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Ministering to Singles: So Where Are They?

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

empty_churchAll this talk about how we can minister to singles (as well as anyone else who feels disenfranchised by the church(es) they’ve attended) presupposes the idea that these people are actually going to church. However, this is increasingly not the case.

And I’m a perfect example.

Even though I’m a member of a church—in that my name is on record as being a member at a certain church here in Nashville—I haven’t attended regularly in about two years. In fact, since I left the first church of which I was a member in Nashville (the one I went to and served at for seven years which I talked about yesterday), which I left in 2003, I’ve become one of those Singles who just can’t seem to settle down and stay long-term at a church. I’ve moved my membership to two other churches since then (as well as a stint of about six months back at the original church in between) and visited a few other churches for a month or two at a time before joining the church I now no longer attend.

Why?

Part of it has been me growing up and figuring out who I am as a person—and figuring out that I really don’t belong in churches that tend to be more conservative. The irony is, I love a traditional worship service (i.e., hymns instead of choruses, a choir in robes accompanied by a piano and pipe organ instead of a “praise band,” etc.)—but I don’t like churches that are so stuck in the “this is how we’ve always done it” mentality that they become more of an exclusive country club than a church at which the doors are always open to anyone who wants to come in. But because I grew up in a Southern Baptist family (from way back—my great-grandfather was a pastor and then worked for the Convention in various capacities), I’ve always felt like I should attend a Baptist church—mostly because it’s what I’m most familiar with. I know the tenets of the doctrine (or at least I knew them before the SBC started changing them). I know the structure of the church governance. I know how things work, structurally, educationally, and ceremonially when it comes to Sunday school and worship services. I know the lingo. I know all of the hymns (and can sing the alto line without even looking at the hymnal). But the truth of the matter is that I really don’t fit in to most Baptist churches anymore.

So what’s a single girl who likes a traditional worship service and wants a church that’s a little less conservative to do? Well, I’ve started to attend an Episcopalian church. And I love the sense of awe and reverence that I experience when I’m there. But every week, it’s a struggle to convince myself to get out of bed to get dressed and drive into downtown (which is a pain during football season when the Titans have home games) to go to a church where I don’t know the lingo. Where I don’t know the hymns. Where I’m not familiar with the rhythm of the liturgical worship service. Where I’m not familiar with the names and structures of their Bible study classes to even know how to try to get involved. I find myself sitting in one of the side-facing wings of the cathedral just observing everything happening, but not really feeling like I’m a part of it (until that magnificent pipe organ begins to play and the choir begins to sing—then I just close my eyes and am transported!). But I’m trying. I’m going more often than I’m staying home. Because there’s one thing that I absolutely refuse to do: quit church. (Update December 2009: I’ve been attending a United Methodist Church for about six weeks now and loving it. I will probably be joining sometime in the spring when my schedule calms down a little bit.)

Let’s look at some statistics:
In 1971, around 41–43% of Americans said they attended church regularly, according to most polls. In 2002, a poll by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago showed that number had dropped to 31%. However, two studies in 2005 (Hadaway/Marler and Olson) showed that the number has actually dropped to between 18–20%. And though some churches/denominations still show growth numbers, it is primarily through attrition—those churches are gaining members who are coming to them from other churches. According to the American Religious Identification Survey of 2008, the number of people answering the question “What is your religion, if any?” with the response “Christian” declined 10.2%.

Those are overall numbers—for everyone, married or unmarried.

Here’s the 2008 breakdown of numbers on single/unmarried adults (Source: America’s Families and Living Arrangements: 2008):
95.9 million – Number of unmarried Americans 18 and older (42.7 percent of all U.S. residents 18 and older)
53.5% – Percentage of unmarried Americans 18 and older who were women
32.2 million – Number of people who live alone. They comprised 28 percent of all households, up from 17 percent in 1970.

According to a demographic study done by Brad Wilcox of the University of Virginia in 2005, only 23 percent of unmarried women attend church regularly; and only 15 percent of unmarried men do. That compares with 39 percent of married women and 32 percent of married men (married men are more likely to attend if they have children, also) (Source: Quitting Church by Julia Duin).

Yesterday, in the comments, we started hitting upon some the reasons why some people have either stopped going to church or why it’s a chore to go (because we don’t feel like we fit in, because we don’t feel like we’re being ministered to). According to a survey conducted by a Seventh Day Adventist group on why people quit church:

54.40% Turned off by the attitudes/behaviors of members of the group
40.95% No longer believed in the doctrines/teachings of the group
36.06% The credibility of the ledership discouraged me
33.17% Other
27.89% It didn’t meet my needs
19.10% No longer believed in God
18.09% Something happend and I no longer felt comfortable
17.34% I was specifically hurt/offended by a person within the group
16.96% Got busy and gradually quit going
7.91% I relocated and lost connections
2.51% Moved to a community where my religious group did not meet

That first stat should convict every church-going person out there. With as much as we’d like to say that the reason church attendance has declined is because people are so much busier now than thirty or forty years ago, the truth of the matter is that it’s the way that people are treated (or ignored) either by others in a congregation or by “the church” (i.e., the organized entity, the ministers, the leadership) that pushes most of them away.

