Saturday, August 20, 2005

Confessions of a former singles pastor

Tim Challies was left to fend for himself this week. In Reflections on Bachelorhood, Tim said he discovered something important about himself:
And here's the crux of the matter. I just wasn't cut out for this single life. Not even for a week. There are lots of people who do not need and crave family like I do. I have rarely lived a week of my life without close contact with family members. The single life just wouldn't work for me. So this weekend I am especially thankful for the family God has seen fit to grant me. They make me who I am.
I think this is true of a lot of Christians, particularly those that grew up in a traditional home and follow the traditional education/career path. Or maybe it's just the way God wires certain A-type personalities: There's an understated but overriding fear of being alone.

More interesting to me was a comment from someone named Diane R, who challenged Tim to do some research about how singles are treated in church. Not being a member of Tim's select commentary group, I want to address that myself here.

Dilbert creator Scott Adams has a running paleontology joke in his cartoon: Dinosaurs didn't really go extinct, they've just been hiding. By relation, Christian singles didn't go (or aren't going) extinct in your church; they're probably just attending the two or three churches in your area that cater to them.

If you are looking for a marginalized Christian in your church, look no further. You haven't noticed them because they don't look single -- the majority of them are probably in their 40s, divorced, female, with children. They come to your church because they like the music or the preaching, but fellowship is likely limited. Couples don't invite them to lunch or a night out because they're a third wheel. Meeting other singles, who are scattered throughout the building for however many services your church holds, would be more successful if they left it up to rolling the dice. Do they hang out with the fashionable, heavily pierced 23-year-old college coed? Do they dare ask that 50-something man for some time alone without looking like they're asking for a date -- and what if he's actually married? That 30-something man seems a little off-kilter with all of his "Christian gear" always on full display in the front row.

You can't just set up a singles group together and expect 20 or 30 college/career-aged people show up and start mingling. Not anymore. The demographics are all over the place. Furthermore, there are a growing number of 30-somethings who have never been married, which breaks about 400 years worth of church tradition.

Further adding to this mess is the typical church view that practically worships the institution of marriage. With all the focus on the family, single people -- those with inordinate amount of free time and abilities -- are often considered without purpose until they get married and start spitting out kids.

That's the biggest crime, in my opinion. Instead of attempting to get everyone married off, churches should take advantage of their surplus of singles. They are probably dying for direction and willing to do a great deal more for the mission. I think this is one of the reasons Paul wished more people in the Early Church stayed single: they are not obligated to anyone else but God.

My time as a singles pastor was imminently wasted, because I was also single and did not have a great understanding of purposeful singleness or marriage until I had already stepped down in failure. I counseled many who felt their primary purpose in life at that very moment was to get married, because that is the message they'd been receiving from the church. They'd run off to whatever Christian meat market was the fad of the day, sometimes even neglecting to check what the church believed, and rarely questioning their motives in finding a mate.

Another problem comes from male pastors with ... strong libidos who cannot fathom other people not sharing his ... fleshly pitfalls. These kinds of pastors can be heavy-handed as they rail their single sheep into mismatched marriages that may do more spiritual harm than they will protect those people from sexual sin. It's not a horrible motive, it's just really misguided. Sometimes it takes the form of spiritual abuse.

I do feel fortunate, though. I didn't get married until I was 32, and I received substantial wisdom from those in my church to better prepare my heart for singleness while developing skills I would need in the case I did get married. I feel I am blessed for waiting, too.

I wish for the church to stop trying to reinvent singleness, and I definitely wish the church would stop demonizing it. There's a model in the Bible in the form of the apostles. Turn your singles into missionaries. They don't even have to get a passport to become a missionary. Send them to your prisons. Send them to your college campuses. Take advantage of their skills and put them to work in your body as teachers and lay pastors.

Not everyone is cut out for marriage. My experience suggests not everyone is cut out for marriage right now. There is a need for more spiritual maturity, for growth among singles, before making such a large commitment. Patience and Biblical guidance, not fear and loathing, should be the mode of operation for your singles ministry.

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