Ten Ways to Make Your Church More Welcoming for Single People

Single people are not a monolith, and it’s a bit ridiculous to think there’s a foolproof method for attracting them. However, when roughly half of adults in the U.S. are single, and in churches it’s closer to 10%, churches do need to examine the cultural barriers that turn “family-friendly” into “families only.”

The following list is not definitive (I mean, how much time do you have?), but offers a few ways to explore how to make that culture shift.

10. Think about your start time.
Single people can be morning people. However, in a culture that doesn’t exactly celebrate waking up to see the sunrise, most single people with traditional work schedules rely on weekends to reconnect with the people they loved, up to and including Saturday night. Single people with nontraditional work schedules (including pastors) will go out of their way to spend Saturday nights with friends. This is especially true for younger adults, but can be true across the age spectrum. A church that begins at 9:30am has already sent a clear message. Consider starting at 10am or 11am or even (gasp) an evening time like 5pm or 6pm.

9. Recognize when events are exclusive.
Rather than assuming singles like the annual contra dance, ask them about their experience of different events. Earlier this year, when I attended my first all-church Winter Retreat, I discovered the fabled and eagerly anticipated event was actually a little bit lonely for a single person. I shared my experience with a few people and discovered that others in non-traditional family structures felt similarly. Some of them had been avoiding it for years. The odds of a retreat in January 2021 are low (thanks, COVID), but the extra time may help us rethink how to structure the event to be more inclusive.

8. Host events with odd-numbered groups.
If I had a dime for every time a family said, “we’d love to have you over,” and meant “when we can find another single person to join us,” I could’ve just bought myself dinner. Over the years, I’ve been baffled at how uncomfortable couples can be inviting a single person to any activity. Odd numbers discomfit people in traditional families. If you recognize yourself in this description, ask yourself what makes you uncomfortable. Let go of symmetrical table seatings and practice (as it is safe to do so and most likely post-COVID) hosting or joining events in odd numbered groups.

7. Don’t rely on single people for childcare.
Is the number of single people leading Sunday School proportional to their overall representation in the church? If so, is it possible they’re being asked first because, you know, clearly the reason they’re single is because they want to be caring for other people’s children? Some single people will enthusiastically lead children’s events. And some single people are savoring every second they are not responsible for fragile and malleable developing brains. Avoid pressuring single people in subtle or direct ways.

6. Do not assume it’s okay to set someone up or benchmark their relationships.
Bringing a partner to church—even an enthusiastic, deeply Christian partner—is a fraught experience, between the church’s family-centered functioning and its historical inability to deal with sexuality in a healthy way. When someone brings a member of the sex they are attracted to to church (and, if you are unsure which sex they’re attracted to, now is not the time to ask), avoid subtle or direct questions about their relationships. Let a person bring a person to church and welcome the new person as an individual. Singleness is not a tragic state of being, nor is a break up (most break ups are a thing to celebrate for at least one member of the relationship). There are many ways that the church treats singleness as a temporary state, or sends subtle reminders that “you’re just a married person in training.” Get in touch with a person’s hopes and dreams, without assuming marriage is a goal—what do they love? What do they aspire to? Do not ask if it’s okay to set someone up, unless you know them well. (A helpful, but not always accurate, litmus test is that if you’ve heard them talk about being single in more than a passing comment, you know them well enough. If they don’t talk to you about being single, that’s a signal that they don’t want to answer questions about it.) If you know someone is in a relationship, avoid asking how “serious” it is. Instead, try asking literally any other question. As a long-time single pastor, I can assure you that 9 times out of 10, a person would rather hear “So, do you have 5-digit student loan debt?” than “So, is it pretty serious between you two?”

5. Use diverse sermon illustrations.
As a single person, I still find myself relying primarily on nuclear family sermon illustrations, referring to parents, kids, and couples, because that’s what predominates in churches. Sermons are perhaps the most important space where norms are communicated. Sermon examples that never reference dating or single-household experience ssuggest singleness is non-normative or, worse, not welcome. Pastors, lay speakers, and guest speakers who assume a multiplicity of fmaily structures communicate that, “hey, wow, you’re not an abomination of God’s will because you’re single!”

