Church Growth: Singles — the Missing Ministry

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How do we account for the dramatic doubling of the number of secular Americans over the last 18 years? And what are we to do about the exodus of young people from the church?

Skye Jethani asks these questions in an insightful article posted at Out of Ur. Skye notes that the largest growing demographic group in the country is young singles. And our churches, on the whole, do a lousy job of reaching out to this group.

At last year’s lectureship at Pepperdine University, I was fortunate enough to hear a series of lessons by a couple of singles ministers at large congregations in Little Rock and Atlanta. Let me suggest some ideas from there and my own admittedly limited experience.

* On the whole, today’s singles aren’t as mature as singles of 10 or 20 years ago. In fact, there’s a national trend toward extended adolescence. The average age for marriage is now 28, rather than 22, as it was in 1980. Therefore, for a large enough church, having a singles minister is as needed today as having a campus minister was 20 years ago.

* For churches not large enough to have a singles minister (and few will be), find some older adults who are tasked with overseeing the program. You see, singles come and go. You’ll have 20 one year and 5 the next. And the minute you grow up some leadership within the group, the leaders will move or get married. Therefore, the only way to have real continuity is to have some older members who adopt the singles — and who have the good sense to back off when leadership is present within the group and to jump in when leadership isn’t there.

* Be sure some older women are involved in helping lead the effort.

- You have no business having older men work with single younger women without their wives present.

- Many of these young women need older role models among the women.

- Adults in their 20s are very sensitive to sexism. These young women are often leaders at work. If they don’t see older women being allowed to lead at church, they’ll consider you sexist — and they’ll be right.

* Some singles are mature enough to get married and will want to get married. But many are quite happy being single. And others aren’t mature enough. Therefore, singles ministry is not all about helping these people find mates. It’s got to be much more than a matchmaking service, and in many cases, pushing them into marriage will be a recipe for disaster. Besides, they get all the nagging about getting married they need from their parents.

* Lots of churches market themselves as “family churches” or otherwise as all about families. Well, singles take this as excluding them. Get over the notion that churches are made up of married couples and their children. If your church reflects the general population, it will also include unmarried college students, unmarried graduate school students, unmarried high school graduates who went straight into the job market, unmarried college graduates who are working, unmarried gay men and women who remain celibate for the sake of Jesus, divorced men and women, and widows and widowers. And these unmarried adults should be about 40% of your church!

* Obviously, a “singles” program can’t include all singles, unless you have a huge church. You can’t lump 40-year old divorcees with college students. Rather, the church has to focus on the needs of whatever groups within its single population it can best serve with the resources it has. In most churches, the most urgent need is among adults in their 20s.

* Paul is quite clear in 1 Corinthians 7 that being single is an advantage in the Lord, because it frees the single to serve Jesus without concern for a spouse or child. Singles don’t have to spend time childraising. They should therefore be encouraged to take advantage of their singleness to grow in the Lord through service.

In my church, we have singles who’ve gone on one- and two-year mission trips. We’ve had singles commit tremendous time to inner city work. Married couples can, of course, do this, too, but singles have an advantage.

(I should add that the advantage extends to older singles and retired couples. Secular retirement should be seen as an opportunity to go into fulltime Christian service — here or in the mission field. In fact, as retirees don’t have to work to earn a living, they are particularly well equipped to go into missions — and many foreign cultures esteem age. Our members should be encouraged to plan a retirement that changes the world.)

* The singles ministries I mentioned are organized to be missional. They can’t be mere social clubs, although they have to be highly social. That age group is all about friendships — which makes friendship evangelism very natural. The ministry just needs to create well-crafted opportunities to bring the unchurched into the community of Christians.

* On the other hand, this is also an age group that is reluctant to make commitments or to proselytize through doctrinal confrontation. Rather, to be effective, the friends of the single members need to see their Christian friends — and their church — walk the walk by caring deeply for the needy and the environment.

