Single-blindness in the Church

It’s been a while since I posted here, but something happened not long ago that showed me just how blind many in the Church are to the needs of singles.

I dropped by Southern Baptist Seminary, mainly because I wanted to check out the LifeWay there. While looking around the store, mainly at the bookshelves, I decided to try to find whether they had any resources specifically dealing with singles. It took some serious looking—while the shelving is organized by general topic, you can’t see a “Singles” sign anywhere.

Unless you happen to look in the “Marriage” section… and scan down to the lowest level of a three-level shelf… and to one corner of said shelf (which is about 12 to 13 feet across)… and then find maybe a dozen different titles. And one or two of those I saw on my visit were actually about marriage! And, may I add, a couple of the titles that are about singleness were by Joshua Harris of I Kissed Dating Goodbye fame (though not IKDG itself)… the same Joshua Harris who has now apologized for the work that made him a celebrity in certain Christian circles (as Amir pointed out on this blog last year).

Keep in mind that SBTS is one of the largest seminaries in the world, not just in the US, and trains a pretty substantial number of the SBC’s ministers (plus a decent number from other Protestant traditions). And yet in the bookstore of arguably the flagship seminary of the SBC, there seems to be virtually nothing in the way of resources to deal with singles or singleness.

And the single community in the Church is much larger than many people think. Not long ago, one of the two churches I go to—easily the biggest church in the area where I live—had a sermon series on relationships, with the first one being on singleness. (In fairness, this was only one of several recent signs that this particular church is starting to “get it” when it comes to singles.) During this first message, the pastor pointed out some statistics about this congregation that may (or may not) surprise you:

  • Of this church’s membership in the 21–35 age bracket, about two-thirds are single (as in “not currently married”, which is my definition of “single”). Not really that big a surprise to me, given the way our culture has been going in recent decades.
  • In the 35–65 bracket, almost a third of the membership is single—a statistic about which the pastor openly expressed surprise.

If this congregation is typical of others within the Church as a whole, it means that there’s a huge community in the Church’s very midst that too many congregations have ignored (if not worse). And it isn’t helping when one of the more prominent institutions in American evangelicalism (i.e., SBTS) apparently doesn’t consider that community important enough to provide the resources that could help future leaders deal with it.

8 thoughts on “Single-blindness in the Church

  1. I’m not sure that most evangelical churches–whose pastors have been trained to structure their ministry around families–have a clue about the singles, let alone their dilemmas.

    Even worse, I doubt that most even want to have a clue.

  2. Why should we be surprised that the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary is clueless about singleness? Don’t forget that its longtime president once proclaimed delay of marriage to be “sin.” While Joshua Harris has begun coming around, Albert Mohler has shown no evidence of a change of heart. The same is true for Debbie Maken, Alex Chediak and other proponents of what came to be known as “marriage mandate” theology in the mid-2000’s.

    My church is currently searching for a new rector (senior pastor). I’m hoping the new rector will be much more aware about singles than the outgoing rector, who’s demonstrated cluelessness more than once.

    • I am not surprised in the slightest that the SBC, and other evangelical outposts, are oblivious to the single world. You have to remember that, in seminaries, they get no exposure to that realm whatsoever. Guys like Mohler will tell them, and with good practica; reason, that unless they get married, they are going to be extremely limited in the ministry.

      He is correct: if you don’t get married, it is going to be hard to find a pastoral position in the SBC/evangelical world. I’m not saying that’s right; it is what it is.

      But other than that, you just are not going to get any other exposure to issues of singleness while you are in Bible School or Seminary, You’re going to learn a lot about Greek and Hebrew, and church history, and theology, and Old and New Testament interpretation and exegesis, and perhaps pastoral counseling and Christian education, but singles? Nope.

      And let’s be honest here: people tend to want to hang out with others who are like them. This extends to far more than race: couples with children tend to want to be around other couples and children. Older fogeys want to hang around other old fogeys.

      Pastors, most of whom are married, are going to focus on their demographic group.

      Singles, sadly, become an afterthought.

  3. Interestingly enough, a new book was just published addressing these issues, and, from the looks of things, it looks really good:

    I have it on my reading list. Hopefully the eccentricities of Mohler, Maken, Watters, et al are going to receive some pushback in the coming years. I agree with Amir that part of this is that married people struggle to understand singles. I also think, however, that much of what is driving this is the desire among intellectuals to be on the side of the angels against the forces of evil. Hence they will find “problems,” and come up with “solutions” that are “countercultural, ” to paint themselves in the position of the angels against the “worldly” forces of evil. Because of the feeling of moral superiority that holding such a position gives them, they will never test it against linguistic, exegetical, or practical facts about real life singles ministry.

    The sad thing is, as the above book points out, the intelligentsia is at least partially to blame for this. When you tell 16 year old teenagers to “kiss dating goodbye,” and then expect them to be married when they are 21 or 22, which is only 5-6 years later, you are being schizophrenic. While there is no doubt about problems in the mid to late 90s in the Christian dating culture, the disease was worse than the cure, as it took away that period in time in which single men and women could develop skills in relating to one another. This is not just in terms of social relationships. Think of how much less likely the outrageous amount of student loan debt would be if you have a girlfriend you would like to marry after college. It is as if intellectuals think such things must happen in isolation from romantic (not sexual) intimacy with the opposite sex, and then just magically appear in a person’s life, because you are to “put marriage at the center” (neverminding the fact that God is to be at the center). The whole premise of “the joy of intimacy is the reward of commitment” Harris was talking about demands that this marital readiness be achieved outside of actual dating relationships with people of the opposite sex. That is wishful thinking, and no amount of shaming single men for “not growing up taking responsibility” will ever change that.

