Wednesday, May 25, 2005

The Problem with Singles Ministry

Formerly titled, "Single People are Pathetic." Yes, I know. I am adorable. Due to popular demand (2 e-mails), I have reworked, clarified, and re-posted the essay. I do think these are important points for those with ears to hear. And yes, "single people" are still pathetic (just read the comments on the original post), but that's incidental to my real point.

I don't think a specialized "singles" ministry ought to exist. I have been in the company of many concerned Christians who disagree, but this is my reasoning:

I think church people make a bigger deal out of having separate "single" or "attached" catagories for humans more than non-church people do. It seems to me that the people who get excited about "singles ministry" reveal in their language an assumption that being "single" is somehow a lesser personhood.

Whenever I've been present for singles ministry meetings, things have gotten around to "recognition of singles" by "the church." The apparently problem? The generation before mine wants some ethereal entity called "the church" to bless their way of living. As if not being married were unusual are bad, and they need to be told it's not bad. In my context, I never concern myself with whether "the church" or "lots of people" think that not being married at age 14, 22, 30, or never, is weird. That's a bit of a misdirected search for validation I think. The important questions are, "What think the people who love me?" "What kind of man or woman, and in what manner of life, am I called to live?

I am not married, and I won't be soon. I am attempting to cultivate a holy celibacy, belonging to God and to my community, a local grouping of the Body of Christ. I do not need some prancing prelate priestling pontificating from a pulpit to inform me that this is an acceptable way of life. I would be insulted by the attempt. My friends and I do quite well discerning my vocation. Christianity, Inc. and associates can keep their opinions to themselves.

I have a problem with the language of "singleness," "singularity," or whatever one wants to say.

I am not single, or alone. Lots of people, including Christians, would say that I'm single, and not in a relationship. How sad it would be if that were true! What's with this "in a relationship" language? No wonder so many unmarried people feel worthless and unloved: they speak in a language that gives explicit value only to those relationships that are in some way sexual (or at least romantic) and offers implicit devaluation to those that are not. "No, I'm not in a relationship." Of any kind? With anyone?

If that's the way I saw it, I would certainly feel pathetic. But I am in lots of relationships, with lots of people. They love me, and I love them, and that's important. We learn to love well. We are committed to one other through our baptism and unity in the truth, empowered to love and remain by the Holy Spirit. Sexual relations would obviously not improve those friendships (for many, many reasons), but that's what's implied by the language of "in a relationship" and "just friends." Non-sexual relationships are second-best. Everyone knows that, apparently.

Christians are picking up the world's false views on healthy intimacy and happiness, and once again failing to teach a redemptive and healthy sexuality as a consequence. I think these false views of what it means to be with others and to be alone foundational to the idea of a "singles ministry," and why I don't share the enthusiasm of some of my colleagues.

While I am not in a romantic or sexual relationship with anyone, I am not "single" in any way that is meaningful to me, and I am certainly not "alone." For that reason, I could not in good conscience do "singles" ministry. I've not met any peers at this point in my life who see the need for such a thing, because for most of us it would unnecessarily separate us from our friends in the life of the Church.

At its worst, I think it becomes a lonely persons ministry or a matchmaker gathering, meant to offer "another chance" at dating or assuage the woundedness of those who experience continual relational disintegration. It can't ultimately heal those conditions because the premise is faulty: that unmarried (celibate) people are a different class of human, and need to be treated as such. In attempting to overcome the felt alienation of singles, these ministries increase it by buying into the assumptions of the cultural and ecclesial assumptions they hope to challenge.

As a side note, it is also disingenuous to say "singles ministry," when what is meant is "divorce recovery."

And that's what I think about that.


Monk-in-Training said...

Great post! When I was first Widowed I suddenly discovered that there was more than the sadness for my loss. There was a sadness for my "state of being" and how Lonely I surely must be.
That is far from the truth, my life is full and rich, lacking one person who I truly miss daily, but still a wonderful life. I am not flawed or less than others. And if my choice is to stay this way, it is not because I am "damaged goods". We are all God's children, married and single.

Kyle said...

Thanks for your input, Monk. It amazed me that some of those singles could sit and explain to me why they were a very different subset of humanity just because they were formerly married. I felt really bad for them, because they certainly were "single," and wanted other people to think of themselves that way, too!

Anonymous said...

Yes, I think those of us that are single would agree that singles ministries suck. If you have ever been here, you know how marry-ready these chicks are.. and to be honest, it scares the crap out of me!

Kyle said...

Ha! Doubtless. But should those opportunities disappear, you know how to find some middle-aged divorce├ęs...

James Church said...

lol- you make some good points but I think the church needs to wake up to your points and more naturally include those who are not in sexual or romantic relationships within the life of the church.

There needn't be a 'singles ministry' but some churches need to take into account that their congregations are varied (not all married people with children). It shouldn't need to be said to Christian leaders that some people are divorced (whether or not we agree with their reasons for divorce), some people are widowed, some people never married and not all married couples have children. I have come across churches who put up barriers not by creating a singles ministry but by creating a non-singles ministry with language that just as implicit in excluding people without partners or children.

I was reading Al Hsu's book 'the singles issue' recently and despite the title (which makes me cringe) it is well worth a read. At the end it has a fabulous interview with John Stott who has been unmarried all his life and yet has not lived a life anyless fulfilled.

Anonymous said...

I've been looking for an article like this. I hated being in the "singles" "ministry". It was degrading. It was nothing but a meat-market for people who were afraid they'd go to hell if they met someone in a bar. I'm 37, never been married, but I'm recently engaged. I feel no different as a "couple" than as a "single". Now that I plan to get married, will I still be a pariah when they find out I never plan to have children..?