* You’d better have a recycling bin for drink cans. And opportunities to clean up a creek or otherwise show that Christians care for the environment are important (and Biblical)

* Most 20-year olds are Democrats, or at least are sympathetic to that party. They care intensely about the environment and don’t want the church to run the government. If you don’t show proper respect for President Obama, you’ll lose them (and sin while you’re at it. (Rom 13)). They have black, Jewish, and Asian friends and will wonder why your church is all white — until they see you passing our Republican campaign literature in the foyer, and then they’ll leave.

I’m not saying you have to switch to the Democratic Party. Rather, I’m saying get your values from the Bible, not the Republican platform.

When difficult subjects come up — gays, illegal aliens, etc. — start from the premise that we love our neighbors. Don’t say “but.” There is no but. There’s just “we love our neighbors.” That may mean you can only say that you love them and you’re not sure what the best way to show that is. And that’s fine. They’ll be much more impressed with “I don’t know but I’m working on it” than “I’m in favor of whatever is best for me,” which is how we often speak about political issues.

* Insist that those who oversee the singles ministry find a successful ministry or two at other churches and go visit, or go to a seminar on the subject. Help them learn how singles of this age think. And help them develop a missional ministry. Most older adults don’t know how to do this, but it’s very doable with the proper training.

* Just like teen and campus ministry, singles ministry is all about relationships. Pick some adults who like to befriend and connect with people this age. Many singles are in desperate need of mentors and role models. Help them get connected.

* Be patient. It’s a tough group to work with because they don’t like commitments, they don’t think like you, they move from town to town, they have little denominational loyalty, and … remember that thing about extended adolescence? But they are loyal to their friends, which tells you how to build the ministry.

* Many of these young singles are, of course, our own children. And they are now a mission field. It’s time to get busy.

If we pull it off and develop a successful ministry, they’ll bring their friends — in droves. And if enough churches figure out how to do this right, we just might reverse the decline in church membership. We might even keep our own children in church.

Profile photo of Jay Guin

About Jay Guin

I am an elder, a Sunday school teacher, a husband, a father, a grandfather, and a lawyer. I live in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, home of the Alabama Crimson Tide. I’m a member of the University Church of Christ. I grew up in Russellville, Alabama and graduated from David Lipscomb College (now Lipscomb University). I received my law degree from the University of Alabama. I met my wife Denise at Lipscomb, and we have four sons, two of whom are married, and I have a grandson and granddaughter.
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13 Responses to Church Growth: Singles — the Missing Ministry

  1. Joe Baggett says:

    A side note first Jay. Posts like this receive so little attention. You will only get a fraction of the comments on the is type of post then one on themes such as IM , Apostasy and so on which are on the graceconversation.com. I think this behavior tells a story about what we really value.
    Now to the post. Choosing to remain single indefinitely is most a phenomena of the last 25 years. Remember the emerging generations are those who grew up with their parents divorcing at the highest rate ever recorded in the modern civilized world. Those who were in churched families were raised in strict denominational loyalty where empty religious dogma ruled the American religious landscape. Remember interdenominational cooperation and fellowship to serve the community and non-denom-community churches, and progressive churches still carrying their name brand are a thing of the more recent past and are still the vast exception. So there are issues of trust, truth, brokenness, and alones which manifest themselves in the behavior that Jay lists by bullet point. Most churches will not be able to make the changes required to compete and re-capture the minds and hearts of the emerging generations as it will require significant revisions of long held theology. Not only have the emerging generations remained largely single but they are by far more formally educated per capita than any other previous generation in America. This means that they question and vigorously investigate any claims to truth not only to their own intrinsic merit but also to other claims to truth from all the religions and cultures that have been brought to America in the 40 years. My I add to Jay’s bullet point list.
    1. Anything that reeks of blind institutional loyalty is an immediate barrier and turn off.
    2. Anything that creates issues of trust, such as inconsistent theology.
    3. Any church culture that focuses on some sins as taboo and especially bad but then largely ignores things such as social injustice, greed, and gossip will be viewed as hypocritical and will create issues of trust.

  2. Alan says:

    Don't forget about single parents (esp. single mothers). They have some characteristics of singles and some of marrieds. They are unfortunately a large and growing demographic group. And they tend to be needy in more than one way.