4. Ensure representation in leadership.
Sermon illustrations are valuable, but actions speak louder than words. Representation of all kinds matters. But if everyone comes to leadership meetings with a nuclear family mindset, you tend to get a church that only works for nuclear families (yes, I know you can namedrop the 3 single people who are deeply engaged, but don’t). When I shared that my Winter Retreat experience felt a little awkward, it was only because we had multiple people from non-traditional families that we realized this event—which has many vocal fans year-round—was geared for nuclear families.

3. Mark non-relational life events with rituals.
Nothing says “obligatory party” like wedding and baby showers. These events, meant to celebrate a life transition, often send a more subtle message that these are the only correct life transitions. Create rituals for a range of life events—retirement; grad school; moving or buying a home; baptism as adults; promotions or even quitting a job. Even the clunky and chaotic Blessing of the Pets creates a non-nuclear-family ritual of sorts. There’s no checklist of “right” rituals. Be attentive to what the diversity of members, single or coupled, are going through. Create space for a range of rituals. Likewise, don’t assume that every couple wants to play awkward games and eat sugary food just because they’re spending their lives together or creating a new person. Not every couple wants a wedding or baby shower. Normalize a range of responses to life events.

2. Pay attention to how you use your welcome statements.
Call me a cynic, but when I experience three or more “all are welcome” comments on Sunday morning, I cringe. “All are welcome” is too often church code for “here are the ways we want to be diverse and are not.” If your welcoming statement goes out of its way to include populations that are not visibly present on Sunday morning, use the statement judiciously. Call congregants to that vision, but don’t use it to reassure new people or as a chant that, if repeated enough times, will come true. Say “all are welcome” once, and then go about listening and validating all of the people who come through the (virtual) door, if it’s with a lisp or in a wheelchair or in a manic state. They chose to join a group of strangers for an hour—when was the last time you did that? Affirm their presence, listen to their story, and approach them as a human, not a potential annual giving unit.

1. Stand for something.
Single people don’t come to church, primarily, because they want more dinner parties. They come to be deeply and profoundly stirred by an encounter with a Holiness much bigger than themselves. Single people—like all people—long for connection, human and divine. A church that serves the community, mobilizes to meet local needs or defend affordable housing or convert their green space into an affordable produce stand, attracts strangers. A church that intends to serve the community, but never gets past making meals for its own congregants, will always be an insider’s club. Let your witness lead. Be relevant as more than just a place for families to share baby and grandbaby photos and have a monthly potluck. As Jesus once said, “if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others?” A social club by any other name will still be recognized by its insiders—and its outsiders.

What if the True Meaning of Christmas is about Self-Worth?

In our hyper-programmed culture of productivity and accomplishment, it can be a relief to reach the Christmas season: those precious few days when there is finally a cultural pressure to just be nice. Time for Christmas, time for Love.

But we also receive very specific messages what that Love should look like. These messages are everywhere, but most powerfully in the inescapable holiday soundtrack that somehow penetrates every public and private event.

In church, it’s often said that faith is defined by music: our truest beliefs are not from the Bible but from the songs we sing each week, whether it’s lofty hymns battling the organ or the not-so-affectionately titled genre of “Jesus is my Boyfriend” songs. There’s nowhere in American culture that music more deeply shapes us than at Christmas. Our experience and expectations of the holiday is based on the songs we’ve committed to play in public spaces, whether out of cultural consensus or media manipulation.

The radio-dominating carols of snow and good cheer shape our subconscious holiday landscape, with their parties and presents and mistletoe and food and family and friends. These songs point us toward an elusive sense of comfort and love, but it’s a love wrapped up in a prescribed set of practices, ie., walking in a winter wonderland, getting the turkey and the mistletoe, letting it snow, and rockin’ around the Christmas tree.

