Some 98 million Americans today are single, according to the U.S. Census Bureau (Current Population Survey, March 2000). That's close to half of our population age 15 and older. That's more than the entire populations of France and The Netherlands combined. And this trend toward singleness in our society seems to be on the rise.
Whether it is by choice, by the death of a spouse or by the unforeseen end of a marriage, the fact remains that more and more men and women are becoming single. Mirroring society at large, it is estimated that more than one-half of the church population is now single, too. Ministry to this group has become imperative.
A strong singles ministry can strengthen a church's overall ministry effectiveness. That being the case, the lack of ministry to single adults must simply constitute denial of this large and growing population. If churches want to remain relevant and meet the needs of people in our present culture, it is essential for them to develop an effective singles ministry. The issues and challenges peculiar to singles must be acknowledged and addressed.
In order to reach this harvest field, however, the church needs to understand this group and its many dynamics. Singles should never be viewed as people to be pitied or prayed for, as if their singleness were a weakness to be overcome. As Carolyn A. Koons and Michael J. Anthony stated in Single Adult Passages: Uncharted Territory, the mind-set in many churches today must be altered if a successful ministry for singles is to take place.
Much of the time singles live on the fringes of church life because they feel the church doesn't understand or care about their particular needs. Singles' needs differ greatly from the needs of those who are married. With the demise of the traditional family unit in our country, and in an attempt to re-establish lost family values, many churches have focused their attention on those areas while ignoring those who are not currently in families.
The church must shed its indifference toward singles and realize that couples are not better than singles, only different. In many churches, there seems to be little, if any, recognition that singleness inherently presents unique challenges and issues that need to be addressed. In addition, there has been very little real movement toward specific training for this ministry area.
The entertainment industry not only recognizes singleness, but also practically celebrates it. One would be hard-pressed not to notice the growing number of network sitcoms and big-budget films that focus on strong, career-minded single men and women. The world discerns this societal trend and the needs inherent in this growing population. Why does the church seem to be lagging behind?
The body of Christ cannot afford to overlook singles, which now represent 46 percent of the entire adult population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. We should be aware of the demographic breakdown within this group. As reported in the March 2000 Current Population Survey, the largest segment of single adults is the never married (27 percent). This is compared to the divorced (10 percent) and the widowed (7 percent). Most unmarried singles are between 25 to 44 years old.
With singles becoming such a large segment of our population, the church has an incredible possibility for outreach. We have an unparalleled opportunity to minister to singles by embracing them and acknowledging their needs.
However, as a pastor, you may feel overwhelmed by the needs of singles, or even be at a loss regarding how to effectively minister to them. After all, most pastors are married; it would be unfair to expect every pastor to automatically know and understand the unique issues faced by a single person.
To help address this important ministry need, I offer, based on my experience in singles ministry, the following six practical keys for ministering to singles. They can be used for developing a more comprehensive singles ministry in your own church and are easily remembered with the acronym S.I.N.G.L.E.
S = Separate. Separate and recognize the five different categories of singles, understanding that each category represents unique needs. They are: (1) the never married; (2) the divorced; (3) the single parents; (4) the widowed; and (5) the separated. The diversity of these different perspectives presents great challenges to singles ministry. By the same token, however, great opportunities for ministry exist.
The first category is the never married. This group represents the largest percentage of singles in the United States (27 percent, or 60 million). This category can actually be divided into two separate age groups: the 18- to 26-year-olds and the 26- to 50-year-olds.
The 18- to 26-year-olds are generally focused on education and developing their careers, relationships and social activities. The 26- to 50-year-olds are a constantly changing group. Some have been in long-term relationships that have ended. Others are grappling with the reality that they may never marry. Many remain career-focused.
The second group is the divorced. According to the 2000 Census Bureau statistics, it is now estimated there are more than 21 million divorced people in the United States, with an additional 10 million in the "married/spouse absent" category. These are essentially de facto divorces.
