One can be the loneliest number, especially in the church. Today, there are more singles in the United States than at any other time in history – 43.6 percent of the U.S. adult population are unmarried, according to the 2010 U.S. Census.
"The number of single adults in the United States has been rapidly approaching the number of married adults, and this is an unprecedented culture shift that is dramatic," says Barry Danylak, author of Redeeming Singleness. "This is not an American phenomena – it is seen in nearly all of the modernized and industrialized nations."
The church, long welcoming to married with children congregants, has been slower to adjust to this demographic shift. "At least 80 percent of every denomination do not have a targeted ministry to single adults," says Dennis Franck, national director for Single Adult/Young Adult Ministries for the Assemblies of God denomination, headquartered in Springfield, Mo. "However, the majority of churches are not trying to exclude singles, but they are more marriage and family focused, which means singles are not acknowledged very often."
The Rev. Alan Fretto, a single senior in Danbury, Conn., points out, "The church is geared toward children, women and couples. There is very little in most churches for singles, and yet singles dominate the church population. Singles need to be encouraged and included in the process of the church, and should be considered a valuable asset to the church."
Many churches have yet to formally acknowledge singles in their midst, either with targeted ministries or inclusion in preaching or teaching illustrations and examples. "Some churches are certainly aware of this demographic, but other churches are almost impervious to it," says Danylak. "The church focuses on marriage and family, with the expectation that by focusing on family, you're encouraging singles to get married."
One reason churches have not adopted singles ministries across the board has been the diversity of this demographic – singles in their 20s/30s; single parents and their families; single divorced adults; or widows and widowers. "Some churches are targeting one category, but that's not the majority of the churches," says Franck. "Part of my job is helping churches understand how to try to reach these groups because you can't shove all these single segments into the same group."
"Churches need to realize they can't do a one-size-fits-all approach to singles ministry," agrees Danylak. "The strategy for the church is to think about different reasons singles look for support in their particular circumstances and then design a support structure that will draw them into the larger body."
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John Card, single life pastor at the Second Baptist Church Woodway campus in Houston, says his church makes an effort to reach singles. "When I came as the single life pastor 4½ years ago, we didn't have a very big singles ministry for those in their 30s, but now it's one of the fastest-growing ministries we have because people are getting married later or are divorced," he says. "We see a need and do everything we can to fulfill that need in our city."
Many churches think singles need a different approach when in reality many singles want the same things as couples and families: strong preaching and teaching, and fellowship with other believers.
"As a single person, I expect the Gospel to be preached clearly in worship Sunday morning and evening," says Brendan McCommas, a 27-year-old from Fairfax, Va. "I honestly am not a big fan of singles-focused worship services, as I feel as if cordoning off one group from the rest of the regular congregation can breed some problems. … I think the church can better serve singles by continuing to preach the Gospel in all its facets."
"Single adults have a big need for healthy friendships with men and women," adds Franck. "One challenge of the church is to connect single adults to each other and to the greater church body. Single people don't always want to be excluded or segregated all the time."
The church also should make an effort to meet singles where they are in their lives, much like it does with couples and families. "Many of the young singles are in a transitional period, wrestling with things like are they supposed to be married right now, is this job right for me, etc.," says Card. "We try to understand that's what's going on and help them through our ministry."
Second Baptist Church offers singles a variety of Bible study classes, as well as social, sports, missions and outreach events. "We try to help them understand their singleness is God's will for their lives right now, for 'such a time as this,' to help them to really see Christ in their lives," says Card.
Churches think that unmarried congregants have different expectations about church, when what's often lacking in the church is an acknowledgment of the singles in their midst. "The Bible has a lot to say about friendships and dating, marriage and sexuality, but those are issues the church does not teach on from a single adult perspective," says Franck.
Singles do not want to feel stigmatized by the church and its activities. "When I was working at a Christian nonprofit, teaching a weekly children's Bible study, and attending church regularly, I alternated between desperate hopefulness that the much-advertised joy would show up some day soon and desperate misery that it never would. What I ultimately came to expect from church was false wish-fullness inevitably resulting in disappointment," says Leslie Carbone, a single from Boston.
"Singles should be welcomed and respected by the church in their single state," says Danylak. But more often, churches, whether inadvertently or purposefully, do not convey this message from the pulpit or through its members. Couples in the church also play a part in reaching this demographic, a fact that married congregants can overlook.
"Couples of the church always think that singles have more time than they do, and that singles should therefore do more in the church," says Fretto. "Granted, singles have the opportunity to manage their own time different than families, but couples have each other to divide the chores and work of the household, while singles have to complete the household tasks with no help from their spouse."
The church needs to re-evaluate its relationship with singles, especially in light of the increasing numbers of unmarried adults. "The church reverts to an over-emphasis on marriage as a one-size-fits-all solution, but biblical singleness is a solution, too, and we should preach and teach both," says Danylak.
Churches that do not begin to embrace singles may find themselves with dwindling congregations in the years to come. "It's imperative that churches become inclusive to single and single again people. Historical attitudes have changed and now singleness has become totally acceptable in society, but in our churches, singles still sometimes feel left out," says Franck.
Sidebar: Single Stats
- 99.6 million unmarried adults are age 18 and older, which is 43.6 percent of the U.S. population in 2010.
- 44.9 percent of unmarried adults age 18 and older are women.
- 61 percent of adults in this demographic have never married; 23.8 percent of adults are divorced; and 14.4 percent of adults are widowed.
- 16.4 million unmarried adults are age 65 and older, with the elderly comprising 16.5 percent of unmarried singles ages 18 and older.
- There are 88 unmarried men age 18 and older for every 100 unmarried women in the same age category.
- 59.1 million households are maintained by unmarried men/ women, which is 45 percent of all households nationwide.
- 31.4 million people live alone, which is 27 percent of all households. That's up from 17 percent in 1970.
Source: America's Families and Living Arrangements: 2010 U.S. Demographics