The third chapter in Lisa McMinn’s book, Sexuality and Holy Longing, is titled “Sleeping Alone.” She writes in this chapter about being single and sexual and the challenges facing the church in terms of communicating a theology that “names, validates, and embraces the sexuality of singleness” [p. 69]. She challenges the church in terms of messages communicated to singles that they are incomplete or “less than” those who are married, and she writes openly about the marginalization many singles experience.
For reflection: How do churches today communicate that singles are “less than” or “incomplete”? What constructive, practical suggestions could help local churches communicate a more inclusive message to singles? What would it mean (again, practically) to name, validate, and embrace the “sexuality of singleness”?
16 thoughts on “Sexuality & Holy Longing – 3”
The think the church juggles the issue back and forth to some degree. Some within the church will say “God is all you need”, yet they are attempting to set you up with someone or they wonder why you are not currently in a relationship (I can get away with it being in college). It’s all rather contradictory to me.
I think it’s noble that the church wants to esteem marriage and having children in a culture that declares it to be irrelevant, yet I think it is possible the church has gone too far. Paul made it clear that some people are called to be single. In my opinion, Paul emphasized that both marriage and singleness was good as long as the intention above all is to glorify God. The church should not make individuals feel guilty about having the gift of celibacy. It’s certainly counter-cultural to give up the pursuit of love (referring to the romantic kind), but it doesn’t mean singles are solitary hermits that cannot experience fellowship and love in the body of Christ.
I remember when I first moved to Virginia Beach I started attending a church that I really enjoyed and I wanted to become more involved so I looked into the small group. Unfortunately, as I looked most of the small groups the church offered were either women’s groups or couples/family groups. I was not a part of a family or couple in the area and I didn’t want to only hear women’s perspectives on anything anymore, and that group met on a night I couldn’t attend. This left me feeling ‘less than’ other members of the church. I wanted to get to know other people and group in the community of the church but I needed to either be ‘womanly’ or become part of a larger group or couple in order to participate. I do not think that my experience was an isolated one. I still see this as I now work with another church as a kid’s church leader, and when looking for teachers they seek couples to work together, the singles are not as valued in that area. This bothered me and now I am changing the training process to be more accessible to individuals.
As far as suggestions for local churches, I would like to see them steer away from titling groups or activities for ‘couples’ or ‘singles.’ Since the titles proliferate the idea that there is a large difference between the two types of people instead of embracing people into the larger community. Singles groups in general are accepted as a way to meet someone to become a couple with. For churches to be able to name, validate, and embrace the sexuality of singleness the focus on them changing into a couple need to be removed through discussions and small group designs.
There do appear to be a number of ways churches can unintentionally (I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt) send a message of devaluing the singles. I think if staff were asked, they would say they value singles, but it is more subtle than that, often in the ways you suggested.
It is interesting to engage in this discussion because I find myself to be less of a victim and more of an unaware encourager to this way of thinking. I initially thought that I was excluded from the discussion because I never experienced a feeling of being lesser because I was single in the church. But now that I am married, I tend to want other people to get married, prefer to spend time with other married couples, and am part of a primarily couples church small group.
I wonder if the message that singles feel the church is sending of value to the married and lesser status to singles is an interpretation of the tendency of the majority to want others to join. The influential church leaders and members are predominantly married. Since the majority seems to be married, isn’t it natural to want others to join in the experience? As a married church member, being aware of the perception singles have of my value of marriage as a de-valuing of singleness is really important to help me correct that message. I think that I can do that by intentionally including single people in those that I communicate with where I may have previously let myself naturally gravitate toward married people.
Most churches today do not have groups that focus on singles. There are a few that have focused on singles but usually, there is an age range that receives no attention. Many youth programs stop at about 25 years of age. There are a few groups that cater to the needs of those who have been married and may be divorce or widowed.
However, many groups formed do not provide any curriculum that addresses the needs of singles to have meaningful relationships with others and enjoy outings. Even when there are bible groups, a lot of them focus on couples, women’s groups or men’s group as if it is taboo for single men and women to be together in a group and not be married. Certainly, in the work force men and women are working side by side.