The paradox we face in Christian leadership is ministering to the divorced without accepting divorce and recognizing that accepting a divorced person doesn't mean we are accepting divorce itself. Jesus loved people while hating their sin. Likewise, the church needs to love and embrace the divorced and minister to their needs.
With one in two marriages ending in divorce, 60 percent of second marriages ending in divorce and 80 percent of third marriages ending in divorce, ministry to the divorced is becoming imperative if we don't want to lose this hurting populace.
The third group is the single parent. Due to the large increase of divorce, there are now estimated to be more than 11.7 million single-parent homes in the United States alone. The majority of these single-parent homes are headed by women, which represent more than 9.6 million homes. And with the high incident of absentee fathers, there is a great challenge to the church to help these single parents raise their children.
A good friend of mine is a single mom with a teenage son whose father lives in another state. She often laments the fact that her son has no interaction with a "father figure." She was disappointed that the church she attended didn't have some sort of mentor program with which she could involve her son.
There is a great need for the church to reach out and minister to these single parents and their children. Single parents carry a heavy burden between working, taking care of a home and meeting the needs of their children.
The fourth category is the widowed. Even though this group is a smaller group than the first three, it still represents 13.7 million, or 7 percent, of our population. The needs of the widowed are just as valid as the needs of those in other groups. Sometimes, the widowed are not only single, but also single parents. Therefore, they need to be ministered to on both the levels of being single and being a single parent.
The fifth and last category is the separated. The separated are those who are married yet living as a single and represent 4.5 million people in the United States. Separation is a difficult period of transition. To further complicate things, those who are separated do not technically fit into either the married, divorced or single categories, making connecting to others for support and ministry very difficult. Separation can be a very confusing time for someone, especially if the separation was not his or her idea.
By recognizing the above five categories and that not all singles' needs are the same, the church can begin to develop a ministry strategy for these often overlooked individuals.
I = Involve. Involving singles in the ministry of the church is the second key. One of the biggest complaints I get from singles is that they feel invisible on Sunday mornings. Many singles sit alone in a pew surrounded by seemingly happy couples and families, and they feel very left out.
One way to keep singles from feeling alone in the crowd is to allow and encourage them to work in different positions in the church. Whether it is ushering, greeting, being a prayer partner or altar worker, teaching Sunday school classes, ministering on the praise and worship team or working in the nursery and children's classes, let singles know their involvement is not only appreciated, but also welcomed.
There seems to be a misconception in the church that singles are not as committed or as faithful to the things of God as married people are. Yet some of the most powerful men in the New Testament were single: the apostle Paul, John, Timothy, John the Baptist and, of course, the most famous single of all--Jesus. These men, dedicated to the purposes of God, did not allow their singleness to be an issue in fulfilling their divine destiny. Therefore, as a leader it is essential not to allow any preconceived notions or ideas about singles to prejudice you against recognizing their potential.
A word of caution: There is a flip side to this issue, which is the tendency of some leaders to over-use the singles in their congregations. Many times married people have the assumption that if a person is unmarried and childless, he or she doesn't have a life and therefore can be prevailed upon anytime to fill in wherever there is a need. Not only is this a presumptuous attitude, but it can also be a hurtful one. Ministry burnout is a legitimate concern for singles as well as the married populace.
N = Nurture. Nurturing singles is the third key. To nurture, in part, means to train and educate. Singles ministry must provide Bible-based teaching on issues that pertain to singles.
The Bible gives specific answers to specific questions. Many singles who come into the church are not from a Christian background. Therefore, there needs to be teaching on what the Word of God says about singleness, sexual purity, relationships, dating and marriage.
I have heard many misconceptions about sex from single men and women who honestly didn't understand the Bible's stance on these issues. However, once they were shown certain passages of Scripture and understood what they meant, there was a change in their behavior and theology. As Hosea 4:6 says, "'My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge'" (NKJV).
