It’s high time churches wake up and smell the coffee when it comes to the single adults in their pews – and for the even bigger number of singles who aren’t there.
That’s a message Gina Dalfonzo, author of the 2017 book One by One: Welcoming the Singles in Your Church, is busily and urgently sharing with media outlets, pastors, laypeople and anyone else who will listen.
Just look at the numbers provided in recent surveys, she says. The Pew Research Center found that the number of married Americans is at its lowest point — about 50 percent — since 1920. Meanwhile the Barna Group reported that 23 percent of active churchgoers are single.
Yet, church-going singles consistently report feeling like second-class citizens in their own sanctuaries.
“The question is what are churches going to do about that?” said Dalfonzo, editor of BreakPoint, a project of The Colson Center for Christian Worldview.
Congregations should be paying attention to the fact that demographics are trending away from marriage, and adjust their programs appropriately for the settings, she said. Failure to do so risks sending them out to join the growing ranks of the nones and dones.
Baptist News Global interviewed Dalfonzo about her observations. Here is some of what she had to say.
Did this trend with singles emerge with the rise of the Millennials?
I think it was before that. I am Gen-X myself… I was just noticing a lot of it going on among my generation. There was such a disconnect with marriage and relationships…. For a lot of us, it just wasn’t happening. Not only were we not getting married, we weren’t going on dates.
You write in Christianity Today about evangelical churches struggling with this issue. Are there other groups getting it right?
It’s hard for me to say. I went to a non-denominational evangelical church for about 30 years and now am attending an Anglican church. From what I see and what I hear, there are problems all over the denominations. The book and the message seem to be meeting with a pretty good response, which gives me some hope the time is right for this message and people are going to listen to this message.
How big of a problem is loneliness for singles — and how is it expressed?
It’s just a pattern that seems to emerge when you talk to people. I interviewed a number of single people for the book, via questionnaire, about their experiences… and loneliness is one of those factors that emerge. What is unfortunate is that the church is exacerbating that loneness when it should be the one rushing in to fill the gap.
What does it mean to take more seriously the stories of single people?
This is part of human nature. Our tendency, if someone says they are lonely or unhappy or bored, is to rush in and say “I’m just as lonely as you.” I think that’s a large cause of a lot of the trouble. Singles are still a minority point of view in the church, so single people are used to hearing the stories of married people. Married people are not usually used to hearing single people’s stories…. One story came from a single man who said he has often had the experience of families getting together after church and forgetting to invite him along.
Is this what you mean when writing that single people are often ‘outside the system’ at church?
Married people are the mainstream and their experiences shape the teaching, how we see things, who gets to be in leadership, our social activities and all kinds of things. It is centered on families and married people because that is the norm. In my book I cite a New York Times article on why single pastors don’t get hired. It’s just such a foreign thing in the church.
What kind of ministries can address these issues?
I think ministries can help. I think this is something churches can do on a case by case basis. Demographics are different and situations are different. They need to listen to their single people.
How can individuals make a difference?
Of course, listening to the stories is a very big part of it. But it comes down to our theology and our willingness to absorb it and live it out, especially if we really believe everyone is equally made by God and redeemed by Christ regardless of marital status…. We need to revisit and refocus on what we say we believe and be willing to look around and see the single people in the church and not just look past them…. I do believe single people have a lot to teach married people in the church. We are living counter culturally in the world and the church is always saying we need to do that.
Do you have any evidence that singles are leaving the church over these issues?
I have heard a lot of single people who say they are done or are leaving or have left, but I don’t have a lot of numbers on that. The mere fact that only 23 percent of church goers are single is telling because the rate outside the church is so much higher. Why aren’t we getting more singles in the door?
What can singles do to contribute to a better situation in the church?
It’s not easy but I think we need patience and persistence and to just share what we can every chance we get.
How have your book and its message been received?
I have been really encouraged by the response. People have been saying this really opened their eyes and they are thinking about singles differently now. My favorite response came from a woman who… said she never invited single people over to dinner outside of her family, and that she was going to start doing that. That’s such a positive, practical thing to do.
Have you experienced what it’s like to be single in the church?
I’ve never been married and I guess it was just an idea that came to me and stayed with me over the years because I was hearing people say things about singles in the church that were not really true, that were tactless and thoughtless. And and you think, how can you say that? It’s because they are not seeing us for who we are….
What are some of those stereotypes?
With a single woman they might say she didn’t put herself out there enough — or she up herself out there too much. There are so many things that just leave you feeling like you can’t do anything right. Because you are single you must be selfish or you must be immature. And some pastors will say that marriage is what makes you into a mature Christian, with the implication being that if you’re not married, you’re not mature.