Another factor: corporate churches can’t get everyone plugged in, and lots of people who’ve been Christians for most of their lives are falling away because they’re not getting anything other than “spiritual milk” from their church attendance. They’re not hearing anything new, they’re not being challenged. In the modern evangelical church, we’re not encouraged to raise questions or doubts, to express opinions that don’t match up with the religious, social, or political views of that particular Sunday school class, congregation, or denomination—even when those views are not theological or faith-based. People struggling with issues in their marriage, such as a partner’s infidelity or an addiction or just an incompatibility, can’t openly talk about those problems in their Sunday school class. Singles struggling with loneliness or longing for marriage/companionship or questions about sexual conduct cannot openly discuss those matters in Bible study. Why? Because those kinds of issues are uncomfortable and make us have to confront the fact that we all have problems, we all have doubts, we all struggle with what it really means to be Christ-followers. It’s easier to use the right lingo, to give the trite “Sunday School Answer,” to keep everything light and fluffy because we have a schedule to maintain here. And, after all, church is supposed to be the place where we go to get “recharged” for the week, to feel good about ourselves again, to put the cares of the world aside. And we can’t do that when we start getting bogged down with questions, doubts, and fears.

One of my best Bible study experiences was shortly before I left the seven-year church. In an effort to try to get me involved again, the pastor asked me if I would teach the newly formed college class. Since all of the kids on the roll were kids I’d taught when they were in the youth group (many of them the ones I’d started out with when they were in 7th and 8th grade), I agreed to do it for one semester and summer—but was already visiting other churches. The class met after church on Sunday afternoon, at the home of the parents of one of the students (also good friends of mine). They fed us lunch, and then we adjourned to the living room for our Sunday school class. It usually lasted at least two hours. With legs draped across arms of chairs, some people sprawled on the floor, shoes kicked off, and all formality done away with, we got into some of the deepest spiritual and theological discussions I’ve ever had with anyone—and these were eighteen- to twenty-year-olds! But we had two things going for us: they knew me well enough to know that when I asked a question, I expected discussion; and they learned that our discussions were no-holds-barred, anything goes.

Maybe it’s time for more of those kinds of “churches”—the kind where it’s okay to be different, to not have to fit into the mold of marital status or race or political affiliation just to feel like a “member in good standing” in the church. But until we can get back to that kind of openness and welcoming attitude in the organized church, unfortunately, membership and attendance numbers will continue to fall.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. Wednesday, September 30, 2009 2:15 pm

    Kaye, a lot of good thoughts here but I wanted to give a word of caution about what you said here: “That first stat should convict every church-going person out there. With as much as we’d like to say that the reason church attendance has declined is because people are so much busier now than thirty or forty years ago, the truth of the matter is that it’s the way that people are treated (or ignored) either by others in a congregation or by “the church” (i.e., the organized entity, the ministers, the leadership) that pushes most of them away.”

    Surveys like this can be a little misleading in the way they phrase a question. That statement…while likely fairly representing some of the people who responded that way…could also be used by someone who was being treated in a Biblical manner and just didn’t like it.

    For example, say someone is an alcoholic and that addiction is causing marital problems and job problems. The wife asks the pastors and the church for help in dealing with the guy and they confront him on it. The guy gets ticked off they were meddling in his life and leaves…because he was “turned off by the attitudes/behaviors of members of the group.”

    I’m not denying that the problems you mention exist and Christians need to check our behavior to make sure it’s Christ-like. I just know having done many surveys over the two decades I was in broadcasting that you can steer results by the questions you ask and the responses you provide to those surveyed.

    I agree that “openness and welcoming attitude in the organized church” is needed. We just can’t compromise the principals of Christ to obtain that…and we’re in a society where being “open and welcoming” isn’t attached to anything less than “allowing someone to do whatever they want and never telling them it’s wrong.”

