Not that long ago someone asked me what Christians can do in order to integrate single people into the life of the local church more easily. But, after thinking about this matter for a while, I came to see that the basic thrust of this question is unhelpful. This is because, in its initial form, it assumes that making singles feel included in Christ's body is naturally hard. Yet as I study the Bible I am convinced that this shouldn't be the case. However, I do believe we can make it needlessly difficult when we cease to think and act biblically in this area. Perhaps a better question to ask then is 'what unbiblical habits should we avoid, so as not to make single people feel unnecessarily alienated within God's community?' By answering this first, maybe integration will be less problematic. In what follows I aim to offer two principles which I hope will prove helpful in this quest.
Principle 1: Teach what the Bible says, not what the culture expects
One reason many single people feel excluded from the heart of church life is because of misguided thinking in regard to their state. Often Christians tend to view singleness in a negative way not because the Bible does, but because the surrounding culture does. In fact, we live in a society that is obsessed with relationships and conveys the idea that fulfilment is impossible until we find the perfect partner (think Bridget Jones's Diary). How easy it is for Christians to be influenced by this mindset, and for preachers to reinforce such assumptions through well meaning, yet imbalanced, teaching. This can manifest itself when people speak of singleness using the language of affliction, rather than the language of opportunity.
As Christians we will of course want to recognise that, for some, being unmarried seems like a trial not a blessing. We will also want to affirm the goodness of marriage as a provision of God; a remedy for loneliness and a source of companionship (Genesis 2:18-25). Yet we must balance this with the equally positive view the New Testament has toward the state of singleness. In fact, when we turn to 1 Corinthians 7:25-35, the apostle Paul seems to imply that being unmarried has clear advantages compared to married life. These include a lack of anxiety over meeting the needs of a spouse (v.33) plus greater opportunity to focus (excuse the pun) single-mindedly on the work of the kingdom (v.32, 34). In connection to the latter, I have found in my experience of church life that much gospel work would either collapse, or be seriously under resourced, if it were not for the sacrificial input of unmarried workers. Therefore, I think we do an injustice to such folk in our congregations if we do not teach the positive benefits that singleness carries.
Principle 2: Act on what the Bible says, not what the culture expects
It's one thing to teach and receive balanced sermons on the subject of relationships. But it's another thing to act consistently with such ministry. Often Christians will assent to the value of singleness but then adopt patterns of behaviour that contradict this. With this in mind let me give you three pieces of advice to help overcome this.
First, don't patronise. How often have you sauntered up to a single person and quipped that you are praying for God to provide a special helper for them? How frequently have you tried to nudge them in the direction of that single boy or girl who has just started attending church? No doubt the intentions behind these actions are well meaning. But it's important to realise how self-conscious, and even inadequate, such a person may begin to feel in response to such behaviour. Hand in hand with this I would say that, as a general rule of thumb, it's better not to offer advice on relationships unless single people themselves ask for it. The issue of romantic relationships is an extremely private one. For some it may also be an emotionally sensitive subject due to past disappointments and let downs. To my mind, the better approach is to only offer suggestions or insights when requested to. After all, how would you feel if someone approached you on Sunday and, without invitation, proceeded to say she was praying for your marriage to improve?
Secondly, allow singles to be a part of your social circle. Unfortunately, in some churches, single people can feel cut out of church life because married folk do not include them in their activities. In a family orientated church this problem can be intensified as children tend to become the focus around which socialising occurs. None of this is wrong of course. But perhaps such people could consider including unmarried believers in their activities more often. Naturally this needs to be done wisely, and appropriately. If a married couple keep on having the same single person with them all the time this will hardly be healthy or helpful. Yet to go to the other extreme of never looking out for those who do not have their own families is equally negative.
Thirdly, be willing to appoint singles to key ministries. There can sometimes be a tendency for churches to overlook single people when it comes to filling ministry positions. Perhaps this is due to the assumption that only marriage supplies greater maturity and wider life-skills. And yet this clearly isn't always the case. After all Jesus and the apostle Paul were single men. So we need to practice what we preach and believe in this matter. The way to do this is by appointing people to ministry based on their spiritual maturity and gifting, not marital status or otherwise. If we really care for the wellbeing of our unmarried brothers and sisters in Christ we will want to make sure that what we teach, and how we act, is biblically informed rather than culturally conditioned. When this is the case we dignify the place singles occupy in our churches. And my belief is that their integration into church life will happen naturally as a result.