out of the darkness: singleness & the church

one of my hopes on the carnival blog has always been to help people feel a little less alone on their journey, whatever that looks like.  i have met so many great people along the way and am so thankful for the time you take each week to read my l-o-n-g posts.  as part of the out of the darkness series, i wanted to bring the whole issue of “being single & in the church” out on the table.  i have been married for 20 years and do not know what it is like personally to be single in the church; but, i have an awful lot of single friends, men & women, who are faced with the hard & sometimes lonely reality of being single among a bunch of married people.  it is sometimes very painful for them, and easy for those who are married to forget what it feels like.   one time someone i knew told a close friend, “you just need to let God be your husband.”  i remember getting this righteous anger on her behalf because it’s really, really easy to say that when you are married and have no clue what it feels like to go to bed alone every night.

meet “RJ.”  he has never been married and been in “church” for most of his life.  listen in on some of his experiences and what he is learning and struggling with along the way.

* * * * *

  • describe a little bit of your spiritual journey & where you are in your life right now.

I have run the gamut in my spiritual journey. I grew up a Roman Catholic Jersey boy, moved to Southern California and got involved with Calvary Chapel  where both Chuck Smith & Greg Laurie were ministering at the time. I found a church right down the street from and soon joined and was baptized. I then went on to Bible College & Seminary and was ordained as a minister. I’ve had aa few bumps in the road along the way and now serve in a volunteer capacity at a small Evangelical Covenant Church. I am in a state of change right now, but it’s a good place and God continues to reveal his grace.

  • one of the things that so many people underestimate is just how much pressure there is for unmarried christian men and women to find partners. can you share a little bit about what your experience has been like as a single person in the church, what are some of the things you have encountered?

I have had varied experiences in the Church as a single guy. I planned on becoming a minister when i was still in high school, so I felt unstated pressure to find a wife because “ministers had to be married, so they were protected from sexual indiscretion.” That is an unwritten rule that is very prevalent. i found it hard because I had experienced a lot of rejection by girls in junior high and high school due to severe acne; plus i was very shy and awkward with girls as far as any kind of dating activities.  I never had a girlfriend in high school, so i felt very vulnerable and uncomfortable with the expectation to “get with it and find a wife.” Bible College is NOT the place to be to enjoy the single life, and the pressure is turned up wayyyyyy high because many girls are facing  the same if not even more pressure to get their MRS degree. A single date is a major event under those conditions. The emphasis on appearance also played a huge factor. Being a minister is a very high profile, public occupation and certain expectations of grooming are given. Because of my feelings of rejection and ridicule I think I did not pay attention to those details and that made it even harder for me. I experienced a time when one of my friends told me I needed to change my clothes and wear trendy or label clothes if I expected any girl to be interested in me. That was a real blow.

  • can you describe how some of these interactions make you feel?

I feel a little uneasy and put on the spot at times when interactions occur that make my singleness seem like an oddity. This was probably more so when I was younger and preparing to find a ministry position, but there are often still times when I feel an unspoken message of “will you ever find a wife?”  It’s hard when that happens because I ask myself the same thing all the time, too.  The part that feels bad, though, is the expectation of that being the “right” way to go.

  • what are some of the things that rattle around in your head about yourself being single that are sometimes hard to say out loud in church?

I am in a small church where most are married and older. For me, it’s not that hard to say “I am perfectly fine with singleness or with marrying if I find a soulmate.”  The part that’s hard to talk about are the reasons people think you are single. I also think it’s hard to voice certain things in church that go beyond our comfort zones or require real effort to have to deal with. Saying out loud in church that I feel pain because of various insecurities and life experiences  which hurt make me feel *stuck* as a single. It’s hard to say out loud that it feels like physical appearance issues impact being single and all that is tied into that. Talking openly about wanting to deal authentically with sexuality definitely is one of the hardest things to openly discuss, because it is such a hot button issue due to all kinds of reasons. I don’t think God sees sex as something to hide, giggle about or treat as dirty or unnatural, but as a genuine part of our being made in His Image.  Being single can exacerbate handling it correctly, especially in a sensual, sex-obsessed culture of the US.  I wish we had better places to talk about these sexuality issues.