By preventing a combination of men and women in a group the churches unconsciously portray that singles lack self-control with each other, when it is only natural and healthy to want to interact with those of the opposite gender as this is part of sexuality as humans. This attitude breeds a mind set that singleness is to be shunned and there is no place for singleness in the church. Embracing the sexuality of singleness will bring more healthy attitudes to singles and remove the burdens of frustrated needs, that might lead to unhealthy sexual fulfillment. Since sexuality is natural and fulfillment of an individual requires interaction with others as a whole human including sexuality as part of the package.
I initially thought that I was not included in this discussion because I never had the experience of feeling lesser because I was a single church member. I would actually hear married people say that I should stay single while I can more often than they asked about marriage prospects. But, with that in mind, now that I am married, I may unknowingly make singles feel as though they are lesser members of the church because they are not married.
I find myself wanting to spend time with married couples, being more inclined to initiate conversations with married people, and wanting more people to get married. It seems natural to want others to join you in your place in life. Since more Protestant church leaders and influencial members seem to be married than not, perhaps the message is sometime more like a wish that others join in the experience than a de-valuing of singleness. It is helpful to me to be aware of the message singles are receiving so that I can monitor my actions to guard against negative reactions. I value the single stage of life and I think there is a place for those who choose to live a celibate lifestyle to honor God.
Until a year or so ago I had not given the issue of single hood in church ministry much thought. I remember when my church was attempting to reformulate the “young adult” ministry there was much debate as to which population would be “targeted” as a recipient of this ministry. A few felt that singles would appreciate their own group as so many of the younger individuals in our church are married couples. It wasn’t until this debate that I took a look at the difficulties singles may face in the church.
I believe that promoting friendship in groups composed of singles and talking about aspects of living a single life would be helpful. This may be especially healthy in contrast to viewing the singles group as more of a holding tank
before one finds a spouse or a dating partner.
Also, as many pastors are married and tend to preach or give sermons based on their life experience, it would also be of value to invite guest speakers who live a single life in to speak not only on the issue of the single life but also simply to use illustrations from his or her own life.
It seems that most of the ministry focus in the church is marriage, family, and outreach. All of which are important focuses, however, it skips a very important population. Addressing the lifestyle, cultures, spirituality, sexuality and overall holistic life of a single person can be a powerful venue for strengthening the body of Christ.
I think the church often does this simply by specifying them as a separate group. While this is well-intentioned, the effect of referring to a group as being for singles is often to make them feel as though they are there to be paired off, or catered to because these poor people have no spouse. Rather than having a group for singles, I have seen some churches create groups for “college and career” individuals, which is understood to mean anyone in their twenties and early thirties. This has been a great way to blend singles and marrieds and give everyone an opportunity to learn from the gifts of others.
One problem with the typical approach of churches is the varying degrees of singleness that exist. Some are single and satisfied, others are single and looking. Still others are single but dating, or in a committed long-term relationship. There is much variety that is often overlooked when individuals are forced to identify as married or single. Many people are somewhere in between!
I’m not sure what the answer is, but I think that creating groups that categorize people based on interest or age would be more beneficial than calling out singles. I really don’t know how the sexuality of singleness could be addressed, because to even address someone as a single is often to make someone very aware of their singleness and the fact that they shouldn’t have sexuality.
This is a major issue that needs to be openly discussed in the church. There is an underlying assumption in many Protestant churches that an individual’s “ministry” does not start until the person gets married. I think this assumption can be harmful to persons who are waiting on this “gatekeeping” standard to release them rather than moving when the Lord says to “go.”
Moreover, as McMinn suggests, many singles are feeling relegated to the corners of the church family rather than being given full access to the fellowship of the greater community. In many churches, I’ve seen really active college age /singles ministries, but after college, there appears to be a huge drop in church support & recognition of the singles still involved in the church- who are not in college anymore.
Even as I’m writing this, I’m seeing how, even the college age, or feasibly a post-college age single group, is still a sub community that is generally not actively integrated into the greater church body. There needs to be a greater paradigm shift in church culture; rather than just initiating a new “group” that can make leaders feel like they are meeting a need, but not actually allowing the greater community to be challenged or changed.