The musical consensus tells us Christmas is about more than presents and lights. But only to the degree that the  #1 Billboard Holiday song by Mariah Carey tells it: we believe we can transcend the materialism of the season and access the true spirit of Christmas only by attaching ourselves to a romantic partner. “All I want for Christmas is You.” True Christmas is about falling in love, because the only thing worse than being in an unhappy relationship at Christmas is to be single at Christmas, as if singleness is evidence of unloveability.

Mariah Carey All I Want for Christmas is You

Mariah Carey’s Christmas hit was almost titled, “All I Want for Christmas is to Stake my Self-Worth on Someone Else in order to Cover my Crippling Fear of Unloveability.”

The classic (can we say classic about 1994 yet?) gives voice to one of the deepest American anxieties. If we make the leap to eschew materialism in favor of love, but can’t even master the connection of romantic love, it must mean we are not be loveable.

At Christmas, as at Valentine’s Day, we perform acts of conspicuous love without these displays, we would be unworthy of love.

To hear the Christmas songs tell it, Loving means giving as much of yourself away as you can—to buy presents; to send cards; to attend obligatory gatherings in an endless blur of warm and mildly intoxicating beverages; to socialize in specific and highly programmed ways; to make the season as perfect, as the song says, “as a picture print by Currier and Ives.” But somehow that Currier and Ives print becomes a month lived in a frenzied generosity and accommodation and giving more love than you receive until it all culminates in a sugary crash and a coma of introversion. The American Christmas is about giving away love, even when you have no more love to give. It’s the idea if you don’t give it away, you’ll never be worthy of receiving it.

Christmas can bring out crippling feelings of perfectionism and inadequacy as we race to give away “enough” love to become worthy of receiving it.

From this perspective, Jesus becomes a magic “Love Your Neighbor” card that gives you the energy to give away more love. But the real mystery and challenge of God Incarnate is that your own flesh is worthy of love. In that small baby in the manager, you face the reality that you—you, with your flaws and shame—are deeply loveable.

The Birth of Jesus is the antithesis of the Christmas carols’ message. It’s realizing that love doesn’t keep a scorecard, that no amount of presents or cards will make you more or less deserving. Christmas is about an encounter with a God who challenges you to say, “I am loved.”

This is exactly what the Virgin Mary does, in spite of theological attempts to reduce her to a humble saint who has somehow transcended the need for self-love. In carrying God inside of herself, she names her own self-worth and identifies herself as not only someone who gives love, but someone who receives love.

Annunciation El Greco

“Annunciation,” by El Greco; or, “The Terrifying Possibility of Self-Love.”

Immediately after the angel announces her pregnancy, in Luke 1:39, “Within a few days Mary set out and hurried to the hill country.” She learns she is pregnant and… She’s out. She’s on the road to visit her cousin Elizabeth. The Bible says nothing about talking to her parents or consulting with Joseph, she just packs her bags and walks across Roman-occupied Judea by herself. Mary meets the angel and she realizes, “God has a plan for me and I have to get my s*** together.”

And so she creates more space to be herself. As she contemplates engagement, pregnancy, and marriage, as she comes into adulthood with the massive task of forming her own family unit, and as she thinks of how she wants to create a family where she gives love but also receives love, she takes time to be a single woman. She puts her obligations to others on pause in order to reflect on her own patterns of loving.

And she’s gone for 3 months. That’s one-third of her pregnancy devoted to reflecting on love with a trusted woman friend.

Her visit is about adult women making space together to be adult women. Mary and Elizabeth spend three months together. Of course, Elizabeth’s husband is around, Zechariah, but Zechariah got into an argument with an angel and the angel struck him mute. So while Zechariah is around, these three month aren’t about him. It’s truly just a time for the women be together understanding themselves and their capacities to love. To love a child, but also to love themselves.

When Mary arrives, Elizabeth says, “Blessed is she who believed that what our God said to her would be accomplished!” (This is the part where John the Baptist leaps in her womb, but let’s de-center the male experience and look at the women beyond their fetus-carrying capacity.)

And Mary responds,

My soul proclaims your greatness, O God,
and my spirit rejoices in you my Savior.
For you have looked with favor upon your servant,
and from this day forward
all generations will call me blessed.
For you, the Almighty, have done great things for me,
and holy is your name.” (Luke 1:46-49)

Mary responds to Elizabeth’s blessing by blessing herself. Elizabeth says, “You’re so great!” And Mary replies, “Yes, I am great! And God loves me that way.”