One of the pitfalls of singleness is the "grass is always greener on the marriage side" syndrome. But as someone wisely observed, "No matter which side you are on, the grass still needs to be mowed." Singles ministry must confront the myths of marriage (as well as singleness) while emphasizing the importance of developing a strong, personal relationship with Jesus Christ (see Matt. 6:33).
Since it may not always be appropriate to minister to the concerns affecting singles on a Sunday morning, initiate special services just for singles. That way, you can address specific issues and concerns freely and openly. Another important aspect of singles ministry should be to create a sense of family among the singles, since many are without the support of family in their geographical area.
G = Gather. Gathering singles together for fellowship and fun is the fourth key. Many singles leave the church due to loneliness and isolation. The bottom line is, if churches fail to meet singles' needs for fellowship and intimacy, they will search for it elsewhere.
Singles want and need to spend time with peers. Networking plays a major part in successful singles ministry. When singles are encouraged to fellowship with one another, it offers them an opportunity to interact in an accepting environment. As singles share their experiences, it brings hope and encouragement to other singles who may be facing the same challenges.
Singles ministry should not be viewed as a substitute dating club. It is a place where singles can share and understand issues pertaining to their particular status. Singles ministry should be a place for healing and growth. And, because the singles population is constantly changing, it is important to be flexible and sensitive to the needs of the singles presently represented in the congregation.
L = Launch. Launching singles into their giftings and ministries is the fifth key. This step goes beyond just involving singles in the ministry by helping them pinpoint their specific gifts and talents.
One way to help singles find their spiritual gifts and talents is by administering one of the many spiritual-gifts tests that are available. In doing this, you can help singles find their strengths, talents, gifts and even their expertise.
It is important to give singles the opportunity to minister and have leadership positions in the local church. As Robert Duffet stated in Single Adult Ministry: The Next Step (edited by Douglas L. Fagerstrom), while leadership is the ability to influence followers toward a specific goal, spiritual leadership involves influencing followers by the right means toward right goals. By giving singles the opening to serve, you are affording them the opportunity to learn and develop their gifts, skills and ministries. As Paul Ford is quoted in the same book, "Single Christians are instrumental to God's purposes--not because they are single, but because they are Christians, crucial players in this phenomenon called the church."
E = Encourage. Encouraging evangelization to the lost is the sixth key. Jesus said we are to be His witnesses. The strongest witness occurs by incorporating our faith and beliefs into our daily lifestyle and becoming "living epistles read by all men" (see 2 Cor. 3:2).
Often singles become self-focused and lose the awareness of a lost and dying world around them. It is easy to get "caught up" in the pain and loneliness of single living and forget that as servants of Jesus Christ, we each have a responsibility to make a difference in our world.
Take the time to train the singles of your congregation on how to witness and minister to the lost. Whether it is ministering one-on-one to a lost person, or taking a group out specifically for the purpose of witnessing, incorporate evangelism into your singles ministry. Nothing can fire up a group more than allowing them the privilege of leading others to Christ and of seeing souls come into the kingdom of God.
Whether you already have a successful singles ministry or are praying about starting one, the single and single-again population is here to stay. And, as the number of singles in the United States continues to increase, so does the need and opportunity for ministry to this growing populace. If the church is to be effective, it must reach singles by recognizing their particular concerns and needs and by providing relevant resources to meet those needs.
Creative Ideas for Reaching Singles
Virginia McInerney, author of Single Not Separate, shares ideas from her new book on how churches can better minister to and involve singles both inside and outside the church walls.
One of the best ways to minister to singles is through a church's small groups. Leaders of small groups need to be able to truly and effectively meet the needs of the singles in their care. God can use you to help them know how.
Here are some key ways in which leaders and group members can demonstrate genuine warmth and understanding to singles who visit or attend a small group. These may spark more ideas to discuss with your small-group leadership team.
IN THE HOME-GROUP SETTING:
Be sensitive to the awkwardness singles may feel when entering a room full of couples or predominantly couples. Intentionally including them in conversation is one way to help ease this awkwardness. Draw them in.
