The Shepherd’s Staff: Thoughts and Observations on Singles’ Ministry

Single people. who are they? Obviously, we must not lump singles together into anyone large mass, as they are as different and divergent as “married people” are. Some singles are just out of high school, holding their first real job with no plans for college Others are in college, feeling the social, academic and career-planning pressures that are quite stressful for kids 18–21. Still others are just out of college, eagerly beginning careers. Their focus is on career development and advancement, on school-debt retirement and portfolio building. Others are older singles, having lived the single life for a decade or more. Some of these are content in their singleness; others are horribly lonely and are gripped by a sense that they live an unfulfilled life, unfulfilled in the sense of being unmarried. And finally, we dare not ignore the “single-again” phenomenon of the divorced. This group spans all age limits since divorces occur at any time from early in a marriage’s existence up to and including post-retirement age.

Not only are singles diverse sociologically. They differ greatly as well in spiritual standing and maturity. Singles, like married folk, represent varying levels of commitment to the church. Some  are members in good standing, others are drifting, trying to sort through their individual commitment vis-a-vis their parents' set of loyalties, and many others have little or no self-conscious religious commitment and are not members of any church. Yet, statistics indicate that the years 15–25 are prime years of life for gospel contact, as most who are not raised in Christian homes but who come to Christ, do so during those years of life. Those in the church represent different views on “singles’ ministry.” Some (often older ones) in the church don't want to be singled out for special treatment; they want merely to be considered as members of Christ involved in church life like anyone else. Others are eager for a unique singles’ ministry, feeling much more comfortable interacting with people in like circumstances. Some singles are content and happy in their singleness; others are profoundly unhappy in it, longing for a dating and marriage relationship. These latter want a singles' ministry that resembles a Christian dating club.

So, let’s acknowledge at the start that “singles’ ministry” is much like “ministry” in the broader sense in the life of the church. It’s ministry that requires a good understanding both of the principles of the Word ofthe Lord as well as the needs of the people under care. A singles’ ministry will be very diverse because single people are. It must be consistent with Biblical teaching because all ministry must be Word-based and not just driven by “felt-needs.” It must be ministry that equips for service to others, lest the principles of Ephesians 4:11–12 give way to a self-centered focus.

Yet, despite all the diversity in singles today, an analysis of the pressures of our materialistic Western culture upon single people reveals several significant and consistent influences with which the church must deal in her ministry of the Word to these people. Since singles are the fastest growing segment of the population in the USA at the end of the 90’s, to neglect these influences and to underestimate the need for the church to speak a redemptive voice to these people is to neglect a precious ministry opportunity. Simply put, the church that neglects its member singles fails to care for and utilize a gifted segment of servants in the Kingdom of God; likewise, the church that fails to target singles outside of the church for evangelism neglects a field ripe unto harvest.

FOUR CONCERNS UNIQUE TO SINGLES

My personal experience in ministry over the last 25 years has taught me that no list of “4 concerns” is ever universally accurate. With that in mind, what follows is a set of observations. They are not scientific, nor are they based on reams of sociological research. They are, however, based on pastoral observations which, I think, count for something. I have, after all, watched with great care the trends and influences of our modern world on many groups within the church for a quarter century. None have concerned me more than those affecting singles in our society. With that, I offer the following.

“It is good not to marry.” First, I believe many singles today believe their circumstances of life are temporary, and expect to marry soon. Whether or not this expectation is realistic, because this is so, many singles give little thought to their “calling” as singles. Why should they, they reason, since they won’t be single forever. Yet, the Apostle Paul commended the single life as providing a kind of freedom for service to Christ that married people do not enjoy (l Cor. 7:8, 32–35). He goes so far as to encourage single people to remain Single! I wonder how many singles’ ministries in evangelical churches today would make that a focal point of their ministry? From my observation, most function as dating services, and a few as unabashed “meat markets,” only slightly more pious than the local pub or the Spandex Jungle Health Club.

In light of this first observation, I suggest that a singles’ ministry that is Biblically accurate will affirm the dignity and ministry value of the single life lived in service to Christ, and provide challenge and opportunity for singles to become engaged in ministry to others before the face of God.

To give in to the belief of singles that theirs is a temporary state is unfair and often inaccurate. Population trends show that more and more marry much later, and quite a few do not marry at all. More adults will be single adults in the US by the turn of the century than  will be married ones. More importantly, the church (not to mention society at large) fails singles if it does not recognize the apostle’s point, that singles have a freedom to serve the Lord that their married counterparts do not have.

The church fails the Lord when it does not recognize singles as ministry assets, assigning them to ministries that others do not have the freedom to undertake. For example, many mission trips require travel schedules that married folks simply cannot honor. A dear friend of mine, a school teacher by profession, used his summers for years to travel throughout the world teaching Bible to refugees in various camps and mission settings. I, who was blessed with a dear wife and 4 children, simply didn't have that kind of freedom. So, a singles ministry might look seriously at being a ministry with an outward-looking focus, utilizing singles as responsible ministry resources in service to Christ.

Fun doesn't have to be sin!

