Singles, marriage and a match made in church?

Calling all singles of faith, in the church or perhaps checked out of the church.  Can you help me sort out a few things?  I’ve been thinking about life as a single person in a community of faith, and then wondering about the role and reality of marriage for today’s single.

Here’s why I’m thinking about these two realities. I’ve just finished reading a book by Julia Duin, religion editor for the Washington Post.  It’s called Quitting Church and explores the exodus of faith-filled Christians from participation in the local church.  One of the realities she kept circling back towards was the life of a single person in the church.  The obvious trend is that many people remain single far longer than in past generations, for a variety of factors: extended studies, emphasis on career development, reactivity and fear towards poor or failed marriages, a cultural bias against marriage, our formation within the ethos of individualism leaving us with a diminished capacity for community and commitment to others, the idolatry of choice and the subsequent FOMO paralysis (fear of missing out), a misunderstanding of the nature and function of marriage, etc. (for a pointedly funny piece, check out John Tierney’s classic essay “Picky, picky, picky” here)

I understand all that but here is where Duin surprised me.  She wonders why don’t churches offer matchmaking services?  If marriage is the good, spiritually formative gift the church affirms it to be, why then won’t churches help singles find mates within the church?  She writes: “Singles desperately want to marry, although many feel ashamed to admit it.  If churches automatically assisted their singles in finding mates – unless specifically told not to – this would remove the shame factor and restore the marriage process as a natural stage in life.”  Wow – didn’t see that one coming at all.

Alongside of this, I pulled up a 2009 article by Mark Regnerus on The Case for Early Marriage, a call for the church to encourage Christians to marry earlier rather than later.  You can read the article here.  I love the contrarian wisdom he presents.  One of his arguments is that while many Christians bemoan the sexual crisis among young adults (the rates of sexual activity among Christian young adults are only slightly less than the dominant culture), in actuality Regnerus names it a marriage crisis.  Christians have subtly aided the delay of marriage (“get established first, find the right partner, don’t rush into it” – mostly extra-biblical injunctions) while young adults are entering their peak of sexual maturation and desire, and yet at the same time told them to remain chaste until marriage.  Now that seems a recipe for frustration, both sexually and spiritually.

So can we talk, singles?  I’ve just tipped on the marriage-single fulcrum in my life, being married for more years than I’ve been single, so help me out here:  what are your thoughts and assessment of Duin’s idea and Regnerus’ article?  What are your hopes for marriage?  Fears?  What has kept you single?  When do you think is the best time or situation to get married?  What are the particular frustrations and struggles you’ve had in seeking a mate, if marriage is a hope for your life?  How do you feel about someone helping in the mate selection process?  Can you imagine seeking out help to find a mate (other than anonymously, i.e. a dating service)?  How might a covenant faith community, like the church, graciously come alongside singles in their hopes for marriage?

I’m not sure how to answer Duin, Regnerus and the many singles in church.  And there’s so much more to explore, so will have to post more later.  But I first need to shut up and listen.

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  1. #1 by Silas on March 2, 2012 - 12:16 am

    Single, mid-twenties, and riled up by this post (not necessarily in a positive way). Maybe I disagree so strongly because you spoke truth where I did not want to hear it, but I disagree with the church pushing marriage, or worse early marriage, any more than it currently does.

    I rarely attend a local church any more. It is not because of a lack of faith, rather the experience of being ostracized in the place I should feel welcome and accepted. It is possible that out east is different, but here in the Bible belt of BC the interactions I have experienced have pushed me further and further from becoming actively involved in a local congregation. There are many contributing factors, one of which is the topic you open for discussion.

    Already I cannot enter a building related to the “church” of any sort without being asked if I am married, followed up by “why not?”, and “don’t worry you will find someone”. The whole organization appears to be a match making service. The idea put forward that “Singles desperately want to marry” is simply untrue. It should at least have the “some singles” clause.

    Furthermore, the argument that there is a “natural” stage in life to get married is simply an absurd claim. If we really want to be “natural” about it, let us promote marriage at the age of 13 or 15, but I do not know anyone personally who is willing to take it to that logical conclusion, or “extreme”. So to say that early marriage (which I assume is early twenties, if the norm is approximately 30 years old in Canada and approximately 27 in the USA – Making anywhere from 25-35 the “normal” age for marriage in our society) is somehow more “natural” than the current norm, is just a minor adjustment and still un-“natural”.

    Let me put it this way, if a church offered a matchmaking service it would be the last place on earth I would want to be. First, I have eyes, I am not dead. If I encounter a compatible individual, there is nothing but opportunity standing in the way. Second, I have friends, intimate friends, who also have eyes, who know me, and if they encounter another person who might be a suitable companion for me, they are more than capable of introducing me or informing me. Third, if I am reading Paul correctly (1 Corinthians) marriage is not the “goal”. So when the church stops pushing marriage as the “goal” or necessary norm (both confessionally and in everyday interaction), only then might I be willing to entertain this idea as an action rooted out of love and care. But for now the entire concept seems coercive and self-serving. It is my observation experience that a single individual is viewed as a threat to the status-quo and ought to be “enfolded”.

