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including single people in the church: unity or affinity?

When I told the leaders at my church that single people were not being included in the big, regularly-gathering meetings that happened during the week, they apologized and said they’d try to make some changes.

The next week, they did make a few changes in the bulletin announcements. The marriage announcement said, If you’re married or want to be married, you can come.

The moms group announcement said, If you’re a mom, or want to be a mom, you can come.

A few single people called me that week in tears. The additions made it sound like “if you’re the real thing, or a pathetic wannabe, you can come.”

We are not wannabes. We are grown-ups, too.  We are your equals.  We have different life circumstances than you do, but they are not inferior to yours. They’re just different.

I think we can agree that adding “wannabe” clauses to the groups is not a valid way of including single people in our churches. So what options do we have?

We have two choices when it comes to how we create space for single people.  To put it simply, we can embrace unity or affinity.

Affinity is the way most churches are right now. There are groups divided by demographics, and you must meet set 1410353794ykeikrequirements in order to join. There’s a group for moms of preschoolers. For married people who want stronger marriages. For baby boomers. For working men. The list goes on and on and on…

It’s great for people who meet the criteria. But the people who do not meet the criteria are left standing out in the cold.

If we continue to structure churches like this, there will be an ever-increasing need to create more groups with more criteria to include (and exclude) more people.

I like to think of Jesus and the church as a big feast. Right now, we have chairs around the table that are reserved for specific groups of people. If we continue to do this, the only option we have is to add more chairs to the table.

If you thought it was a stretch to create a singles group at your church so single people have a place to fellowship, wait til you get requests to start groups for infertile married women who aren’t single, but can’t go to the moms group. And the divorced people. And the 35-50 year olds who are too old for the college group but not old enough for the silver-haired seniors groups.

The more groups we have, the more groups we will continue to need.

We can keep adding chairs to the table until everyone has their own crowded place at the table, where everyone’s vying for space.

OR.  We can pick the second option.  We can choose unity instead of affinity.

1355016352y14quWe can knock all the chairs away from the table. No more name tags, no more reserved seats, no more elbowing for more room. Just knock all the chairs away and say, “Everyone’s welcome. Everyone can have equal access to this table. Everyone belongs.”

And this, I believe, is the true gospel. It’s the all-encompassing, all-embracing love of God that includes each of us and gives us the inspiration (and, for the reticent, the obligation) to include each other.

For the pastors who balk at us talking about starting singles groups, or for the pastors who want to herd us into the singles group because there is no other place for us, here’s the thing. We wouldn’t need to create a place to be included if we weren’t being excluded at the broader level.

So I say, open up the doors. Knock down the chairs. Create groups where everyone belongs. Acknowledge single peoples’ needs and valuable contributions. Celebrate our lives the same way you celebrate babies and marriages. Value us the way married couples are valued. Talk to us from the pulpit and use illustrations that relate to our lives instead of always expecting us to translate your marriage metaphors into a language we can relate to and understand.

Go back to your Bible and read how, in the early church, they all came together and ate together and belonged with one another because Jesus abolished labels and categories. If there’s no longer Jew or Greek or slave or free person, I’m pretty sure we can stop with the married or unmarried labels, too.

Do single people and married people have different needs? Sure, sometimes we do. Sometimes we need someone who’s walked in our shoes and can give us wisdom they’ve gathered along the way. But I would argue that if we are in close community with each other, we’ll rub shoulders with wise people like us, and we can have those conversations on the side.

I say it’s time to stop marching to the jaded, predictable beat of affinity, and let the beautiful, wild, radical, unexpected dance of unity carry us away.

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Do you have any additional thoughts? Do you have any ideas for what this could (or should) look like in your current community?

Thanks for sharing!

7 thoughts on “including single people in the church: unity or affinity?

  1. Love this Sarah! Boy did you hit the nail on the head with the 35-50 age group. Talk about the forgotten years and even more so if you are single. Almost like no one thinks any would be single in that age range!
    Again, love this!

    Craig

  2. YES to this: “We wouldn’t need to create a place to be included if we weren’t being excluded at the broader level.”

    While everyone benefits from solidarity, we don’t need to section the church up for that to happen. My best experience in church came through a small group that was a mix of ages, marital statuses, and backgrounds. I’ve never felt so connected and cared for as I did in that group. I was still able to see other single folks in the church outside of that group and develop those friendships but I felt rooted in the church as a whole. Sadly, this happened more than a decade ago and it’s been a struggle to find a place with the same model.

  3. I agree wholeheartedly with this. I am a single woman who was widowed at 27 with a one year old. I attend a large church with several fellowships based upon life stages. I have struggled to find a place because I don’t fit into just one category. I am a mom but not married. I am a single, but not “unattached.” I am a widow, but not in my 60’s.

    My identity is not in my marital status but in my relationship with Christ. I can identify with my married sisters in Christ. As singles, I think sometimes the bitterness of singleness can taint how we hear things, too. Both the church leadership and singles need to see nothing else but who we are in Christ. When we do, the sting of marital applications go away. If we are singularly focused on Christ, then we won’t see each other as married or single. We will finally have the unity of Ephesians 4:1-6.

    To be clear, I do believe that there are many churches who have neglected to understand the trials of a growing part of the church’s demographic. But, unity requires encouragement to both church leadership and singles to strive for it.

  4. “We are not wannabes. We are grown-ups, too. We are your equals. We have different life circumstances than you do, but they are not inferior to yours. They’re just different.” !!! Yes!!! I have run into this many times. Friends in my life group who wanted to help when I was in a difficult time and said they thought of me as their daughter. I pointed out that they were only 12 years older then me.

    I also long for unity, I want to be in groups with other singles, married, divorced, widowed, people, you know! But I do understand the need people have for support in various life passages, the new mom, bereaved, etc.

    I have enjoyed your series on singles. Joyce S. in CO sent them on to me. (I grew up down the street from her family)

    I heard a sermon on singleness last fall that was disappointing, I still think about it and may have to burst out with my own response sometime. You have voiced a lot of that.
    Thanks so sharing your thoughts.

  5. My church has intergenerational small groups, and I’ve come to realize what a blessing that is. My small group consists of people who are retired and single, married with teenagers, married with young kids, and 20-something and single. The diversity of our life stages means that every conversation doesn’t revolve around parenting (though some do) or have-you-found-a-man-yet. Everyone brings a different perspective. It’s extra work for me to really listen and get inside the experiences of people who are in a different phase of life, but I’ve learned a lot about marriage that way. And others have put themselves in my shoes, and, I think, become more sensitive to the experiences of singles. They realize that singleness has its burdens, too.
    Thanks so much for this series!

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