  • shame is such a powerful weapon that we use against ourself when we feel like we aren’t where we’re “supposed to be” in life. how does shame rear it’s head for you sometimes? what helps it lose some of its power?

This question is probably the hardest hitting for me.  My dad died when I was 8 years old, and I didn’t really have a male role model. I was raised by my mom; there were always a lot of women around between her, my sister, teachers, her friends, and relatives. I was always shy around girls, even before the acne hit because I was always big for my age and awkward and clumsy. I wanted to be able to have a confidence with girls that I saw in other guy, but I could not find it. That was a source of great shame. It seems in our culture attractiveness and outgoingness are highly valued, so lacking in those areas and not knowing how to break out of it definitely created a lot of shame. What seems to help a bit is reading good books or blogs or hearing teaching that focuses on grace and acceptance and unconditional love, as well as making friends with people who provide that in a real way.

  • if you could give “the church” some personal advice on how to respond better to unmarried friends in church, what would you say? what should they stop doing? what could they start doing?

I think one thing would be to say that accept us as we are don’t feel the need to force us into a group, hoping we will hook up and marry.  Another is that we don’t all have some deep trauma or emotional problem that is keeping us single. Plenty of married folks have those, ha! I think the church does seek to reach out and provide support and minister to singles. I think it’s more individual responses that can be tough to deal with. I think the church providing a singles group as well as allowing singles to serve in whatever capacity matches their gifts is an important thing that really helps.

  • living in the tension of “longing” and “acceptance” is a really tricky dance. what is it like for you to live in this tension?

Longing and acceptance are two very interesting and difficult words. It is a hard tension at times, especially when surrounded by families or young couples newly married and in that *honeymoon phase.”  Seeing movies that  pack such an emotional wallop because they portray having a partner as making life its most fulfilled.  Often I don’t have a way to live in the tension and realize that acceptance at the same time.  For me personally it is tough thinking about ever marrying because I have a heart condition and limited finances, not exactly  the things that say  *good catch* to  women.  Accepting life as it is–not as I would have it–remains a constant goal that fluctuates  on an ongoing basis.

  • can you think of some things that people have said to you that really got under your skin?

I think one would be “why is such a good guy like you not married?”  it sounds like a compliment but it is really saying there must be something wrong with me. Another would be asking if I did something that just kept girls away.

  • can you think of some ways your faith community has really encouraged you on your journey, things they’ve said or done that really give you hope and life?

Inviting me to dinner or over to play games and just spend time socializing has been HUGE…Telling me age does not mean love cannot be found.  Supporting me in various ways by encouraging and providing hope, as well as treating me like a normal person and not an oddball for being single.

  • what are some of the things you cry out to God about your singleness?

I cry out to God to help me not beat myself up for having always been single. I cry out that He would help me find someone I can love and love me, accepting each other as we are.  I cry out that He would help me to know He understands sex drive is there even as a single and can provide the grace to handle it. I cry out for God to help me let go of the emotional scars and pain I have from way back due to feeling ugly and rejected by. I often wonder, what if Jesus was portrayed as ugly? How would we react?  Would all the images be as prevalent if Jesus had an unattractive physical appearance, like many say he was?  I think this theme ties in a lot for me as far as my struggle with singleness and for many others also. I have actually had a pretty normal and average physical appearance since high school, but the image in my imagination stays locked in 7th & 8th grade where on a daily basis i heard jokes, taunts and ridicule from so many kids at my school.  I’m hoping others who may have gone through that and still suffer inwardly will read this and find they are not alone. I hope physical appearance by itself will not be what makes people acceptable or worthy of finding love in a marriage relationship.

  • what are some things happening in is season of your journey that are really surprising you?

I find the new ways I am seeing God at work and how His Word is interpreted as surprising. I am finding a great joy in serving and teaching in a small group that has all the quirks and craziness of all other groups, but seeks to pull together and move forward, growing and transforming even at an older age.

* * * * *

thanks, RJ, for sharing a piece of your heart with us.  i know that i have a lot of single friends who are wrestling with many of the same feelings.  i do hope that as the body of Christ we can become more and more radically inclusive and welcoming to all people in all stages and choices in life.  the more we can all share in life & love together, without expectations that “there’s one right way and this is it”, the more we can grow and learn and find a wholeness that is impossible with out each other.

