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    Can Christian Singles Thrive?

    How Singles Around the World Confront the Likelihood of Remaining Unmarried

    By Anna Broadway

    August 18, 2021

    Available languages: Español

    • Rowland Stenrud

      My wife left me with our two little boys after only about five and a half years of marriage. I forgave her and continued to love her. The hard part was forgiving myself for my contribution to her unhappiness. She remarried, but I never did. Now that I'm almost 81 the prospect of never finding a spouse has bothered me more than ever. I'm not sure why. I can do without sex, without a spouse, but I sense that I cannot thrive, cannot do the will of God, without the help, without the love, of a woman who would partner with me. And I am always in need of hugs. Jesus never married, but he depended on the love that women had for him to fulfill his mission in life. A Samaritan woman, who returned Jesus's love for her, was the first missionary. Mary Magdalene was the first person to preach the resurrection of Jesus.

    • Nathaniel

      I love this line in particular - "When we define our lives in terms of relationship to God first, it reframes our stories around obedience and trust, regardless of what role marriage and singleness may play in that journey." Thanks for tackling this topic, Anna!

    • Teresa Myler

      Thank you for this. I truly enjoyed reading it.

    • Temitope Praisingchild

      What an awesome piece! Immensely blessed reading it. God bless you! Xxx

    The late-July sun bakes Valencia the Thursday I resort to googling “Mass in English.” Nearly two months into a six-continent trip to research the global experience of singleness, my connections fail me; I find myself in a city where I have no Christian contacts besides what the internet might supply, and just a few days lodging before I must move on.

    Fighting a sense of defeat, I look through the options, eventually contacting one of the Spanish city’s oldest churches: Sant Joan de l’Hospital. First, I email the church, alternating English paragraphs with a Spanish translation Google provides. When no one responds, I decide to try an in-person visit, despite my nearly nonexistent Spanish.

    Spain is stop number eight of a trip that will ultimately span forty-one countries, seventy-five cities, and seventeen months. I can’t afford to spend much time looking for the five Catholics I hope to interview in Valencia.

    When I arrive at the church that stifling Friday afternoon, I find soaring walls that provide a measure of shade from the sun. Inside the gate, a sign on one side of the small courtyard identifies the office. Once inside the room – thankfully air-conditioned – I find a receptionist who speaks some halting English. He’s seen my email. A few minutes later, I meet my first priest.

    Father Jesus does not think I’ve found the right place. This church is actually known for the weddings it performs, he tells me. But he recommends I try the English Mass the next day, at which I can meet a priest with better English.

    And that’s how I make the acquaintance of Father Frederick Oraegbu, a visiting Nigerian who alternately references Tolkien and Tupac Shakur when we finally sit down for an interview. First, though, we mingle with the dozen or so Spaniards and foreigners who’ve gathered for the Saturday afternoon English Mass and a small potluck afterward.

    Father Fred (as most people know him) and I make plans to talk Monday. Then, after the rest of us eat our fill of sweets and Spanish tortilla (an egg-based dish with chunks of potato), most of the parishioners and I relocate to an outdoor café off the Plaça de la Reina. Under the precious shade of an outdoor umbrella, the multigenerational group proves so friendly that someone covers my drink, and I meet two Spanish singles who agree to interviews.

    Over and over again this happened, in the dozens of cities I visited: I showed up a stranger, but found welcome through the local church. In many cases, strangers opened their homes for me to stay with them. In fact, the day after I found such welcome at Sant Joan de l’Hospital, a single woman at a Protestant international church I visited gave me the key to her apartment, since I needed somewhere to stay for the rest of my visit.

    In this way, my travels didn’t just yield information about singleness in the church, they also showed me firsthand how God’s people, at our best, become the families in which God promises to set the lonely.

    abstract style painting in navy blue, teal, pink, and gold of a crowd of people

    Carolynne Coulson, Incognito

    Researching singleness was not the academic project I’d have wished for myself. By the time of my May 2018 departure, the question of whether Christian singles could still thrive without a partner had become an urgently personal one. I was weeks from my fortieth birthday and starting to face the likelihood of dying barren and unmarried.

    For most of my life, well-intended Christians had assured me that the fact I wanted marriage must mean God intended to give it to me. Yet the more I’ve learned about racial injustice, the less this view holds up. If so many long for a justice they don’t receive in their lifetimes, how dare I assume my longing for marriage is any likelier to resolve as I want?

    The global church has at least eighty-five million more women than men among adults thirty or older; the US church has twenty-five million more women. Even if some of those women have or find spouses outside the faith, that leaves millions who can’t ever marry – a reality the church has yet to face. Instead, most Christians I met around the world treated heterosexual marriage as the primary narrative axis in life. Marrieds and singles alike seemed largely unaware of or unwilling to reckon with this significant demographic disconnect.

    And the gap may be worse than it seems. For one thing, not all Christian men can or will marry. Those who do marry may not seek Christian wives. In her 2019 book Relatable, Vicky Walker reports that almost two-thirds of women in her survey, but only half the men, deemed a Christian spouse “non-negotiable.” The numbers get far worse as age and the sex gap increase. Factor in the more pronounced unevenness caused by genocide, war, mass incarceration, and other factors, and women’s prospects for marriage get worse yet.

    Yet most Christians continue to act – and churches to teach – as if nearly all will marry, with the corollary implication that it’s singles’ fault when we don’t. With that comes a tendency to view singleness as a second-class status – as missing out and falling short.

    Father Bassols Imo Donald, a Kenyan priest, told me that when he announced his plan to join the priesthood, relatives smuggled a woman into his bedroom, hoping her allure would persuade him to change his mind. Father Donald experienced the stigma of singleness in rural Kenya, yet a form of it also plagues singles in urban centers of Asia and Europe. In China, they call single men “bare branches.” And while Sweden leads the European Union in single-person households, it has such a negative view of its “unchosen” women that novelist Malin Lindroth devoted her twelfth book to the topic. In Nuckan, a nonfiction book not yet translated into English, Lindroth takes on one of her country’s words for spinster. “The book is my rediscovery of that horrible word,” she told me over lunch in Gothenburg one summer afternoon.

    Unlike Father Donald, Lindroth didn’t choose her singleness. She hadn’t read a story like hers anywhere, so in Nuckan, she tried to reckon with that fate. “Even if it’s involuntary, I’m very happy with my life,” she said. “But it still isn’t something I wanted.”

    Many of the singles I interviewed described this tension. On the one hand, they want things life hasn’t brought. On the other, they’ve found joy, contentment, and even purpose in what their unchosen life lets them do.

    For Christians, the challenge of the unchosen touches more than just singleness. Every believer faces the tension between personal will and God’s. Even Jesus struggled to face all that the cross entailed. His anguished prayer in Gethsemane, minutes before his arrest, ends, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 14:36, NIV).

    Christian books on singleness often focus directly or implicitly on what the unmarried lack – marriage – and either how to get it or how to get used to living without it. Because I wanted to focus on what we have, I asked the people I spoke with to tell me about their daily lives. Depending on the conversation, we covered money, food, housing, leisure time, celebrations, and parenting. We discussed sexuality too, of course, but also touch and the body more generally.

    And because of my increasing conviction that segregation narrows our view of God – leading to sometimes dangerous distortions – I tried to include singles of every type, throughout the church. I carefully divided my time among continents, doing my best to include Christians from all three major traditions. And whenever possible, I sought to interview a range of ages, including the widowed and elderly along with the young and never married. I also included sexual minorities, people with disabilities, and as much income diversity as I could. By the end, I had interviewed 327 people.

    In the beginning, I thought the challenges I’d experienced as a Christian single might be blamed on American culture. By studying the global church, I hoped to find better approaches to singleness in other countries and cultures. But to my surprise, nearly all the communities I visited struggled to integrate singles well into church life. In many cases, they even failed to see those singles who weren’t obviously marriageable – especially the elderly and disabled.

    This two-fold problem – thinking of singles simply as “yet to marry” and overlooking those who can’t or won’t – has significant implications for the world’s churches. One of its worst results may be that this flawed view of singleness allows us to persist in thinking the church grows through procreation instead of proclamation of the gospel. What if, instead, singles in the church exist partly to remind us all of the radical shape of God’s kingdom, and how he wants to build it?