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    • Wednesday, September 30, 2009 4:30 pm

      Jason, my comment about that stat convicting us is not based on people who’ve left because a church has had to, in love and with forgiveness, confront someone about some sin or misconduct in their lives. I’m talking about the dismissive attitudes toward certain demographics in the church (like singles, like married couples who don’t have children). I’m talking about the feeling of exclusivity presented by “all white” or “all black” congregations. I’m talking about the real exclusivity people who didn’t grow up in the church feel when they’re looked down upon for not knowing the basic stories and examples from the Bible, who don’t understand half of what’s said in sermons or Sunday school lessons because of the Christianese used by *some* teachers and preachers (no, not all—but a lot). I’m talking about the hypocrisy that’s exhibited by a lot of people who talk a good church-goer’s talk but who are some of the most judgmental, belittling, and demeaning (and just downright mean) people on the planet.

      Yes, those are generalizations, but it only takes one person acting in a manner that isn’t reflective of Christ’s love to turn someone off church—and away from God—irrevocably. Those are the attitudes/behaviors that are leading to the dwindling of church attendance, and the area in which I hope we all try to do a lot better.

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    • Wednesday, September 30, 2009 4:33 pm

      Oh, also, there’s a huge difference in a church’s being “open and welcoming” and in a church “allowing someone to do whatever they want and never telling them it’s wrong.” People have to feel like they’re welcomed, like they’re going to be loved and accepted NO MATTER WHAT when they first walk into the church—not that they have to get their life straightened out and cleaned up before they’ll ever be able to darken the doorstep. How are we supposed to reach out and help people recognize their need for Jesus if they don’t feel like they can walk onto the church premises without being condemned and made to feel even worse than they already do?

      That’s the kind of openness and welcoming spirit I’m talking about.

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  2. Wednesday, September 30, 2009 2:58 pm

    It is PAST time for more of those kinds of churches! The hemorrhage will not stop until churches face the hard truth that they’re just not “getting it”. In any way, shape or form. My family has been Baptists for generations, until 6 years ago when we began attending an Evangelical Presbyterian Church. The one where I was married.

    I attend an EPC church here in Laurel and have no desire to visit anywhere else. Both EPC churches that I’ve attended have solid theology, solid preaching and neither is afraid to look at and talk openly about the hard stuff. The small group that we attend is very open with our discussions and nothing is off limits.

    The EPC is seeing unbelievable growth because of this. Grace and Westminster (the two I’ve attended) are both looking into expanding their sanctuaries. Westminster will probably have to go to two services by the end of the year.

    Just getting milk is a sure fire way to drive people away. Why should you go to church when you don’t learn anything new? One shouldn’t attend church to “feel better” either. You’re there to get knocked upside the head and convicted so you can grow and change. That’s what the Christian life is all about.

    I’m very pleased to be a part of a denomination that puts great emphasis on solid preaching and actually has preaching requirements that are followed. Being ordained in the EPC is not an easy thing to do. I do believe it’s because of this that there is so much growth in this denomination. Unfortunately there are no EPC churches in Nashville. I’d highly recommend you try one if there was.

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    • Wednesday, September 30, 2009 4:36 pm

      It’s so good to hear about someone finding a church where you fit in and are getting fed spiritually. Hopefully more people will feel this way, as long as churches start to realize that what they’re doing is more harmful than helpful.

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  3. Monica Spence permalink
    Wednesday, September 30, 2009 4:06 pm

    Hi Kaye!
    What a great question. And how timely.

    My husband and I are Catholic. Married in the church, all the sacraments, the whole nine yards. Hey, I went to Catholic school my whole life– except Kindergarten and my first grad school. So we are talking sixteen years of Catholic education, because I went to Seton Hill University for both my BA and my second MA.

    So flash forward… At various times in my adult life I stopped going to church. Why? Well, I finally figured out that I was angry. Not at God, but at the all-too-human people who run the Church. The pedofilia scandle just about killed me.

    When we went to church, and the priest talked around this problem, I got angrier and angrier. Finally, one of our elderly priests got into the pulpit and said “This is not the Church that I was ordained to be a priest. This is terrible.” He had put my anger into words.

    So, we stopped going to our church. The newspaper headlines made me feel worse, every time another story broke.

    The problem was that I missed church. I could not go anywhere else. My husband wanted to go back and we went to Confession.

    They said that confession is good for the soul. It is.

    When I told the priest, our new pastor, of my issues, he said “You are justified in being angry. This is a terrible situation. Please come back. We need people who care to make sure this does not happen again.”

    So we went back.

    I am happy we did. Going to church makes getting through life a lot easier. You know you are not alone.

    And I found that my gut feeling — anger at the evil that people did, not the Church, was a good thing.

    I am not happy about the things that happen in my church, but it is a lot easier to change things from the inside. It will take time, but it will happen.

    Monica

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    • Wednesday, September 30, 2009 4:41 pm

      Good for you, Monica! I love that attitude—to stick with it and work to make things better. It reminds me of Acts: 20:28: “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.”

