How Can My Church Minister to Singles?
God calls us to live in community, so we should consider how to love and care for one another. Here are four thoughts for the married and unmarried members of the church to ponder as we seek to love our unmarried sisters and brothers in Christ and encourage them in godly sexuality.
The first two points apply to married people as well. We should remember that God’s truth on how to love and encourage others crosses over all age, cultural, and circumstantial distinctions and life situations. Personalized love should be shown to every person.
Consider how Christ-centric and gospel-filled ministry to the unmarried can be guided by these four principles:
1) A kingdom mindedness
Jesus’ command to “seek first the Kingdom of God” (Matthew 6:33) is a foundational truth. The Kingdom of God includes many realities. Here is a partial list: (a) love and loyalty for the King; (b) receiving the reign of the King in our lives (struggles, decisions, relationships, affections, etc.); (c) love and service to other kingdom citizens; (d) good works the King has prepared for each citizen to do (Ephesians 2:10); and (e) participation in the mission of the King and his kingdom. Our mission is that all the nations of this world will be blessed by hearing the gospel of grace and forgiveness in Christ.
When a church—leaders, adult education committee, women’s and men’s ministries, etc.—attempts to plan a ministry to the unmarried without Kingdom mindedness, that ministry can easily become focused on the here and now rather than the bigger picture of what God is up to in this world. When ministry is only planned around a focus on the present, good discipleship tools offered for singles (social groups and activities, counseling, seminars, conferences, etc.) will tend to encourage a perspective that implies, “We are singles who happen to be followers of Jesus,” rather than, “We are followers of King Jesus and citizens of his kingdom who happen to be unmarried.” There is a huge difference!
Our goal is not to make our unmarriedness ‘work’ or to be manageable while we live on this earth. Our goal is to seek first the Kingdom of God as we live in an unmarried state! When a kingdom of God heartbeat pulses throughout a local church family, it will change the way the unmarried are encouraged, discipled, counseled, and exhorted.
2) A foundation of family—God’s family!
It is significant that each local church not only disciples from a Kingdom-of-God mentality, but with a conviction that radically new, relational realities come with the gospel. We are sons and daughters of the Father, and thus are brothers and sisters to one another! Jesus said in the presence of his own family, including his mother, “‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ Pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother’” (Matthew 12:47-50). In Christ, we are entrusted with the gift of being true family to one another. This does not deny the beauty of marriage or human families. Rather, it elevates the spiritual reality of Christ’s blood creating a family of His own.
Effective and fruitful ministry to the unmarried will not seek to downplay the beauty and sanctity of marriage. However, there is cause for healthy examination of whether the local church idolizes marriage with questions, such as:
- Do we as a church view each other more as fellow church members, rather than as brothers and sisters in Christ? Do categories such as married, unmarried, single-again, widowed, and college/career signify ‘identities’ in our church, or do we view each other first as fellow Christ-lovers who happen to be single, married, etc.?
- Am I intentional and purposeful in seeking to love, know, and serve others who are in a different life situation than I am?
- For the married: Is our family closed or inviting? Do we only spend social time with others who are married? Do we teach our children that the ultimate goal is to grow up and have a family, or that the ultimate goal is to seek the Kingdom of God and to love him with all our hearts and lives?
- For the unmarried: Do we draw attention to our singleness to the point that the radiance of Jesus through us is smothered? Do we complain against and despise the will of God in our lives? Sometimes those of us who are not married are distracted from who we are in Christ because we do not have a ring on our finger. This is not living out our identity as a son or daughter of God!
Last year I attended a seminar at a local church that was focused on the theme of relationships. It was clearly publicized towards the married, dating, and singles. Singles were encouraged and welcomed to come. The teaching was biblical and mainly focused on the relationship of marriage. However, the way in which the seminar was run led me and several other unmarried folks to feel extremely uncomfortable! After each teaching session there was a ‘discussion time’ in which couples went off alone to share together what they were learning.
Those of us who were single or at the conference alone, however, were instructed to stay in our seats and to ponder how to apply the principles in our relationships. This was not necessarily a bad approach, but it seemed like my unmarriedness was being put under a flood light as I sat there by myself, while most of participants went off to have an intimate discussion. Two words sum it up: awkward and lonely! Had it not been for the two dating-each-other friends with whom I was attending the conference, the next day’s sessions would have been absent of at least one unmarried woman.
My experience at that seminar is the way many unmarrieds feel every Sunday when they go to worship. However, lest this sound like whining, the unmarried, along with the married, must not only live out of a Kingdom mindedness and an understanding of the family of God, but promote it. Both singles and married people need to focus on making their church function like a family.
