Tell us a little bit about One by One and what led you to write a book about singleness.
It was originally spurred by my own unexpected experience with singleness. Like many people, I grew up taking it for granted that I would get married someday, because I figured that’s just what people did! But it didn’t happen, and as I got into my thirties and it still wasn’t happening, I was more aware than ever of the messages coming from the church about single people, and how they could be unrealistic and even hurtful. I heard the same thing from many of my single friends. It gave me the desire to write a book that would be a sort of letter to the church that would explain some things they misunderstood or just plain got wrong about prolonged singleness.
What would you consider the primary struggles facing singles in the church today?
Feeling left out, overlooked, and ignored is a big one. Most of the time, it happens unintentionally. We human beings naturally gravitate to those who are like us, and at church, that means married people with kids tend to gravitate to other married people with kids, for fellowship and friendship. The problem is that the majority of the church body is still made up of married people with kids, and that can leave the single people feeling like leftovers. We’re not asking for special treatment or special favors; on the contrary, we’re asking to be integrated into the church along with everyone else.
As you acknowledge in your book, singles in the church often bear the brunt of certain stereotypes that make them feel ostracized, like treating the state of singleness as a problem in need of repair. What are some of the common generalizations about singleness you have experienced in the church? And what impact do they have on singles within a local congregation?
We often hear that single and childless people are selfish and immature because we’ve never had to care for a family, so we never had to “grow up” and put others first. Honestly, it hurts to be stereotyped like that. It’s perfectly true that marriage and children make great demands on a person, and there’s probably no other experience that can exactly replicate that. But we care for others all the time: for friends, nephews and nieces, godchildren, elderly parents, you name it. We have relationships too, and we work on them and prioritize them and make sacrifices for them. But when all that is overlooked, when we hear essentially that married parents are better than us and always will be, it makes us feel alienated and drives us away.
What do you believe are the most common misunderstandings in Western culture about singleness? What about in the church?
The one in Western culture that comes to mind first is simply that the single life means the highly sexualized life—that a single person is sleeping around and that that’s exactly how it should be! Meanwhile, the evangelical church believes that a single person should not be sleeping around. Unfortunately, much of the church seems to believe that single people can and should practice chastity all on their own, with no help, encouragement, or support. It’s simply taken for granted that they’re practicing it and that it’s no effort or problem at all. But that’s rarely the case. Living counter-culturally in a sex-obsessed culture can be very difficult, and we do need the church’s support.
Another point you bring up in the book is that many churches today tend to preach and program around a family-centered focus. What factors have contributed to this focus? And how does a family-centered approach practically influence singles?
I think that the church encourages marriage and family as part of a vision of what the good life should look like, and as a way to promote security and stability among its members. And it’s true those are all good things. But the family-centered approach tends to see single people as something of a destabilizing factor, and this leads to single people getting elbowed out of the way. Why else, for instance, would so many churches be so reluctant to hire single pastors, as I point out in the book? The married people feel that a single pastor can’t identify with their problems, doesn’t have a full enough experience of life, and might fall into sexual sin—when the truth is those very same things could be true of a married pastor. But instead of going back to the Bible and recalling Paul’s praise of the single state, they simply note that the single pastor doesn’t fit their family-centered vision, and pass him over.
In what ways is the body of Christ weakened when singles are ostracized?
I recently saw a study from Barna that said nearly a quarter of churchgoers are now single. So when you ostracize a quarter of the body, naturally the body is going to be severely weakened. The vision becomes ever narrower, and there is less strength and fewer resources.
What are some practical changes that churches could make to keep from ostracizing singles within their congregations?
Make a deliberate effort to include us in leadership, on important committees, in every ministry possible. Make sure we’re included in social events and activities—we get left out of these things more often than you might realize. Let us in on the planning stages, so we can help ensure more integrated events and ministries.
What do you hope readers will take away from your book?
I really just want to open their eyes to some things they may have been missing, and help them start thinking in new ways. Any changes in the church have to start with a change in the way we look at and think about other people. So if you ever catch yourself acting like the families at church are worth your time and attention while the singles are just that group over there by themselves that you don’t need to bother about, I hope my book will give you a new and better way to view them, and then suggest some ways to act on that new viewpoint.
If you could offer a word of encouragement to struggling singles in the church today, what would it be?
I’d like to offer two words, if I may! First, I’d say that life can be good even when you’re single. Don’t be afraid that the future will be grim and joyless, or that you’ll never be fully mature, or anything like that, because it doesn’t have to be that way. We don’t hear this often enough, and we need to. Second, I’d just say, stick with it. Keep going to church. Keep persevering, because it really is worth it, hard though it can be. We need the church, and the church needs us.
Cover image by Magnus Lindvall.