In my church history class a few days ago, we discussed the rise of monastics in the Catholic church and their emphasis on celibacy. Paul said that if you’re single and can do that, then do it, otherwise, get married, and that’s fine too. But he really has a disposition toward singleness with the intention of focusing on God.
Our professor said that we (Protestants) have done a great disservice to singles in that, as a result of the Reformation, we disregarded our Catholic heritage (because we started off as Catholic) and really upheld marriage as the highest epitome. It was a rite of passage, proof that you’d made it to adulthood and could live without your parents.
Even as a little girl, it was evident to me that marriage was the end goal. You get good grades, play sports, go to college, get married, have kids, buy a house, the end. My grandmother’s generation echoed these values as well. She could tell me about when her brother was killed in Chicago by a car and when her father worked for a dictaphone company. She could elaborate on the monotany of working for a Bible college and lamenting being under her parents wings until she got her get-out-of-jail marriage card and leave. But when she finally got married and had kids, the story fast forwarded 30 years to the present. THIRTY YEARS.
Yet in the United States, statistics show us that roughly 50% of adults are single.
Let’s zoom out for a second. In a marriage retreat at churches, we focus on how to serve the other person, how to share the difficult, emotional stirrings inside of us, and how to live into church community and serve with the work of our hands.
So what is the equivalent for singles? Classes on discipleship? Justice? Enneagram knowledge on the self? Quizzes on what child age is most appropriate for the Single to babysit based on his or her spiritual gifts?
Now, I’m not saying we should all become monastics. In fact, I think we need to walk into culture and not negate it by isolating ourselves.
We need to honor our singles like we honor our marrieds and publicly articulate it. Maybe here are a few places to start:
- Don’t assume Singles have copious amounts of free time simply because they are single. “Oh you can babysit, you’re single.” Please. Stop. Comparison doesn’t convince anyone. It only makes them feel guilty and even more acutely aware of their less-than status in culture as Single.
- Likewise, don’t assume that the Singles are going to support every ministry in the church. We have lives even if it’s not cleaning poop off another small human being.
- Singles think they have somehow failed the church and failed secular culture because they couldn’t figure out how to get a mutual swipe right. Emphasize this to your congregation. Publicly. Make it known to all. “We ____ Church support singles.” Make classes specifically for singles and make them feel included. Never-ever-ever less than marrieds. Ever.
- Singleness isn’t bad just like marriage isn’t bad; but if the identity associated with the single legal status gets marred, then it needs to be reevaluated.
- The negative connotation of a “singles ministry” holds strong in formation. They are the forgotten, the less than, the ones who clean up after a potluck and come early for it without having someone to go home to.
- And don’t name the single group something catchy and monosyllabic: Impact, Fuse, etc. Please, good Lord, no. Because Singles will ultimately morph the name into a disyllabic sarcastic parallel: Desperation, Alcohol, Always Alone.
- Create space for marrieds AND singles AND families to spend time together. We all learn from each other, not in isolation. Do not “single” (ha! puns on puns) them out.
In Syrian monasticism, there is this wonderful word called ihidaya. It specifically was designated for consecrated ascetics meaning “single one” or “the one who adopts singleness” referring to the scripture to let the dead bury their dead (Lk 9.60). The single one is separated form what is dead and linked with the one who gives life, Jesus the Lifegiver. Thus, ihidaya implies 3 parts: to leave family ties, to be singleminded, and to become “one” by putting on “The One” in special relationship with Christ. This is not a vow; rather, it is a fulfillment of a baptismal promise. Greek monks or hermits, monachos, are not same as this Syriac work (Sheldrake, History of Spirituality).
Ultimately, the church needs to learn how to support singles like we support marrieds and families. We need to recognize that some people will remain single for an extended period of time (compared to culture’s standards) or for their entire lives not by choice or by choice, ihidaya. Living a single life can be a valuable prophetic role in the church, calling her toward looking beyond marriage for companionship and toward God for one-mindedness, life, and breath.