    • Thanks for mentioning that book, Adam. I’ll have to put that on my reading list.

      I’d forgotten about Candice Watters, but I seldom visit the Boundless site these days. I checked Boundless’ homepage this morning and they’re featuring a column she published in 2012. It appears she’s no longer writing for Boundless; her most recent column was published more than a year ago.

    • Haven’t seen the book, but for the most part I don’t see the church’s problems with singles changing anytime soon. For one big reason why, just scroll through the opening section of this recent sermon Matt Chandler gave on the subject of singleness:

      He starts out by admitting that having married while barely into his twenties there’s a lot about the experiences of singles that he can’t comprehend. OK, good. But then he gives a list of Christian leaders or writers he consulted in order to do some learning. The writer of that book was on it. But out of all the names he listed only two were men who are single and had never been married. And both of them were gay (or same-sex attracted, however the church is phrasing it now).

      I’m not saying there’s nothing I can learn from guys like this, but if you’re an unmarried man who likes the ladies and have been unable to find one for yourself, what does the church have for you? I try to give stuff like this on Christian singleness a look when I do find it and it usually tends to follow some similar patterns. The lion’s share of it is produced either by women or towards a woman’s perspective; There’s a decent amount you can find on the Christian markets that gives single Christian women a chance to share their stories and offering encouragement for those who want to be married. In recent years the church has also shown an increased attention to Christians facing the possibility of extended celibacy, but this is also considered largely from the context of Christians with homosexual temptations. But what if you’re a straight single Christian man who’s struggled to find and attract a woman who’d make a good wife? If they don’t blame you entirely for the problem of extended singleness, the church doesn’t have much to offer you but a series of empty platitudes along the lines of “Be a good boy and wait for God to bless you.” And we wonder why young men have little to no interest in the church?

      I keep wondering if at some point we’ll see an enterprising pastor embark on a “listening tour” of young single men to get their perspective on modern singleness and dating markets (particularly in the church) then use what he’s learned to advocate for them. It’s not like there aren’t those outside of the church in the “secular” world that have already promoted this approach. Dr. Helen Smith embarked on a project like this and turned it into a decent book, and the psychologist Roy Baumeister has led scholarly research into the same topic in American universities. The church could even stand to learn a few things from the Pick-up Artists and Red Pill crowd. Pastors will scream that the men in these communities are crass hedonists (while also conveniently failing to make similar charges against modern feminism) but give the hedonists this: If a young man goes to them and tells them that he’d like to learn how to attract a woman, he’ll always be able to find someone who says, “I can help you make that happen!” I grew up in the church, and I can’t recall even once finding a pastor, or a program, or a church that said this. Or who showed me anything but hostility if I ever mentioned that I’d like to find a girlfriend. What makes that funny is that I’ve also lost count of how many pastors and churches I’ve heard moan about how they had many female members who would never have the chance to be wives and mothers because modern men were all sinful little “boys who could shave” who refused to grow up. These people could have meat in one hand and bread in the other and it would still never occur to them that they could ever possibly make a sandwich.

      Will the church ever stop to consider the perspective of the straight single men who remain unmarried? I doubt it, and a big part of this is the leadership. The pastors are almost entirely men who married young, and their position as a leader in the local church will also grant them some situational alpha status so that romantically, they’re going to have options (even if they don’t always cash in on them) that the normal men in the pews won’t. Because of this, church leaders are going to have a hard time understanding or even sympathizing much with otherwise decent single men who lead quiet, ordinary lives and struggle to attract a mate with only that to their name. Why wouldn’t they have a wife if they were really upright and worthy men, that’s what worked for them! Also add to this that for all the feminist charges of “patriarchy,” the pastors really do want the women to like them and will often handle them more leniently than the men (with many openly admitting as much), and you now have the makings of a church culture that proudly refuses to advocate for the single men it has, doesn’t understand the problems they face, and isn’t going to make an effort to either. Why should they, especially when they can still deal with it by telling those men to MAN UP! I already mentioned Dr. Helen’s book earlier, and it’s worth noting that Al Mohler once invited her on his radio program to discuss it, but waited until after she’d left to give it a critical review. Why? Because in his view, she hadn’t been nearly hard enough on the men.

      Until you see church leaders asking young, straight, single men what they can do to help get them to marriage, family or even just to being a valued member of the Body of Christ, nothing with the church’s “singles problem” will change. And given that even in the church this group is getting raked over the coals because of their “privilege,” the safe bet is to anticipate that things will be getting far, far worse. This isn’t a blind spot, it’s a steel patch bolted over a socket where an eyeball never existed.

  4. ISTM that one option many Christians take is to apostatize. Just take a look at Return of Kings and the heartiste blog.

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