Secondly, I believe singles today, especially younger ones, face enormous social pressures brought to bear upon them by worldly influences. For many, the pressure to establish the center of their social life in a neighborhood bar is great. For those that date, the pressure to become sexually active is also great. Even for church members, the pressure to conform to worldly social practices is enormous, especially when their seduction and allure is contrasted with the fear of loneliness and perpetual singleness. Better, they think, an active social life in the world than loneliness in the church. For those with no commitment to Christ and His church, such pressures are faced without any counterpoint.

In light of this second observation, I suggest that a singles' ministry that has pastoral sensitivity will provide a Christian fellowship environment that will offer positive alternatives to the allure of the worldly social pressures faced by Christian singles. That is, a singles' ministry that does not acknowledge the social dimension of life, that does not schedule events and activities that allow people who might otherwise be alone to interact, misses the boat. These activities should be diverse (because people are), but should have a common theme: fellowship with a purpose. That purpose must be to offer singles an opportunity to enjoy the communion of the saints without compromising their commitment to a Christ-like lifestyle. A monthly fellowship activity seems a balanced offering.

Life is lived before the face of God.

Thirdly, I believe Christian singles today are under enormous pressure to dichotomize life. That is, free from the integrating influence of a stable Christian home where faith shaped all dimensions of life, singles on their own for the first time often feel great pressure to divide life into “sacred” and “secular” facets. This is especially true if the single person has as his/her Christian background one that is non-Reformed, one that is fundamentalistic. But, not even welltrained Reformed singles are exempt from the pressure. Because of this, during this time in life singles often begin to drift from the Lord and His Word. The traditions of the home, like devotions at meal times, give way to eating in front of the TV, or on the run at a fast food restaurant. Attending a weekly meeting of the youth group at church gives way to who-knows-what in its place. Faithfulness at every worship service becomes a sporadic attendance, a bit of a declaration of independence from Mom and Pop.

In light of this third observation, I suggest that a singles’ ministry that is spiritually perceptive will challenge singles to understand dynamic Christian faith as a whole-life commitment, and seek, consequently, to cultivate genuine Christian piety and a healthy integration of the “inner life” and the “outer walk.”

What I mean by that is that a faithful ministry to singles will not concede their dualistic tendencies, but will fight them. Such a ministry will engage the singles in the Word of God, teaching its doctrinal breadth and making clear its daily claims on the lives of those who honor Christ. In Dallas, on Monday nights, many hundreds of singles attend an interdenominational “Bible Study” called “Metro.” It’s a gathering of singles from all kinds of churches, featuring some opening songs, and then 45 solid minutes of preaching by a dynamic young pastor from the area. The preacher is a good teacher; he opens the Word phrase by phrase, applying it specifically, and without apology The kids come back week after week. His style is a model for singles’ ministry:

Quit focusing exclusively on “fun” and start giving these people something they can live for! Unfortunately, in too many churches, singles' ministries are supervised by people who can't teach the Word well, with conviction and clarity, and so find their organization defaulting to purely social activities.

In the Kingdom, you’re never alone!

Fourthly, I believe Christian singles today, like their parents who live in isolated boxes with high fences that shield them from their neighbors, face enormous pressure to be individualistic. The sense of community is lost in most neighborhoods; dare we wonder that it is being lost in church? Relativism adds a new dimension; we no longer expect to be held accountable to a certain faith content. Rather, we affirm every individual’s unique expression of his/her faith. This pressure is certainly brought to bear on single people. Free from direct parental control for the first time in their lives, younger singles especially recoil at the thought of accountability, thinking it implies immaturity. Yet, such accountability is precisely one of the more important dimensions of mature life in the family of God. We belong, we are part of the family, with all the rights and privileges that go along with it, including our obligations to the “one another commands” of Scripture.

In light of this fourth observation, I suggest that a singles’ ministry that is Biblically covenantal will aim to develop a sense of community in the group itself, a sense of corporate obligation to the church as a whole, and a sense of individual accountability to fellow members of the body of Christ.

Precisely at the time of life when the world would have singles cry '“I’m free at last!”, the church must be calling out, “You belong, here!” Thus, the singles' group must be one with regular scheduled meetings and/or events. It must be a group that holds its members accountable to commitments made. It must be a group that sends this message: “Here is the place in which, and we are the people among whom you will find the warm ‘family’ acceptance, as well as the loving structure and discipline, that will make your life meaningful and your service to Christ effective. You’re not a loner, you’re a part of a team, endowed with spiritual gifts, and called to serve the Master. Join us, and make a commitment!”

Elders, a simple assignment as I close. Go through the church directory, and count up the singles in your church. Now, go through that group list again and answer the question: “Which of these is actively involved in the ministry of this church?” Assess the lives of all the singles you know in light of the observations I make above about worldly pressures, and ask what your church is doing positively to counteract them with Biblical answers. Bring your findings to the next elder's meeting and ask, “what are we going to do about this?”

Dr. Sittema, a contributing editor of The Outlook, is pastor of Bethel CRC in Dallas, TX.

 

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