I know of a man who met his wife in a most unusual way. One day he was making a run for his job as a cleaning supplies salesman when he passed by a house that caught his attention—actually, it was the mailbox that caught his eye. It bore the phrase, “Jesus—the Way, Truth, Life.” He was intrigued, and on impulse, he stopped and stuck his business card in the door.
“I thought that a family lived there,” he later said. As a man in his late 20s with an evangelistic bent, he was aware that sometimes people present as Christians who, in fact, are not, and he wanted to meet the family who owned the home and find out where they stood spiritually.
But instead of hearing from a family, he received a call from the young woman who owned the home—a nurse who worked the night shift. After chatting by phone and enjoying the conversation, he expressed an interest in getting to know her better, but she said he would have to meet her family first. So she suggested they meet for a Sunday service at the Baptist church her family attended. He stopped by the church, and the rest, as they say, is history. The couple hit it off, the family approved, and three years later they’re happily married and living in the house with the legendary mailbox!
Is this the work of our God? Absolutely. As Proverbs 16:9 says, “A man’s heart plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps,” and Proverbs 18:22 says, “He who finds a wife finds a good thing, and obtains favor from the Lord.” Is this the usual way God brings people together? Well, maybe not. Survey the couples at your church and you’ll likely observe a diversity of means God used to form a marriage: college classes, ministry teams, work, Bible studies, online, blind dates, correspondence, and more. But what of those singles who are still waiting—who have a strong desire to marry, yet no one shows up?
Even as marriage becomes rarer in our culture, with marriage on the decrease and the number of singles rising, research indicates that those who do desire to marry (whether believers or unbelievers) find it increasingly difficult to navigate the path to marriage. Indeed, in recent years many changes have worked together to make courtship confusing, thus making it difficult to achieve marriage—things like the increased willingness of men and women to have sex before marriage, the subsequent breakdown of courtship customs, the blurred roles of men and women, changing views regarding marriage and family, an increased emphasis on higher education and career that leads to marrying later, and the emergence of extended adolescence that leads to a distaste for commitment to marriage.
In fact, due to the real-time effects of such changes, the dating landscape has become so foggy that even the secular media are observing the trend with alarm. As Barbara Dafoe Whitehead writes in City Journal magazine, “Every society has an institutionalized mating system to guide men and women as they pair off. . . . In Western societies, the dominant mating regime has long rested on romantic courtship leading to long-lasting marriage. But all that is now changing. Courtship is dying; lasting marriage is in crisis.” Social scientist Beth Bailey adds in her book From Front Porch to Back Seat, “The uncertainties [of courtship] are staggering, complicated enough for those who observe, possibly debilitating for those who participate.” As Christian writer Alex Chediak summarizes in With One Voice: Singleness, Dating & Marriage to the Glory of God, “One thing that both Christian and non-Christian social thinkers agree upon is this: no other generation in Western culture has had so little structural framework of behavioral expectations in the process of premarital romantic interaction.”
As for the church, the Barna Group reports that single adults make up fully one-third of churchgoers in America today. And indeed, even as the number of singles grows, and even as our culture is increasingly broken when it comes to dating and marriage, if the challenges of singles are not on the radar of churches, then churches are effectively missing out on serving potentially one-third of their congregations. While not all singles desire to marry—nor should they, for as Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 7, living singly and wholly to God is a godly, noble choice—ministering to singles of any stripe (never married, divorced, widowed; desiring marriage or not) is something that the church ought to be doing as believers seek to model Christ by looking out for the interests of others (Philippians 2:4). While each church’s demographic and ministry needs will be unique, just as individual singles will receive ministry uniquely, it seems good to ask: How well are churches doing? What are some areas of need? How can churches better help?
The answer is three-part: educate, encourage/serve, and love.
A great place to start is education. Our culture is increasingly a mess, so there is a need to help believers, including singles, think Biblically about singleness, marriage, and dating by addressing subjects such as these:
Purity. Educate on things like pornography; for example, how to guard one’s heart and set up hedges, how to repent, how to be accountable, and how a believer can make Christ his or her first love and live for His glory. Also teach on how to overcome and move past sexual sin and how to be modest (addressing the heart as well as the appearance). Educate on how to have godly guy-girl relationships (in person and online), learning to love brothers and sisters in Christ as brothers and sisters (not as objects to fulfill one’s lusts, whether sexual or relational).
Singleness. Teach how to Biblically live singly (i.e., like Christ, with wholehearted devotion to God, in contrast to living for self, as the world teaches). It’s also important to teach that those who choose to live singly for the sake of caring for “the things of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 7:32) choose well, that they are not “less adult” or incomplete because they are unmarried. As an aside, it’s important to remember that godly singles are just as equipped to serve in leadership as married people, that marriage is not a requirement for godliness or leadership, and that to love the singles in church is to treat them with the same esteem as married people. Marriage is not a requirement for maturity or full personhood. At the same time, it’s important to teach that those who desire and seek marriage to the glory of God also do well. Neither marriage nor singleness is better than the other, for both can be used for His glory.
Dating/courtship. Guide singles in how to seek marriage, especially keeping in mind that guy-girl relationships should be intentional, that those who date shouldn’t use the bodies or hearts of others for their own pleasure, but rather they should seek to glorify and honor God as they intentionally seek a mate.
As another aside, it’s helpful to note that generally the term courtship implies a greater community involvement and oversight in relating to the opposite sex, while dating generally implies a process that is less involved, where the man and woman interact more independently. However, this isn’t always true, as many couples who consider themselves to be dating will involve family and church family in the process. Further, courtship has the connotation of an intentional pursuit of marriage, while the term dating can include interaction that is merely recreational; however, many who consider themselves to be dating are moving intentionally toward marriage as well.