Kathy Escobar

Kathy Escobar co-pastors at The Refuge, a Christian community and mission center in North Denver and is the author of Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart and several other books.

17 Comments

  • Thank you Kathy for addressing a seldom addressed huge population in and out of the church. I love your heart and honesty.

    Reply
  • Kathy thank you for this article, and series! Oh RJ I completely understand this! Being a 32 year old single woman, everyone has opinions about why I should be/am not marrried. But I love my life! And I love my very time consuming career! Getting to a place where I realized everything had a season — including a family, including professional success, including (____ fill in the blank) was a great blessing in peace. Peace be with you. Cheers,

    Reply
  • Great post as usual. CS Lewis said God shouts in our pain, to wake us up from deafness. And maybe his singleness was God’s way of refining him. For me, as a middle aged single missionary the stereotypes abound! But I try to just enjoy my life. Life can and should be an adventure, where we seek to expand God’s kingdom just as we are: single, married, with children or not.

    A touchy thing for me is the fact that in the US, when I vist, so many assume I must be a closeted gay. That’s not the case. Assumptions should not be made about people’s sexual preferences or sexual choices in life. Why people who they are is really not a topic for other people’s lunch/brunch dates.

    A single life is not easy. But neither is being married for many people. Good post.

    Reply
  • Hmm… this has been a difficult issue for me, too. 47 and never been married – never even dated…. and I’ve heard some stupid comments. 🙂

    I got to where my answer was simply to tell them to go read 1 Corinthians 7…. Married and single are both gifts.

    There can be so many reasons why – if you really care about why, don’t pry, get to know someone, become their friend.

    Reply
  • ruth – thanks for commenting from across the world! and you are so right, the issue is very similar outside the church, too, isn’t it?

    katie – thanks for reading & taking time to comment. i am so glad it was encouraging. the part that struck me was “everyone has opinions”….and my guess is that so many feel the urge to share them freely, even when unsolicited, ha ha. i know a little slice of this right now with my back pain. it’s been an interesting sociological experiment to see how much problem-solving input i get without ever asking. peace to you, too.

    laurie – oh yeah, you are in the thick of it, aren’t you? especially in the culture that you live in on top of it. thanks for sharing & for your honesty & your presence here.

    katherine
    – thanks for sharing, i bet that list of comments has some wing-dingers on it.

    Reply
    • From a fellow back pain sufferer: I too have had lots of unsolicited advice about my back pain (and many other issues) over the years. Some of it is way off base. But even that advice usually shows that someone cares enough to share. (Then there are those folks who are an authority on everything, and those folks who want to run everyone else’s lives.)

      Looking back, however, the best info. I have gotten has come from fellow sufferers. Amongst the chaff there are kernels of good wheat. Those who’ve been in similar circumstances often can tell you stuff even the doctors won’t (or don’t know because they’ve never been there.)

      Sometimes this applies to other areas of life.

      Reply
  • Hey there,

    Haven’t been by here in a bit and just stopped by and saw this post. Thanks for posting this. As a single Christian guy who’s almost 40, I appreciated reading this interview. I especially appreciated hearing someone else share about his struggles with confindence and dating, as well as the rejection he’s experienced and how that has impacted and shaped him. I have struggled all my life with the same things and have come to the point where I’m not sure it’s even worth it to me anymore to think about pursuing marriage, due to the disruption it always causes in my life. I am blessed to be in a church setting where I am accepted as a single person and generally not subjected to the sort of thoughtless and condescending remarks and attitudes that frequently characterize the way singles are treated in the church and society at large. I’ve seen and been impacted by my share of it, though.

    Reply
    • thanks gordon for reading & sharing. i think there are so many good churches that are really doing well at integrating all people, regardless of marital status & i am so glad you found one. the part that i was reminded of in RJ’s story and your sharing here, too, is just how strong the reflex is sometimes for me to want to “matchmake” for my friends, not that that’s completely wrong but it does play into the whole cycle of “you’re not okay just as you are…” peace to you from colorado.

