Singleness in Modern Culture
Of all the many cultural shifts the church did not see coming down the pike—and possibly at the top of the list—may be the growth of singleness. Many churches and Christians handle singleness with grace. Others don’t. Nod along if any of these land:
Well-meaning older women asking younger women why they’re still single.
Singles showing up to hang out with a “group of friends,” only to find out that they’re the lone unattached person amidst a sea of couples, unwittingly the 3rd or 5th or 7th or 9th wheel.
The pastor is preaching marriage to the skies, while seemingly forgetting that roughly 30% of his congregation is, in point of fact, unmarried.
The list goes on. We begin here not to offer a group-hug for anyone, but to reckon with a tough reality: the church hasn’t always treated single men and women well. It’s important that we do so, though, because according to The Atlantic, the average age of first marriage in the United States is 27 for women and 29 for men. This data point has shot up in little time: in 1990, the average ages of first marriage were 23 for women and 26 for men; in 1960, it was 20 for women and 22 for men. This is a seismic shift, and one that has occurred in short order.
The reasons for this cultural change are numerous. The sexual revolution has undoubtedly had an effect on the way young people view their futures. Sex is now decoupled from marriage in the eyes of many non-evangelical folks. Lisa Wade’s horrifying American Hookup has documented this shift. The youthification of American society has played a role in this trend as well. As sociologist Jean Twenge famously noted, this is the age of “Generation Me.” Further, urbanization has opened up opportunities for life-change, career advancement, and personal exploration that would boggle the mind of past generations.
We could go on, but the point seems clear enough: our culture has changed, and it’s had an effect on many godly men and women. The pastors of Christ’s church can decry these changes, but they have a greater task: engaging singles well.
I’ve got three quick suggestions toward that end.
First, pastors can engage singleness by challenging the sexes to wisely pursue marriage.
Many of the men and women who are currently single will be married in the not-too-distant future. The exact number is hard to pin down, but roughly 80 percent of currently unmarried people will at some point get married.
Yet here’s the question: how do you get there? For Christians who love Scripture, the answer has to involve returning to the biblical script. The script for most men and women is as clear as it is ancient. According to Genesis 2:24, a boy becomes a man; when a man, he shows that he is mature in part by leaving his father and mother; as he leaves, he pursues a woman to marry. This is not really that complex, though the living out of this plan can be, to be sure. Pastors cannot instantly marry off all the single men and women who are called to marriage. They can, however, celebrate marriage from the pulpit and in a serious and direct way challenge young men to embrace manhood. For many men, this will involve pursuing a godly woman, taking steps to provide for a family, and developing by the grace of God as a spiritual leader.
In our opt-out, do-what-I-want kind of world, pastors shouldn’t assume a snarky aside or a stray comment will get the job done. I think pastors would be well-served by teaching on this matter in a series of equipping sessions. The point is not to harangue single men. The point is to lovingly and firmly help them. Pastor, the culture is selling them a vision of singleness that is self-directed, personally-sufficient. You have something vastly better to offer: the enchanted vision of human flourishing grounded in God’s biblical plan for the sexes. Offer it to them.
Going after the men, by the way, will lend serious aid to the godly young women in your care. Many of them want to be married, but they know because they are a student of the Word that men, as a mark of their lifelong marital calling, must lead in forming a relationship.
If you want women to thrive in the deep joy of marriage, challenge the men, even as you help the women see that the culture is happy to sell them a lie, too. Feminism has taught many women they don’t need a man, when many of them have been made by God to be married. Women seem generally less susceptible to a life of irresponsibility and aimlessness than men, but godly single women will richly benefit from teaching on the goodness of marriage, too.
Second, pastors can engage singleness by celebrating the set-apart life.
Our work is not done in ecclesial terms, however, if we stop here. We have to go further. We have to make clear that Paul views the life set apart to God, without the cares and entanglements of marriage, as a really good option, even the best one, perhaps (1 Cor. 7:25–35). He sees much kingdom service issuing forth from set-apart singleness. We must take care to distinguish this form of the unmarried life from the hedonistic cultural version, of course, lest we be misheard in our age of the unending high school existence.
Part of how we do this is by celebrating from the pulpit the example of Jesus. Jesus was zeroed in on the will of God. He was sent to earth by his Father, and he lived to do his Father’s will. He called the Father’s will, in fact, his “food” (John 4:34). The single man or woman who loves Christ cannot obey the Father perfectly, but he or she can accomplish much good by the power of gospel grace. Godly singles can take deep pleasure in serving the Lord. They can know the happiest and holiest man who ever lived, the God-man, never tousled his son’s hair, held a tea party with his little girl, or laughed at an inside joke with a spouse. Jesus was single all his earthly days, and he was surpassingly satisfied in God.
We should celebrate the life Jesus led, and make clear that his is a viable and even exemplary path for single men and women.
Third, pastors can engage singleness by preaching a rich doctrine of vocation and service.
Whether singles are called to marriage or to lifelong celibacy, they have work to do. For a good number of church members, there may be a period—perhaps a lengthy one—when they don’t know their precise calling. For these individuals, as for the whole church, pastors should develop a rich doctrine of vocation, helping the congregation to see that it is God-honoring to work unto the Lord in myriad professions and callings (1 Cor. 10:31; Col. 3:23–24). If singles don’t know what to do, exactly, they can hear from their leaders that their work matters to God, and gives them a great outlet for their gifts and interests.
Pastors can also help singles discover the beauty of serving the church. Life for every believer is not about us; it’s about God, and the Godward life necessarily involves church membership. (I think someone has written something about that.) Service to the church may not mean anything particularly spectacular; it may entail serving in the nursery, teaching a Sunday School class, shoveling the sidewalk before morning service, and the like. But all this service, performed in union with Christ, matters. It glorifies God, it fits the cruciform shape of the Christian life, and it makes us more fully human.
Vocation and service: two major areas of life that are often neglected in the pulpit, but that help the people of God find purpose and hope in this fallen, often lonely world.
In a church culture when singleness can be treated like a contagion or ignored altogether, pastors can lend great strength to single men and women simply by engaging them as individuals. The means of engagement I have proposed aren’t fancy or complex. They involve basic attention to the reality of singleness, to the widespread nature of singleness today, and to the biblical handholds for a doxological life.
We may never prove completely able to stop the dear elderly folks from sizing up the latest single church members and asking them what’s going wrong with their lives. What we can do in our church culture, however, is engage single men and women as people, not problems. We can offer them biblical truth and wisdom and hope. We can be the church to and for them—for no matter what this earthly life holds, as members of the people of God they are and will be married to Christ, who laid down his life for his bride.