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.