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  4. Wednesday, September 30, 2009 4:49 pm

    Kaye, I’m one of those who stopped going to church altogether for about 6 months. I stopped going when the pastor told me my daughter couldn’t attend Sunday school unless I was with her. That defeated the purpose of a community where I could go, be recharged, and have my daughter ministered to by someone other than myself. At the moment, in a new community, I am struggling to find the “right” church. Like you, I want a church with a traditional service but a less conservative bent–at least that it’s okay to be Christian, divorced, and forgiven–and living for the Lord. (and not Republican. Heaven forbid!)

    Churches don’t intentionally turn off singles or people of a different ethnicity–but they also often don’t seem to know how to reach across the Grand Canyon and reach them either. As a seminary graduate and long time Southern Baptist, I say that with broken heart.

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    • Wednesday, September 30, 2009 5:03 pm

      Isn’t it hard for us “not Republicans” to find a place to fit in? 😉 Sometimes knowing that I’m of a different political bent than just about everyone else in a congregation makes me feel like I’m wearing a huge scarlet letter on my chest—even though it’s not something I share with most people (unless they happen to see the bumper stickers on my car). It’s sad to me that one’s political affiliation has become so wrapped up with whether or not we are accepted (socially speaking, anyway) at church.

      Were all parents required to attend Sunday school with their children, or just you?

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      • Wednesday, September 30, 2009 5:24 pm

        Oh, just me. My daughter suffered from mental illness and was difficult to handle. I understand their concern but nonetheless felt rejected.

        Not-Republican-Christians unite! I have learned that equating one’s Christian faith with voting republican is a largely caucasian issue.

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  5. Wednesday, September 30, 2009 7:58 pm

    Oh this is the place where I can rant about something! This Saturday I was at a church in Dallas for the Voice of the Martyrs conference – and like I’ve heard many times before “Let’s sing a song that we all know the words too!” and it was a song that I’d _never_ heard before in my life. Then a little later, the same intro and it was a song that I’d heard once or twice but had no clue what the words were. And then later it was “Oh, let’s not leave the kids out!” And we sang “This little light of mine”

    Ok, so here is my rant: Worship leaders and pastors – DO NOT ASSUME that people know certain worship songs. I was raised in the church all of my life and I didn’t know 2 of the 3 songs! And if we are doing our “jobs” correctly there should _always_ be someone in the audience who has never heard the songs either – including “this little light of mine”! Don’t say “everyone knows this song!” because not everyone knows it and do you not realize how exclusionary that statement is? Suddenly I go from thinking “Its a shame I don’t know the song” to “Man, I sure do feel left out”. And the sad thing is that of the two songs on Saturday, they were only 6 or 8 lines and it wouldn’t have killed the guy to have spoken them first so that we might have a chance of participating or maybe if he had thought ahead and used the overhead projector!

    Rant over

    Begin encouragement: Kaye, I know its hard to get adjusted to a new “language” but hang in there! I know you know this, but if you can force yourself to go each week, it won’t be that much longer before everything becomes second nature. I grew up Missionary Baptist and I was taught that Southern Baptists did *not* teach THE truth – that they were filled with lies, etc…. But yet God called me to an SB church. Yes, some of the language was a bit different, and I had to get over my guilt for going someplace that I ‘shouldn’t’

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  6. mike42lan permalink
    Friday, October 23, 2009 9:30 am

    I live in Maryland,and I can tell you that there are few single groups in the place where I live.I don’t drive,so they put most of the singles groups out in the rural area where you can’t get to them.I’ve tried to join a single group in one that was on the bus route but they told me that my income was to low to join.I did not meet the qualifications to join.I did not make over $30,000 a year.Can you believe that.

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  7. Anonymous permalink
    Friday, February 10, 2012 9:02 am

    Kaye, thanks for putting this into words. I think that the shocking statistics of church attendance decline (especially in white churches) is due in part to the church’s attitude toward singles.

    With 50% of adults now being single in the U.S., common sense tells us our churches should be at least 35% single, but in my mega-church not more than 10% are single. It is a single-phobic church. Is marriage is to be guarded and protected. Yes. But is it the greatest virtue of life, the highest goal to attain? Uh, nope, that’s not what Jesus or Paul said. But wow, that’s what is implied from the pulpit all the time.

    I don’t think the pastors are even aware they idolize marriage. I also think they forget Jesus’ and Paul’s teachings. They see singles as (pick one): losers, too selfish to marry, immature.

    It’s difficult to be treated with respect in most conservative churches if you are single. The men find this to be even worse than we women do.

    Look for the wonderfully affirming AARP 2004 study on divorce and remarriage at midlife. It shows that most divorcees either don’t want to remarry or are on the fence. Only 17% of divorced women over 40 are confident they want to remarry.

    So stop pushing us into the singles class!

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