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.