      Reply
  • This blog entry brought tears to my eyes. Finally someone is talking about this. When I’ve attended church in the past I felt very out of place being single. Being an “older” woman of 40 where did I fit? Do I attend the 20 something singles group? Do I attend the widow ladies (average age of 73) group? There didn’t seem to be a place for me. So I stopped trying.

    One thing that hasn’t been mentioned is the threatened looks I received when I tried to join a group of woman and men around my age. It seemed to me that a lot of the woman were uncomfortable having a single woman belonging to a group in which their husband were attending. Please know that I’m not writing that out of some conceited sense of myself. It’s just the vibe I got from some of the women. So, like I said I just stopped trying.

    Maybe in 30 years I’ll try again. Those widow ladies do seem to enjoy themselves! 🙂

    Reply
    • gina, oh thank you for sharing! i think your experience in some of these groups is shared among others, too, because i have heard it before. i think there’s so much “fear” about male-female relationships in the church that we don’t even know how to live all together in peace & love & freedom. we need each other–married, single, young, old, rich, poor, and everything in between–to learn from each other, to heal, to strengthen, to encourage, to grow. i also think you are so right about those 70+ ladies. they all love each other so much & are so dedicated to each other. it’s really so beautiful. we could learn a lot from them. peace to you & thanks for reading…

      Reply
  • thanks for the interview with “RJ” – He spoke the truth about Christian singleness in many areas. As a Christian never been married single man in his 40’s, overweight (even though I do hit the gym twice a week), and a critical thinker who does not blindly accept the status quo, I relate to what RJ stated. In fact, if you are a Christian single man over 30, you are profiled as either having mental deficiencies or you must have some secret past with a criminal background.

    in my part of the country, the Christian single women do not want men who are not bankers, financiers, real estate agents, stockbrokers, insurance agents, doctors, salesmen, or lawyers. To them, it is all about the money and easy access to quick cash by any means necessary when they overextend their financial situation.

    If you are not in those career fields, they they try to pass you off to either the “psycho-chick” who sees demons under rock and behind every tree or to the heavy chick with three kids by three different men with no self-esteem who can quote scripture all day long and proclaim their dominion and authority in Christ, but the next man who tells her he loves her will get the sex he wants from her mistakenly called “love” to dump her the next morning and she’s pregnant again and repeats the self-destructive cycle.

    Worse if you are in engineering (like I am) or in Information technologies, you get snide remarks asking to see your pocket protector or worse yet, the accusation that you jack off to internet porn at 3 am while imaging their faces on the bodies (actually had two Christian girls actually say that to me at a Christian speed-dating event at a local church in my town)

    I really hate to say it, but I have had better luck, respect, treatment, faithfulness, compassion, honesty, trust, and overall human dignity coming from non-Christian single women that from Christian women. They don’t moan about your job, laugh at your car because it’s not a Mercedes, don’t get upset when you want a Saturday to play golf with your buddies to later on go have hot wings and Sunday to watch NFL football all day long, don’t feel demeaned when you are seen walking out of Auto Zone with parts to fix your car..

    And the worst Christian single women seem to be from pentecostal / charismatic / evangelical / third wave backgrounds who act in the meanest, degrading, and arrogant manner “in the name of God’ believing that God gave them the right to be mean, degrading, and arrogant to single Christian men. It is as if the churches convince them that Single Christian men are evil, adulterous, unfaithful, and can’t be trusted.

    Reply
    • Gee, it might also have something to do with your ANGER issues.

      Just saying…..

      Reply
      • Note how Annah has gone immediately to the passive-aggressive “You Must Be The One With The Problem!”

        I expect Annah to be either already safely Married or one of the “Jeesus is My Edward Cullen!” types who infest Christian Dating Services.

        Reply
  • please be nice here. i know it’s hard sometimes, especially when people say things we’re not crazy about.

    s77 – you know first hand what it can be like from your perspective. everyone has different experiences, that is for sure.

    annah – there’s no question there are all kinds of hurts & weird experiences out there that different people are walking through.

    headless unicorn guy – well the “Jesus is my edward cullen” did make me laugh. but be nice, please.

    peace, kathy

    Reply
  • s77 – spot on! I have now reached the magic 40, single, never married, with a good career (was in engineering, now in I.T. lol) and I left church about 8 years back. Would I ever go back? Not in a million years!!!

    Reply

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *