Helping Churches Become Single-Minded: Christianity and Singleness Part 6

17 February 2010

Christopher J Wiles

writer | speaker | servant

It was called “The Mixer.” “The Mixer” was advertised on a photocopied flier that I and some friends received. It featured a large picture of a young woman with a 60’s era hairdo winking suggestively at you from her grainy black and white photograph.

Apparently a pentecostal church downtown was starting a “ministry” (and here I use the term quite loosely) for young, Christian singles. I don’t recall what the flier said, but it alluded to capriciousness of the “bar scene” and how it would be good for singles from various churches to be able to meet and mingle (I’m told of Amish communities where the gene pool has grown so shallow that they have to “import” Amish singles from Ohio communities to Pennsylvania, and I suspect that this was the same kind of thing).

“The Mixer” was kind of a big deal, albeit short-lived. My previous experiences with charismatic churches had been less than positive, stemming from a Bible study I attended wherein the participants went into convulsions an began speaking in tongues. Now mind you, some pentecostal churches (notably the Assemblies of God denomination) have admirably stood strong against theological conundrums over the year, for which I have deep respect. But this was the very sort of disarray that Paul warned about (1 Cor 14), and outsiders like myself find themselves caught in an epileptic yodeling competition.

But I digress.

To this day I still can’t hear the word “mixer” without thinking of The Mixer, where suddenly a dingy youth group room and a Foosball table became the place where dreams are made (or broken).

SINGLING OUT CHURCHES

It’s not that I think that this kind of thing is a bad idea. If you’ve been reading these posts so far, then whether you agree with me or not, you at least can understand why I might consider events such as “The Mixer” less than wise, as it directly appeals to the idolatry of family I spoke so strongly against.

Or, to say it another way, churches are largely clueless as to what to do with the growing population of singles. Many churches simply abandon any attempt to reach this group, which is especially sad considering that these are the very years that so many separate themselves from their faith, perhaps even permanently. Still other churches, like the one I mentioned, have no real idea what to do with singles other than try to get them married. Thus, “ministry” (there’s that word again…) is denigrated to the status of some God-forsaken chat room where the ultimate – if not only goal is finding a date.

Still other churches make it a point to zero in on singles within the congregation, complete with well-intentioned offers to play matchmaker.

And all the while, the church’s larger focus is on marriage and the family. Sermons often focus on things like “how to improve your marriage.” Small group curriculum takes the form of “family dynamics” and childrearing. Singles often have a difficult time relating to such issues, and may feel even more distant from the church body as they get older.

REVERSING THE TREND…?

Some churches are becoming aware of this. Seeking to reverse these trends, issues of dating and marriage are not thrust before congregations as the ultimate goal. I’ve even heard of pastors – from the pulpit, mind you – advising the congregation not to try and set up the singles in the church on dates.

See ya later, frying pan; hello, fire.

The problem here is that you’ve avoided the issue of maximizing the issue only by minimizing the issue. Single Christians are thereby cut adrift, finding no real structure or means to understand the confusing worlds of dating and marriage.

HELPING CHURCHES BECOME SINGLE-MINDED

So I’m not really an expert in much of anything, but having worked with young adults for several years I have a few general ideas, ideas I’ve even heard repeated by other, smarter individuals.

The truth is that churches across America need to awaken to the changing needs of their church populations. Nearly two-thirds of high school students walk away from church after graduation never to return. The church must seek to reach young adults. And doing so requires sensitivity toward their lifestyles and their cultural settings.

In short, churches need to become more “single-minded.” Unless the trends I’ve sited in this series reverse themselves, churches can expect to see a great deal more singles in the pew than ever before, and those who don’t may need to examine themselves to see if they are truly reaching the growing population of unreached young singles.

To that end I have a handful of suggestions. Some are practical, others deal with ministry philosophy. All are valuable, and all I believe can have a significant impact on the lives of young, single adults within the church:

  1. Find the balance. The problem with the maximalist and minimalist approaches I’ve sited above is that neither deals with the issue in an appropriate or healthy way. A church that focuses on marriage and the family but neglects the gospel has done a profound disservice to their congregation by ignoring the most important elements of the Christian life for the temporary institution of family.

But at the same time, a church that ignores marriage entirely has neglected to address the ay the gospel impacts these significant relationships (especially since most in the congregation will probably marry). As mentioned in a previous post, young people are increasingly confused when it comes to the issue of sexual morality. Sadly, most people are more going to hear more about sex from super bowl commercials than from their church’s pulpits. They need good teaching on the subject, something they can’t get if the church remains silent on these issues.

2. Intergenerational and transgenerational ministry. Young people need to be in connection with people from a diverse group of backgrounds and age groups. Older adults can provide mentoring relationships that demonstrate how the gospel affects their lives, and young people can learn greatly from their experiences – both before as well as after marriage.

At the same time, churches also need to encourage ministry that is intergenerational, but also trans-generational. That is, churches also need to provide solid teaching on issues that transcend all generations, whether this be solid theological teaching or missional imperatives for service to the community.

       3.

Young adult ministry

      . First, let’s be clear. There needs to be one. Possibly even more than one, depending on the size of the church. Ignoring this age group is

not

    an option, and expecting the young people who routinely abandon church to come back eventually is naïve at best.

To that end young people need a place where they can develop community within their own context and their own generation. These can become important missional centers within the church, where young people reach beyond their current social borders to impact the lives of others in the community around them.

But it is also important that these ministries be focused on promoting maturity and spiritual growth. Too often college students find themselves clinging to the nostalgic experiences of high school youth group – sometimes even returning to youth group for events or as leaders. As much as I do appreciate intergenerational ministry, I’m inclined to be cautious about this, because I suspect that for many this is less about mentoring young people and more about extending one’s high school experiences well into one’s mid-twenties. The end result is a life marked by a perpetual series of sweet-16 parties with no catalyst for emotional or spiritual growth.

To combat this, some churches are actually moving the umbrella of “young adult ministry” to encompass young married couples as well as singles. This can potentially promote spiritual growth and development, and avoids the “cul-de-sac” phenomenon that traps people into generational ministry.

And finally, a word of caution: never, ever use the phrase “singles ministry.” I know, I know; it’s a generational thing. Young people associate “singles ministry” with “meat market.” So unless you’re trying to start a “Mixer” of your very own, just don’t do it.

4. Marriage prep classes. Yes. Churches can go a long way in helping young people understand the principles of dating and marriage, and the accountability provided by such programs can go a long way toward helping young people struggling with the issues associated with forming a lasting relationship. This provides a useful outlet as well for missional living, as programs such as these may help solidify new couples to the church or even bring in some new ones.

5. Sensitivity. Churches must recognize the issues that aging singles face, some of which can be quite horrific. I don’t need to site statistics to tell you that young people face realities that the previous generation did not. The church doors may be opening this Sunday, to a generation where pornography addiction, rape and sexual abuse are ugly, yet common words. Churches must be sensitive and aware of such issues, with grace to cover these wounds as well as practical measures (i.e., counseling services) to offer healing.

I hope this has been at least marginally helpful. Tomorrow I have but a few remaining concluding thoughts. Thanks for all the feedback.

17 February 2010

Christopher J Wiles

writer | speaker | servant

Chris is a writer and speaker. He currently serves as teaching pastor at Tri-State Fellowship and as a research writer for Docent Research Group.

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