Her song is full of my’s and me’s. It’s about her as an individual. Maybe coming from someone else’s mouth, it would sound self-centered, but here, it is Mary’s understanding that as a woman, she is deeply loved and worthy of all the love she has received.

Only from that place of belovedness does she launch into this vision of dismantling the political system and creating a more equitable world, the lowly lifted up and the powerful pulled down from their thrones, which is what the Magnificat is so well-known for.

Christmas is a season of love and loving. But it’s also a season of belovedness.

Among the pressure of cultural Christmas to perform acts of other-centered love, there is also space and theological precedent to shower yourself in love. To bask in the love of God.

Because you are loved and you are worthy of love. When God takes on flesh and walks among us, God gifts us the stunning truth that we are worthy of love.

 

This post was adapted from a sermon given Dec. 23, 2018.

Cooking Alone

What I like about eggs is making them. A single egg, cracked over a hot skillet, a minute thirty on the first side, a minute on the flip. What I dislike about eggs is eating them. They’re uninspired. Still plain, in spite of my efforts, dressing it with kale, tomatoes, and garlic from my own garden. But simple. And unlike my homey carb-seeking impulse for muffins or zucchini bread for breakfast, I can eat it one setting. I plan my muffin baking around potlucks–or commit to eating four a day in order to finish them. Such suffering is life.

As I approached the one year anniversary of my Simply Seasoned Challenge–to finish the remaining three-quarters of the book’s recipes in three years–I indulged my compulsive perfectionist and counted what percent of the book I’d completed. It should have been roundly 50%. I’ve since deliberately forgotten the exact number, but it was crawling toward 46%. That left me about an extra 14 recipes to fit into the coming year, in addition to this year’s 50 recipes.

10-8-potatoes-carrots-pesto

Have you tried to eat a whole recipe of Oven Fries by yourself? I have. (Fail)

Why the failure? Skimming through the unmade summer recipes, I searched for where I’d gone wrong, quickly discovering the obvious: I was single. I’d kept a steady pace through the fall while I dated and dropped off in the spring when my relationship had–telling myself, at the time, that it was because the rhubarb and carrot thinnings came up so slowly (which is equally true). Cooking for and with someone gave me incentive. Cooking alone gave me a strong urge for a second glass of wine. Continue reading

Our Generation Didn’t Ruin the Institution of Marriage

I considered titling this post “Everything I Know about Marriage I Learned from Beyonce”–but I don’t even have space to explain how true that is.

Last week, I fell into a conversation with several seniors in the church about how the younger generation–my generation–had ruined the institution of marriage: cohabitation, quick divorces, and promiscuity had eroded an important and valuable way of life. With none too much politeness, but perhaps the most politeness you will see in the next 800 words, I cut the conversation: “We didn’t ruin marriage. We have a deep respect for it. And that’s why we’re not doing it as often or as quickly as your generation did.”

It’s easy, in our cultural environment, to stay generationally segregated–in college dorms, retirement communities, day care centers. It’s equally easy to create a generational echo chamber around particular issues. But the idea that my generation–or the one before it–ruined the institution of marriage is shortsighted and destructive. Continue reading

An Attempt to Say Something Not Unhelpful about Sex

Recently, a friend asked how I, as a pastor, have conversations about sex. The implication was, how do I, as a single 27-year-old have any coherent conversation about sex with my peers, who spend a decent amount of their time talking about sex. In general, the answer is that I avoid writing about sex, except to critique the church’s inability to talk about sex.

People in the post-college bracket are thoughtful about sex. It’s not all horror stories and hook ups. In fact, there are mostly not very many of those. But, as one friend said, just by being single, Christian, and older than 25, you’re living “off script.” You’re in the minority of Christians and the Church is using an outdated script to keep you on a path you were never on. I think this is why there are so few single young people in church. There’s not a place for them at the table. Continue reading