in the early mid-day evenings.

‘Sometimes it’s difficult to get to church – a lift would really help’

The final reasons for non-attendance were practical. Some people have difficulty in getting to church – for example, because they are a carer and cannot leave the person they look after; or because the journey is difficult, especially if they don’t own a car and it’s too far to walk, particularly in bad weather.

Many churches offer a lift service or rota to enable carers to get to church. Could you organise something for people in this situation? (We have more advice for supporting carers in your congregation [here]).

Communicating to non-attenders that transport help (and other support) is available may be difficult. You might have their contact details on file if they registered them when attending for the first time, or someone else in the congregation may know them. You might also want to include a note about the help available in the following places:

  • Church noticeboard
  • Church website
  • Weekly notice sheet
  • Parish magazine (especially if it’s distributed around the area)
  • Local newspaper, along with a little article mentioning what you already do (local newspapers are always looking for stories to fill pages)
  • Information sent to Local Authority carer support units
David Pullinger  27 March 2017