7 Dos and Don’ts of Discipling Singles
“The assumptions are really what kill. It’s almost always assumed singles are either dying of loneliness or burning with lust.”
Nodding, eager to hear more, I thought back on similar accounts from singles in different churches. By trying to listen and learn from singles—young, old, male, female, divorced, widowed, working, students, seminarians—my goal was to get the inside scoop on their experience as singles in the church.
As my friend continued, I balked at how ignorant some people can be—praying publicly for singles based on these assumptions of lust or loneliness. Seriously? I congratulated myself on never doing something so insensitive (or stupid!).
But my air of superiority didn’t last. Before long, my faulty assumptions were illuminated. I thought about how I’ve dismissed a single’s angst assuming “he just needs to get married.” Or how I’ve recommended a single to babysit last minute assuming “her schedule is flexible.” Or how I’ve asked single persons what they thought of the new guy/gal at church assuming a desire for marriage without asking.
I cringe now to think how my own assumptions have led to insensitivity. I’ve been genuine, but ignorant.
GENUINE, BUT IGNORANT
Chances are you’ve been genuine but ignorant, too. Maybe you haven’t prayed publicly for a single’s burning lust (and I really hope you haven’t), but you, like me, have unconsciously said or done hurtful things to singles in your care. Despite genuine affection, ignorance of what singles actually think, feel, and need has led to awkward and even damaged relationships.
It turns out a lot of these “discipling disasters” could be averted if we just stopped assuming long enough to listen. Imagine that?
So I tried to do just that: sit down and listen to a bunch of single people. As I listened, I learned how nuanced singleness in the local church can be—nuances that we, brothers and sisters in Christ and especially leaders in the church, would do well to be mindful of. There are simple things we can do (or not do!) so singles in our midst know we love them and respect them as fellow image-bearers of God.
ADVICE ABOUT SINGLES, FROM SINGLES
The following, therefore, is a list of discipleship DOs and DON’Ts that the singles in your church need you to know. It’s for me as a married woman as much as it’s pastors and other church leaders. Together, let’s strive to love and care for singles in ways that are helpful rather than hurtful.
1. DO: Get to know the person.
Singles are whole persons with full, interesting lives. There’s much to learn about these brilliant, thoughtful, godly people in your church. Look for ways to get to know them. Ask them about their lives. Talk to them in the foyer before or after church. Have them over for dinner or get coffee and hear their story. Find out their interests and passions—they have hobbies! Laugh with them and enjoy their presence. Show genuine interest in knowing them as a person.
DON’T: Assume that singleness defines his or her life.
Singles are not less of a person or half of a person just because they’re single, so don’t treat them as such. One woman pointedly said, “Get to know me first and realize singleness is just a piece of who I am, one part…It’s not who I am. It doesn’t define me. Jesus defines me.” Recognize that “single” isn’t an identity statement. It’s just one piece of the real person you’re getting to know.
2. DO: Initiate discipleship relationships.
Singles want to grow in their relationship with Jesus alongside you. But they don’t want to burden you or your family’s schedule by asking for time. Think of the relief if you initiated the relationship. Ask someone to meet over coffee for an hour every week or every other week to read through Colossians and pray together. Ask someone to come over while the kids nap to talk and pray. Ask someone if they could meet you downtown over lunch to discuss theology and life. There are lots of options, all of which begin with you initiating.
DON’T: Start another program.
Singles don’t need programs. Too often, singles’ ministries feel like a meat market where all the singles are sent to meet and marry. Or, they’re a place for the lonely people to gather together and focus on their singleness. I acknowledge that helpful singles’ ministries exist. But the people I met with expressed a desire to focus on Jesus and grow as disciples in organic, non-programmatic ways with people from all different seasons of life (not just other singles).
3. DO: Ask, “How can I pray for you?”
Singles covet your prayers. Like you, they need prayer for all the real stuff of life putting demands on them—busy jobs, exciting opportunities, stressful relationships, growth in godliness, open doors to share the gospel, etc. Next time you’re meeting with a single, ask them: “How can I pray for you?” Then listen to them, make note of the requests, and pray for them.
DON’T: Pray based upon your own assumptions.
You may be asked to pray for someone’s battle with porn or struggle with loneliness. But to assume every single person is burning with lust or dying of loneliness is simplistic and, quite frankly, offensive. When you have the opportunity to pray for a single person, especially in a public setting like a small group, don’t assume they need “relieved” of their singleness or that they even want “their singleness” prayed over.