    As I've mentioned in discussions about teens and college students, I'm not a big fan of segregating the church into demographic groups. Teens need the influence of mature adult Christians. Likewise, young singles need what older marrieds can offer in terms of spiritual maturity and wisdom about balanced life. Older singles (especially divorcees) need support from mature Christians their own age, who more often than not are married. Older singles often have more in common with marrieds than with younger singles.

    However it is organized, the various demographic groups need to mix and mingle. The whole body needs to build itself up, and all the parts are needed.

  3. andy says:

    PREACH IT!!

    Even in my progressive congregation it’s difficult to get the leadership to acknowledge that there exists a time between college and children (and this is in a really big area for unmarried 20-somethings). Sure, singles get a token mention if the preacher is talking about family issues, or if the singles/married no kids group complains they’ll throw us some money, but that’s about it. It’s at the point where we half-jokingly call ourselves a “splinter cell,” because there’s so little interaction with the rest of the church.

  4. andy says:

    I’ll add to my comments a little:

    I don’t think a church has to have a full time “singles” minister. While it would be nice, I understand churches don’t always have the resources for it, and frankly, people in their 20’s are capable of handling the social aspects of the ministry. A church does need a minister who takes an interest in singles though — even if it isn’t exactly his job title. Most congregations I’ve been with have had at least one associate/executive/administrative minister, and oftentimes they’ve been able to act as a kind of liason or facilitator for getting singles involved with the church as a whole. Also, I’ve found that if there’s at least one elder or minister going to singles classes and participating in some of the activities it really makes a huge difference.

  5. odgie says:

    Well said, Jay. I was single until I was 35 and even in a large church with dozens of singles, I sometimes felt like a red-headed stepchild. And back in my early 20s trying to find a job as a youth minister? Forget about it. I remember during a question and answer grilling, whoops, I mean question and answer session with a congregation, someone asked me, "Why are you single?" Fortunately, at least one of the elders recognized that for the stupid question that it was and politely informed me that I did not have to answer it.

    All of this leads to a subject that nobody talks much about. If more and more young adults are staying single into their late 20s and early 30s, isn't it reasonable to expect that more and more of our young ministers of all types are going to be single? Consider this a none-too-subtle suggestion for a post. :)

  6. Jay Guin says:

    One my very earliest posts is "Should We Hire a Single Youth Minister?": http://oneinjesus.info/2007/01/21/should-we-hire-… which even predates my ability to type in HTML.

    Yes! Single youth ministers have advantages, such as not having to sacrifice family time to be with the teens.

    BTW, I've known several ministers, including youth ministers, who were caught up in sexual sin. All were married. The notion that somehow married men are immune from sexual temptation is simply untrue, and leads to two serious mistakes: (1) refusing to hire single men (Jesus was single. Paul was single.) and (2) not being sufficiently vigilant in helping our married ministers avoid temptation.

  7. SavvyD says:

    Thanks I’ve been saying some of the exact same things on my blog. The main reason is that the modern world is uncharted territory for the church. THey don’t know how to deal with socital changes. I do know this–not being married leaves me open to being hit on and dating people who are not right for me. This is frustrating. I really want to be married. It’s OK to want to meet and try to meet someone at church. The pastor at the church where I have been attending is in favor of that, however he also acknowledges that some don’t have the maturity or the interest in or for marriage. 100 years ago, thos people stil got married but the support system for young couples was much stronger. Modern society has involved a great amount of isolation and being defined by our work. We live in strange times.

  8. SavvyD says:

    That’s a horrible question filled with discriminatory overtones. That is also an illegal question, so thank God someone deflected it. However, if you were not hired for that position based on your single status, you could sue.

  9. SavvyD says:

    That’s why I prefer a larger church.

  10. Kaye Dacus says:

    I know I’m late to the discussion, but after reading this I had to post a comment. Having been involved in singles ministry—as a disciple as well as a leader—for more than fifteen years, there are several points I agree with and several I disagree with in this article. But there’s one with which I take great exception:

    “In most churches, the most urgent need is among adults in their 20s.”