    In order to take a more honest look at the experience of singles in our churches and find ways to respond, it would help to frame this issue more biblically. Here are a few insights I gleaned during my travels.

    A Radically Different Kind of Family

    In John 3, Jesus tells Nicodemus that to see God’s kingdom he must be born again – a teaching that radically upended all prior notions of family. In this new kingdom, people are related not by ties of blood and shared culture, but their shared birth in the Holy Spirit. Yet across all the cities I visited, I found almost no churches that embodied this in how they integrated singles’ lives with families. One of the few exceptions involved an international church in Hong Kong, whose pastor said their mixed Bible studies were all healthier than those dominated by either singles or married people. He said it was especially important to have at least two of each in a group, so that no one wound up being the only one in their particular category.

    Integration goes beyond small groups. The Hong Kong pastor said he and his wife had invited single folks along on their family vacation. Other families choose to live in community with one or more singles, such as in the California Bay Area residence (housed in a former convent) where I spent three years. Those who choose to live apart might pick a holiday to celebrate together, or develop other shared traditions with single friends, like a regular meal, doing errands together, and so on. Since the pandemic, some churches have encouraged singles to “pod” together temporarily or urged vaccinated singles to sit with a family or each other during services.

    Why We Work

    Almost none of the churches I visited seemed to teach much, if anything, about how our daily work connects to following God. Yet when singles I interviewed had a more missional understanding of work, and a vision of how theirs contributed to God’s kingdom, they seemed more content in their singleness.

    Waŋgarr is a fifty-nine-year-old Indigenous Australian woman from Elcho Island, Arnhem Land, whom I met in the north coast city of Darwin. After her second husband left her almost two decades ago, Waŋgarr told me she struggled with whether to stay there or escape to the nearest city. The thought of drinking away her pain seemed so appealing.

    But she kept coming back to her unfinished work on a Bible translation. Before her husband abandoned their ten-year marriage, and before she joined the translation team, Waŋgarr had been living “in a comfortable outstation, going hunting all the time.” Then one night, she had a dream with Mount Everest in it and people asking for her help. When she woke up, Waŋgarr said to herself, “Ah! It’s only a dream.” But then she received a phone call asking for her help back-translating the Bible, putting it back into the source language to confirm the accuracy of the translated draft. “God called me from that place back to Galiwin’ku, Elcho Island,” Waŋgarr told me. When she reached the project office at Galiwin’ku, one of the first things she saw was a poster with Psalm 121:1, which reads, “I lift my eyes up to the hills – where does my help come from?” Suddenly Waŋgarr remembered her dream about Mt. Everest and people in need. Taking this as God’s confirmation that he wanted her there, she joined the translation team.

    Little did she know then how important this sense of God’s call would become. When Waŋgarr’s marriage collapsed, that call anchored her. “At that time when my husband left me, I was thinking of those two: that dream and that poster,” she told me. In them, she seemed to hear God saying, “Doesn’t matter, Waŋgarr, I will be there, helping you.” And when she thought of the work remaining, she didn’t know who else could carry it to completion.

    Waŋgarr stayed. The translation took another five years to finish. For a few weeks a year, she now leaves Galiwin’ku to teach at an Indigenous Bible college in Darwin and continue her studies. “I’m always thinking that I don’t have to worry about everything, even my husband,” she said. “I’m busy with other things – especially doing God’s work.”

    Thousands of miles away, South Korean Zoe Chun has also found purpose in her work. The founder of a Seoul-based arts nonprofit called The Great Commission said she sees artists as “my mission field.”

    An adult convert to Christianity, Chun initially struggled with how to share her faith when those around her were so strongly opposed to religion. But after several years of growing in her faith and connecting with ministries focused on justice, she began to see how her work in the art world could help bring God’s kingdom. Many artists already pursue spirituality, she said. “They want to talk about more than reality.”

    She decided to quit her full-time curatorial job and start a nonprofit that would use art to explore deeper questions and seek justice. Drawing on her experience in the art world, Chun has developed a series of interactive exhibitions and collaborative projects on questions like “What is the good news for you?”

    With each piece, she seeks to bless both the audience and the creators. Chun deliberately works with a range of artists, many of whom aren’t religious. She says it’s important that they have a good experience of interacting with a Christian.