3) Biblical wisdom
We must be faithful to present the wisdom of God as we disciple and counsel the unmarried. It has been said to me, “Well, after all, singleness really is about selfishness!” and, “Well, when you’re content with God alone, then you will get married!” Such words are not only unhelpful but unbiblical! Singleness can indeed be governed by selfish desires, but so can marriage! Learning contentment in God should not have as its goal the getting of what we really crave and desire.
Biblical wisdom will:
- Put Christ first as King, Healer, Forgiver, Companion, and the One who is always loving and worthy of being trusted, followed, and served.
- Teach that we and our situations do not belong to ourselves but to him, and thus we do not have the right to ‘do with it’ what we want.
- Not shy away from rich truths that God desires to reveal through those who are unmarried and surrendered to him. (See 1 Corinthians 7:7-8, 32-33, 35; Matthew 19:12; and Isaiah 56:1-7. Also listen to John Piper’s sermon on Isaiah 56 at www.desiringgod.org.)
- Seek to draw those of us who are unmarried towards Christ and trust of him, rather than to appease us or only soothe the struggles we experience as unmarried persons.
- Teach and exhort us about having a radical approach to our sexuality. For this to happen, biblical wisdom must be applied specifically to specific individuals!
4) Specificity in view of a person’s circumstances of unmarriedness
Someone close to me said, after a 14-year marriage ended in divorce, “I feel like I’ve been dropped in a foreign country. I don’t want to be here. I don’t know how to act or relate to others.” Another friend honestly shared with me, after hearing me teach on singleness to an audience of married and unmarried women, “Ellen, I don’t know how to relate to singles. I feel uncomfortable around them.”
A recent informal survey that I gave, entitled “How can the church best minister to singles?”, revealed that there are as many ideas on how to encourage and love the unmarried as there are people! What was obvious, however, was that unmarried and married respondants both agreed that ministering to the unmarried is not about primarily speaking to their singleness, but about Christ! This was said in a variety of ways, pointing to the need for solid teaching which exalts (a) Christ, (b) his Kingdom purposes, (c) the gifts that he has entrusted to all his followers, and (d) kingdom community among believers that is honest and family-of-God oriented.
God’s family loves by knowing others in specific ways. This is important as we seek to love unmarried people: We must know them well and specifically! The struggles, temptations, dreams, and desires of a 25-year-old person who has never been married may look and feel very differently from a 55-year-old who has children and finds herself single again. The unmarried 35-year-old virgin will have different issues than the 35-year-old who has been sexually active from age 15. To have a ‘generalized’ plan and script that serves as a coverall for anyone who is unmarried is dangerous—and unhelpful!
We should seek to minister the specific love and wisdom of Christ, to the specific struggles and needs of the unmarried we know. Here are some examples:
- If you are unmarried, be willing to be ministered to through not only encouragement but also by being challenged, exhorted, and asked the difficult questions. Are you allowing yourself to be known and held accountable? Also, are you reaching out to other unmarrieds? Are you pointing each other to Jesus more than some new person to date or marry? Are you exhorting each other to not ‘play games’ with sexual temptations or unholy emotional attachments?
- When speaking with singles, we all need to be asking questions like, “What is your experience as an unmarried person? In what ways are you misunderstood by others? How is Christ revealing himself to you through being ‘his alone?'”
- Churches need to have honest, direct, and biblical teaching and preaching on sexuality and sex that addresses married and unmarried realities. This teaching must go deeper than statements like, “Don’t!” “ Wait!” “You need to change your desires or behaviors or dreams!” “Have you tried searching online Christian communities?”
- When speaking with individuals who find themselves single again, be courageous, and prayerfully ask how they are walking out the call to be sexually abstinent. This requires wisdom for sure, but many people struggle in secret and with a sense of deep shame and defeat.
- Matchmaking might be desired by some and not by others, so ask if a person would like assistance in the prayerful discovery of others.
- Be willing to use odd numbers in groups and not just even ones (i.e. couples) when planning a social event. Remember, we want to promote the concept of our being the family of God.
- Build relationships with the unmarried who just have “let’s hang out together” friendships, not only those oriented around mentoring.
Much of the prior advice seems very basic, but for some reason churches seem to organize and complicate the simplicity of living as the community of Christ. Our goal is not to “fix” singles, but to discover how each one of us is able to best glorify Christ with the unique gifts he has given us in our particular circumstances.