4. DO: Utilize singles in the church.
Singles are indispensable resources to the church. One person explained, “Due to the nature of singleness, we have a flexibility of schedule that lends itself to being able to do all sorts of ministry, from helping with the seniors to giving a new mother a few hours of reprieve. The possibilities are endless.” Don’t be afraid to ask them to serve! Everyone I met with expressed a desire to utilize their singleness well for the kingdom of God. Examine various ministries in your church (e.g., small groups, prayer nights, youth and children’s ministries, worship team, teaching roles, member care, global workers, women’s ministries, etc.) and ask yourself if gifted singles can be better utilized in any of these areas.
DON’T: Make them the church’s workhorses.
Singles are not the church’s professional babysitters or full-time interns (unless, of course, they actually are). There’s a temptation to use singles as your default volunteers for everything from childcare to congregational meeting cleanup. While they do have freedom to serve the body, don’t take advantage of this freedom to make sure your church is running smoothly. Also, don’t assume freedom means they don’t have anything else to do. Respect the fact that singles have commitments, work, responsibilities, and the need for rest just like everyone else.
5. DO: Recognize singles’ need for intimacy.
Singles are not exempt from the deep human need for intimacy—intimacy with both God and one another. The body of Christ should be a place where singles can find deep human connection. Practically, this looks like believers inviting and integrating single people into their lives: eating meals, doing devotionals, watching football, folding laundry, laying around on a Saturday reading books and talking about life, laughing at YouTube videos, cleaning up, having redemptive conversations, fighting sin, even snuggling with your baby. Don’t take for granted that the single person living alone doesn’t experience some of these relational components as naturally as a family of five.
DON’T: Assume marriage and children are the only way to fulfill this need.
At the same time, though marriage and family is one primary way intimacy is fulfilled, don’t assume every person you know needs to get married and have children in order to flourish as a true human. Put simply: don’t pity the single person. Jesus, the truest human, showed us what it looks like to thrive as a single person in deep relationship with his Father and fellow friends. Although the single person does crave intimacy, the church needs categories for desire to be fulfilled beyond marriage and children.
6. DO: Place them in appropriate leadership roles.
Gifted, qualified singles should be serving in appropriate leadership roles. I was recently encouraged when a trained female seminarian was asked by the lead pastor to start a women’s Bible study in her church. This gifted, qualified, single woman was perfect for the role—and her pastor recognized this! She’s now leading Bible studies, discipling one-on-one, and preparing to teach women at a conference. Her love for Jesus and his Word, her theological training, and her humble heart all qualify her to serve in this leadership capacity, none of which has to do with her marital status.
DON’T: Wait until they’re married to ask them to lead.
Many singles fear they won’t be taken seriously in the church until they’re married. If you hesitate to empower a gifted, qualified person in the appropriate role simply because he or she isn’t married, then you’re only reinforcing this fear. Need I remind us all that the founder of our religion (Jesus) and the greatest missionary in our movement (Paul) were both single, so there is a precedent for a single person to lead powerfully in the kingdom of God.
7. DO: Reach out to singles at your Sunday gathering.
Be intentional about seeing and sitting with singles on Sunday mornings. One woman shared how bittersweet Sundays were because she loved her new church but dreaded going alone, feeling invisible and out of place. Another told me how hard it is to converse in the foyer as a single person when everyone else is married. A simple, easy way to love singles is to sit with them during service, chat with or stand beside them in the foyer, or grab coffee before service and walk in together. It might seem inconsequential to you, yet doing so reminds them that you see them and their presence on Sundays matters to the body.
I would also encourage you to be mindful of practical needs throughout the week. As a woman, I was struck by the needs of single women in the church, particularly older widows or women who don’t live close to male relatives. Offering to help put together IKEA furniture, work on their cars, or help them move will display the gospel to them in tangible ways.
DON’T: Reduce singles to a personal “project.”
Although you should see the singles at your gathering, don’t scan the room for potential matches during service. Sure, singleness can be lonely but it’s not a problem to be fixed or a disease to be cured. Don’t make it feel like it is by playing cupid in the church. Placing unneeded pressure on the singles in your midst to marry or having two people over for dinner in hopes of them “hitting it off” is an awkward and uninvited experience for most singles. See them by loving them personally, not by “seeing” who is available to set them up with.
These last few months have been filled with building relationships with singles and discussing the things of God over good food and hot coffee. Though I’ve had “insert foot in mouth” moments, they’ve been gracious and incredibly helpful. I’m honored that I got glimpses into their lives.
What a gift to the church! Be encouraged, Christians, to pursue relationships with singles in your church, making small changes that will over time reap large dividends in the life of your church.