When seeking to navigate the pursuit of marriage, it can be tempting to resort to something that smacks of law (“Thou shalt court, not date!”) to set aside confusion. The important issue is that regardless of what the process is called, the overarching goal is to glorify God by applying Biblical principles and loving others as siblings in Christ. On that note, when it comes to education, some practical instruction might be helpful to singles: How should men and women interact? What are their roles? Should the man lead, the woman follow? Why does it matter? How can singles meet other godly singles, and what practical helps can the church offer? What about online dating? If singles struggle to meet others face-to-face, what guidance is needed when it comes to exploring other methods?
Marriage. Singles need a Biblical frame for thinking about marriage and thus need to hear that marriage is not all about the couple and their personal happiness, but rather, marriage is to be a picture of Christ and the church. They need to know that marriage requires death to self in the form of mutual submission (including the husband’s Christlike servant leadership and the wife’s church-like submission to her husband) and that marriage will bring complication and hardship. At the same time, singles also need to hear that marriage done right, as couples seek to honor God in their marriages and homes, can bring great joy and satisfaction, as it is a vehicle to fulfill God-given desires for love, sex, friendship, and family.
Divorce and remarriage. With singleness on the rise in our culture, the topic of divorce and remarriage could certainly come up regularly, and it’s wise for pastors, teachers, counselors, and other leaders to study the Scriptures on these issues to discern where they stand so they are ready to Biblically guide singles.
These are just a few ideas regarding education. Additional ideas might address the situations of single parents, widows or widowers, and divorcees. The main thing is to be aware of the unique situations that singles in the congregation face and to offer them truth to build their lives upon.
All singles are different: Some may be content, believing that God has gifted, led, or enabled them to live a single life fully for Him. Others desire marriage someday but will be content in the present as they focus on school or career or ministry, planning to pursue marriage later. Still others, in any age group—some having never married, some widowed, and some divorced—will struggle as singles, even while wholeheartedly serving Christ. Some of these will be new converts, having come to Christ as adults, while others will have been believers since childhood. Some of these will be starting a journey of unwanted singleness, while others will have been on the journey for years, even decades. They may be tempted to despair, struggling to understand why God doesn’t meet their undiminishing desire for a spouse. Of these, some will have no problem meeting men or women to date, while others will wait year after year for suitable candidates to show up, even as they continue to faithfully serve Christ.
Even as each person is different, so each person who happens to be single is different, and the key to how churches can better serve singles is not in the cookie cutter! Rather, to best encourage and serve, the church needs to know singles as individuals, to learn their place in life, their situations, their struggles. Once the church knows the needs it can help meet, it can encourage each individual in practical ways.
For example, a listening ear might encourage singles who long to be married when they are tempted to feel as if God has forgotten them. They might appreciate prayers that God would bring a spouse, an offer to set them up with suitable dates, and encouragement to keep their eyes on Christ. From another angle, marriage-minded singles struggling with sexual temptation might be encouraged when others offer prayer, accountability, true fellowship, and encouragement to remain pure and to put their trust in Christ regarding their as-yet unfulfilled desires. Still others might find themselves lonely at the holidays, on weekends, or during the summer-vacation season. Think of the new convert whose extended family lives elsewhere, or the single parent whose spouse has abandoned her and the kids. Still others might find themselves with practical needs, such as a single parent who could use childcare or a mentor for his child, or singles lacking skills a mate might offer (e.g., cooking, home repair, help buying a car).
Churches won’t know what would help singles until people start asking questions, getting to know the singles’ burdens and joys, where they have needs, and what would help. Churches will best reflect Christ in this regard as they get to know singles as individuals and seek to encourage them in ways that are uniquely meaningful. When in doubt, one thing is sure: singles who are earnest in their desire to follow Christ will receive encouragement through the interest of others. One engaged man in his 40s recounts how meaningful it was to him during his single years when brothers in Christ would simply ask questions, listen, and pray with him. He says this genuine Christian fellowship went a long way in encouraging him through extended years of unwanted singleness.
Last, it might be interesting for churches to learn from one another: What has your church done to encourage and serve singles? On a proactive note, what might like-minded churches do together to encourage and serve singles, especially those who are marriage minded? If the singles in church struggle to meet other godly singles, what might a church do in partnering to help? In an effort to learn more and to explore how churches might better work together, Calvary Baptist Church in Wisconsin Rapids, Wis., is seeking to start a conversation on singleness and the church and wants to hear from singles. To join in, visit www.calvaryrapids.org.
Loving the singles in church is a culmination of all of the above, and more. While no one demographic of the local church should be its focus—the beauty and wisdom of Christ’s church is that it is a truly diverse group composed of all ages, colors, and walks of life—it’s true that at times singleness has unique challenges, and for the singles in church who desire to be married, pressing on year after year in the face of deferred hopes can be difficult. Further, such heartache is compounded by the lies and confusion thrown at them by the world and, sometimes, unwittingly, by believers, such as, you are incomplete, there is something wrong with you, or you don’t fit in.
Satan would love to see singles in true churches discouraged, confused regarding their place, lonely though in a church full of people, and falling away from Christ. God is compassionate. He meets believers where they are and ministers His grace, mercy, and love to each one in unique “God with us” ways. As believers seek to reflect Christ in their churches, they will do it more fully as they seek to educate, encourage/serve, and love those among them who happen to be single.
Betsy Melvin (formerly Betsy Carlson, MABS, Central Baptist Theological Seminary) is a NANC certified counselor and a member of Calvary Baptist Church, Wisconsin Rapids, Wis.