    In most churches, the most urgent need is among single adults OVER THE AGE OF 30. There are tons of ministries for single adults in their 20s in almost every church out there—and tons more outside of the church. In most denominations, the Sunday School literature, if there is actually any geared for singles, is written for singles in their twenties. They even get their own name for their division in most churches: Young Professionals.

    The main reason most churches don’t see a high number of singles over the age of 30 on their rolls/in their churches is because by the time most of us hit 30 (or 35 or 40), we’ve gotten so fed-up with not being ministered to (after years and years of volunteering and teaching and singing in the choir—basically, ministering to everyone else in the congregation) that we leave the church completely. More than 40% of the population of the United States is made up of people who are not married (still-single, divorced, widowed). Contrary to what your statement would lead churches to believe, that 40% of the U.S. population aren’t all in their 20s. Nor are they in a period of what you refer to as “extended adolescence.” I know many 20-something singles who are vastly more mature than their married counterparts—those 20-something singles have had to mature faster because they’ve had to get jobs and worry about insurance and retirement funds and rolling over 401k plans and seeing those 401k plans dwindle to nothing and have to worry about what’s going to happen to them in the future—with no one else there to share the financial or emotional burden of it.

    I am thirty-eight-years-old, have never dated, and have never been kissed. I have never even been asked out on a date. But I successfully cultivated and led a large singles group at a relatively small church for many years (until I had to step aside when I went back to college so I could have better career opportunities). I’ve mentored youth, college students, and younger singles for years. I’m a published author. I teach monthly workshops to a professional writing organization—of which I’m president. I’m successfully self-employed. And because of my singleness, it allows me to travel all over the country to speak and make appearances and do book signings, as well as write the books God has given me to write that are going out and influencing people for the Kingdom.

    And I currently have no church home because I’d rather not go to church, where I feel more alone than I do sitting here at the computer in the spare bedroom of my house in which I live by myself.

  11. Hello. I'm 39 years old and have never been married, but your article seems to assume that all Christian singles age 35 – 50 are single due to divorce.

    Please don't assume that all older Christian singles are homosexual, either. I'm straight but just never me the right person, though I was engaged once (it didn't work out).

    I'd also be careful about the sales pitch that 'since singles don't have kids they should be pressed for more service.'

    I was at a blog not too long ago that listed common things singles hear at church that they find offensive, and one of the very things on the list was, "Since you're single and have no kids you have lots of free time, so we'll make you do more stuff at church or for the church!"

    Oh, and some of the age 35+ single guys on that list said they found the assumption that they must be homosexual since they're still singe offensive.

    I also agree with much of what Kaye Dacus said in her post. Twenty somethings are more than catered to when it comes to dating advice, church attention, and so on.

    Once you're out of college, it's next to impossible to find a suitable Christian guy your own age.

  12. Jay Guin says:

    Christianpundit,

    I've re-read my post and don't see where I implied that single men over 35 are homosexual. The only mention of homosexuality I could find is —

    If your church reflects the general population, it will also include unmarried college students, unmarried graduate school students, unmarried high school graduates who went straight into the job market, unmarried college graduates who are working, unmarried gay men and women who remain celibate for the sake of Jesus, divorced men and women, and widows and widowers

    I regret that anyone took offense, but I'm not able to find what I said that might have been taken that way. I know quite well that adult singles are not necessarily gay!

    I did suggest that churches be careful not to turn a singles ministry into a dating service. "Therefore, singles ministry is not all about helping these people find mates. … Besides, they get all the nagging about getting married they need from their parents."

    I did say, "You can't lump 40-year old divorcees with college students," but I didn't mean to suggest that all 40+ singles are divorced. I know many who are not. My intended point was to contrast the extreme range of life experiences found among singles — from college students to older divorced people (who've been married, perhaps had children, and are, of course, much older and therefore are very far removed from college students). I certainly didn't intend to suggest that all older single people are divorced and gay!

    On the other hand, I stand by my advice that the unmarried commit to ministry the time that a married person would give to a spouse or children. It is, after all, Paul's advice —

    (1Co 7:32-34 ESV) 32 I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. 33 But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, 34 and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband.

    I'm glad to discuss it, but it just makes sense to me.

  13. coupe monde says:

    Very good info thank you, keep us up to date.

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