It’s obviously challenging to speak to such a widespread issue but I think the most practical way to integrate the single adult into the greater church body: has to come from the pastoral/elder leadership because they tend to be the rudder that directs the passion & concerns of the church body. I like what one local church has done; the pastor fully endorses counseling & so he has put his “weight” behind creating a counseling center within the church. If this same pastor were to put as much passion & voice to the single adult, I really believe the singles in his church would become fully incorporated members of the church family.
I think something practical is to provide a church consult and welcome the pastor & elders to view life from a single worldview (using a training/consult model) provides practical & realistic suggestions for a local church to implement. Then, ideally, as more & more churches move to this place of singleness acceptance- prayerfully the overall Christian culture would learn to become more embracing of singles. (If only it were that simple! But hey, it’s an idea to bring to the table)
Having been single for a long time while many of my friends were getting married I did experience some negative “vibes” at times in church communities. I church hopped a fair amount, and it would certainly be more noticeable in some churches than others, so to some extent I would just tend to assume that how church-goers interacted with me was just a matter of the parish personality. Once I had a girlfriend, however, I went back to a church I had gone to several months earlier when I was single. I experienced the people this time to be far more warm, talkative and welcoming, and I did attribute that to the fact that I was now there as a couple.
Sometimes as a single male I felt there was a certain amount of distrust of me among church-goers. Going with a girlfriend is like instant validation. It’s as if since I can be in a stable long-term relationship with a woman there must not be anything seriously wrong with me, and I’m not perusing the church with devious sexual motives, so I’m safe to approach.
I would also say that unless a church has significant experience with you, you are at a serious disadvantage applying for a role as a youth minister as a single. As was said in class, I think there is a dangerous assumption by many church-goers that it is safer to have married couples working with children.
The “instant validation” experience is interesting. I can see that happening, and it is sometimes quite subtle. I don’t think it is meant as an explicit message, but I could see it being felt in how “welcomed” a person feels.
It seems that some churches may communicate “less than” attitudes toward singles unintentionally. Whether it be seeking a “couple” to fill a ministry role or giving more responsibilities to married persons who are in leadership or ministry roles in the church. Churches can try to communicate inclusive messages by intentionally valuing each stage in life whether it be singles, married couples, the elderly, etc. It is important for churches to consider single church members equally when seeking to fill ministry roles.
Perhaps many of the unintentional attitudes are fueled by misinterpreted verses like 1 Timothy 3:2 “A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife…”, which implies that ministers should be married, but I have heard other interpretations.
I think a lot of our thought patterns are influenced by the culture. Despite the fact the masses embrace secular humanism, boldly proclaiming that each individual shapes their own lives and destinies, we seem enslaved to the idol of sexuality. To deny or question that idol is completely taboo to our culture.
It is interesting to contrast protestant (I’m thinking here of especially evangelical) churches and catholic churches on this topic. At least historically it has been a point of pride for a young man or young woman to enter either the priesthood or become a nun. I understand that is changing and that the preference is toward marriage, but that is certainly so in protestant churches. How many single pastors are hired today?
Not many, i think. The view held it seems is that it is better that the pastor is married because there is an associated assumption with being single which seems to stem from the inability of anyone to be above the temptation of falling into having affairs. If that is the case, then why exactly is sexuality not taught as a class to enrich knowledge about a topic that is important enough to discourage the appointment of singles as church leaders? I wonder!
I loved this book by Lisa McMinn–very informative.
One idea for the church would be to challenge everyone to serve. It seems that many single people feel left out because they are too nervous to get involved in a singles ministry and then they feel like “what is there for me?” That’s where I think a shift needs to happen–we approach church with the mentality of “what does it have to offer me?” Sometimes this response can cause churches to feel like they are walking on egg shells with some singles and then opt to do very little for them.
I know each church has its own story….
But, when we all get involved, relationships are built and hopefully people will be more comfortable in their sexuality, single or married, because they know they are in a body of believers that support each other no matter what stage of life they are in. It would also help if the church remember that just because someone is not married they are still a sexual being. Acknowledging that would be a good first step.