    How We Tell Our Stories

    If we make marital status our life’s primary narrative, we lose sight of the story God wants to tell. Only recently did it dawn on me that both Judah’s daughter-in-law Tamar and the prophet Elijah were single people.

    Tamar, twice widowed, became the foremother of both King David and Jesus himself. Her story tells of a single woman desperately trying to survive in a world in which children were the difference between life and death.

    Elijah is famous as the prophet who called down drought on a wicked king and challenged four hundred priests of a rival god to a spiritual showdown on Mt. Carmel. Is there anything about Elijah’s search for a spouse? No, we meet him only in the context of his relationship with God.

    To me, both of these stories seem to say that the most important thing in life is how each person grows in faith and obedience. When we define our lives in terms of relationship to God first, it reframes our stories around obedience and trust, regardless of what role marriage and singleness may play in that journey.

    Remember How the Church Grows

    When we remember that God’s kingdom grows by the work of the Holy Spirit, rather than human procreation, we see that every member has a role to play – not just those who feel called to full-time ministry.

    A few weeks after the end of my formal research travels, in October 2019, I returned to Vancouver, British Columbia. Unlike every other stop on the trip, I was neither there for research nor to see family, but to pray.

    During my “official” stop there several weeks before, I’d heard about an upcoming prayer conference that stirred a longing inside me. Months of constant travel, attending a different church service nearly every week – many of them in languages I did not speak – plus contracting multiple parasites, losing a suitcase, and getting held up at knife-point – had drained me more than I’d realized. As soon as I heard of that prayer conference, its promise of retreat and renewal beckoned.

    When I reached our hotel meeting room the first day, I saw that the conference schedule included two afternoons of “practice” – either to prayer-walk through and for the nearby streets of Vancouver, or to try some prayer evangelism. Inside, I recoiled. Yes, of course, I knew we’re all called to share the gospel, but like many Christians, I’ve spent most of life hoping that the more covert “relational evangelism” would suffice.

    The first day, I chose a prayer walk. But twenty minutes into our walk, my partner and I passed a man with an intense expression whom I suddenly felt prompted to talk to. “What?” I thought. “No way. I’m sorry, Lord, but I signed up to pray, not to chat up strangers.”

    The feeling persisted, even as we passed the man and kept walking. Finally, I reluctantly said to my partner, “I feel like we should talk to that man we passed back there.” He seemed even more timid than I, but assented, with a tacit agreement that I take the lead.

    Uttering a quick prayer for help, we turned around, went back to the man, and I found an excuse to start talking with him. The whole conversation took maybe ten minutes. By the end, the man proved so open that he agreed when my partner asked to pray for him. The ensuing prayer packed in so much of the gospel that I cringed, fearing we had turned the man off for good. But to my amazement, he hugged us both as we left and said, “You’re doing good work.”

    And there it was: a fruitfulness in which all Christians could participate – single or married, retired, self-employed, or working in ministry.

    At one point during the prayer conference, the host organization’s founder, John Smed, noted that public proclamation of the gospel played a significant role in the early church’s growth. That runs counter to the softer model of “relationship evangelism” I grew up with. And it certainly contradicts the more implicit, yet prevalent, assumption that the church grows through procreation and childhood exposure to Christian parents.

    When Jesus sent his followers out to proclaim the coming kingdom, he told them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (Luke 10:2). He didn’t say, “Those willing to parent are few.”

    Likewise, just before he left his disciples, Jesus commanded them not “go, get married, and raise Christian children,” but, “go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20).

    The day I finally sat down to interview Father Fred in Valencia, he radically expanded on a key Bible passage about marriage: “It’s not good for man to be alone” (Gen. 2:18). These words, Father Fred showed me, can also be read as a call to community, and particularly to shared housing. What would happen if more churches took that reading to heart?

    When we become a family formed by the Spirit’s call rather than marriage, the church displays more of the love that Jesus said would identify us as his followers. Our mission becomes God’s kingdom, which offers meaning and purpose for all Christians. And when we seek first that kingdom, we open our hands to receive whatever life and community God wants to give us.

    Contributed By

    Anna Broadway is a writer and editor who visited forty-one countries to research singleness. She has contributed to the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the Atlantic online, and other publications, including Christianity Today.

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