Recognize that it is uncomfortable for some singles to attend a group alone, especially for the first time. Greeting people near the entrance is a warm and welcoming thing for everyone and can make the initial solo entry of a single feel less stark.
When using practical examples in a teaching, strive to incorporate examples pertinent to singles and not primarily just to couples and families.
During fellowship time, if the discussion among couples tends to focus almost exclusively on some aspect of family life, try to steer the conversation so that it also includes aspects of life to which singles also relate. You can do this by peppering conversations with questions involving additional topics that you know might be of interest to the singles in attendance.
Personally invite visiting singles to come back.
Occasionally, make a point of praying as a group specifically for singles. Pray that God would bless them and satisfy their desires.
In addition to the above, suggest that the leader encourage group members to do some of the following things outside of the group meeting to promote friendships with singles who attend your group.
IN THE SOCIAL SETTING:
Invite a single to sit with you during a weekend service. This can be especially beneficial if you have a large sanctuary, because it can be difficult for singles to search out friends with whom to sit in a large auditorium. It is a horrible feeling to be at church, of all places, and feel alone in a crowd.
Invite a single to go out with you after a weekend service or join you at home. A single's sense of aloneness is often heightened after leaving church as he or she watches many people leave in pairs or with their families.
When some of the couples in the home group get together socially, invite some singles, too.
Periodically offer to baby-sit for a single parent or offer other practical assistance.
Invite a single over to dinner or on a family outing. Welcome those with whom you feel a genuine sense of rapport into your social circle.
By making the above suggestions, I am not at all implying that singles are weak and need couples to take them by the hand and help them along, as if they cannot do it for themselves. This is demeaning. The suggestions above are meant to enhance singles' experiences in a home group, to make it easier and more comfortable for them to attend, and to give practical examples of simple ways we can bridge the gap between couples and singles.
The opportunity to reach singles is greater than ever before. But you need to develop a solid strategy for your singles ministry to be successful.
Take a moment and picture yourself as a single person walking into your church for the first time. How are you greeted? How does your experience during the course of the service make you feel--alone or connected? Can you walk in at the beginning of the service and walk out at the end without anyone batting an eyelash? How does your church make singles feel?
Such questions are a good place to start in thinking about how to better reach the singles population. The following eight tips can help you move toward a more comprehensive strategy.
1. Designate a godly leader. Most productive singles ministries are led by someone who is single (though of course there are exceptions to this). But don't just throw in a person to lead simply to fill an empty slot. Prayerfully choose a leader to oversee the singles ministry. He or she should be single, maintain a consistent spiritual walk and be committed to living in a manner pleasing to the Lord.
2. Delegate a specific location for the singles ministry. Giving singles their own space affirms the church recognizes their particular needs and that they are important to the church's ministry.
3. Disciple singles through solid, biblical teaching. Teaching should be relevant to the challenges singles face and address the spiritual, emotional, physical and social aspects of single living. There should be time for questions and discussion after each teaching session.
4. Develop a sense of community and support. Singles are concerned about building healthy relationships and need the encouragement and support of their peers. They need opportunities to interact on a social as well as spiritual level.
5. Divide leadership responsibilities. Involving singles in the singles ministry not only brings a greater commitment, but also strengthens the ministry's overall effectiveness.
6. Devise an evangelistic plan. Many unchurched singles live within your ministry's sphere of influence. Involving these unchurched singles in seminars and activities gives them the chance to interact with believers, which increases the opportunity to lead them to Christ. Be creative in the types of seminars, workshops and activities you can offer your community.
7. Devote specific ministry to workshops. Divorce recovery and single-parent workshops help these hurting people to rebuild their lives and give them a place to heal.
8. Dedicate funds to the singles ministry. A budget empowers singles to plan seminars, workshops, outings, trips and outreaches, thereby increasing their capability for a more effective ministry.