    As I see it, the argument of marriage now or later is missing the point. It is a conversation occurring superfluously, hiding a conversation about sex and that sex conversation is directed and dialogued with terms and groundwork set by a hyper-sexualized culture. If the church really wants to push the underlying need, push intimacy. Push it without constraining it to married or not married. Push vulnerability and openness, depth of relationship. Marriage is the easy option out of this. The refusal to constrain intimacy to one relationship is much more difficult. I say this because of what I observe. I know very few married people who allow themselves great depth of relationship beyond one individual.

    Now that I have ranted, I will be brief in my response to the questions you pose.
    Duin’s some truth there. I ponder, what is worse? Failure to begin or an incompatibility overlooked? “A bad wife is a chafing yoke: taking hold of her is like grasping a scorpion.” Sirach 26:7.
    Regnerus – Marriage late and less kids – not necessarily a bad thing. As we reach the carrying capacity of the earth we either need to put down the fork, or find some alternatives, one of which is to begin lowering the population of the world, probably both are needed.
    Marriage as a formative institution – I do not consider this to be true. On this, I could be persuaded otherwise, but the high rate of divorce among Christians does not convince me of this. Brain development continues until mid twenties; even afterwards, one effectively becomes a different person every ten years. If I witnessed a higher success rate of marriages thriving through this I might be convinced that it can be a formative institution, but for now the scepticism reigns, and I would rather find a “fully formed” individual with whom I am compatible.
    Hopes – to continue to find intimacy in relationships, if that one day includes marriage so be it.
    Fears – all friends “leaving” into marriages and being the only one left out and ostracized.
    Best time – when one finds a compatible other, regardless of the age that comes along.
    Someone helping – that is what good friends do. I am not sure it needs to be institutionalized so that the “church” has some role in it.
    The church – focus on creating and fostering deep friendships and intimate relationships, the rest is gravy.

    • #2 by phil on March 2, 2012 - 8:19 am

      Always great to hear from you Silas. Thanks for your thoughts on this (and reactions :). I, too, was really surprised at Duin’s observations and conclusions. She shares some of the same experiences as you but perhaps begins with a different angle on marriage. My working premise is that the bible holds no bias either towards being single or married (my favourite scripture for pre-marital classes is 1 Cor. 7:28b). Both are spiritually formative contexts for the life of Jesus to flourish in us.

      There’s many places I’d like more conversation (e.g. the compatibility issue, largely an illusion. As STanley Hauerwas asserts, “we always marry the wrong person.”). also, when I use the word church, I’m thinking less institution and more community of friends of Jesus who love, care and support one another and who want the best for one another.

      I think I’ll have to post more but thanks for your good comments.

    • #3 by phil on March 2, 2012 - 8:25 am

      Real quickly – your contention about the absurdity of a natural stage of marriage is, I think, culturally conditioned. And the reaction towards a match-maker (I feel that too) is also a culturally conditioned reaction – we are so shaped by the individualism of our age we can hardly imagine or stomach what life lived in integrated community is like (where our decisions might be distinctly influenced by a community of people – hard for us in the West to imagine but not so for many across the world today).

      Our understanding of what marriage is has morphed in significant ways warranting a good conversation about it.

  2. #4 by Geoff on March 2, 2012 - 9:05 am

    Just a quick, off-the-top-of-my-head reaction here from a person who didn’t marry until he was 36. I think the church-as-matchmaker is dangerous territory. Don’t get me wrong, I think the church has an extremely valuable role to play by providing a potentially positive environment that will allow Christian singles to meet and fellowship with one another. To go beyond that, however, may lead into dangerous territory. If the church were to actively and directly provide a match-making service, would we then be sending the message to singles that they are more inherently valuable married than they are single? Might this then lead to even more singles feeling alienated by the church if they were not able to find a match at church? I know, personally, that I felt very much like people were giving up on the fact that I would not be able to find a mate when they started feeling like it was their job to set me up. Despite possible good intentions, I think the church-as-matchmaker just might be a potential recipe for disaster.

    Don’t even get me started on the simple association between marriage and sex drive… like that’s all there is to it. Sheesh.

    • #5 by phil on March 2, 2012 - 5:52 pm

      Thanks for your comments Geoff. Maybe the term “match maker” is too loaded for us today. But I don’t think the instinct of assisting singles who are interested in marriage to find a partner as a message of bias toward singles who are called to remain single. It’s sort of like a faith community helping out anyone in it with a particular need. I think the basic operating premise is “we need each other. We can’t do life well on our own. We are wired for community.” That, too me, is the biggest issue. And I think the notion of “match maker” is a major offense to our deeply ingrained cultural individualism.

      As for sex and marriage, I agree that any simple association is not helpful or honouring to marriage – yet, there’s territory there that needs more conversation.

  3. #6 by Natasha on March 5, 2012 - 9:36 am

    Thanks for sharing this- I think this is a great conversation to have. My perspective- I’m a 22 year old university grad, working and deeply committed to my community, and I spend 4 out of 5 weeknights volunteering with kids in our church neighbourhood. I want to be married. Sometimes I feel like it is something I should be ashamed to admit, but I know I’m geared towards marriage and would be pretty pumped if it happened soon. Not everyone feels the way I do about this, but I’m not an anomaly.

    Based on my schedule, the only males I’m building relationships with are still in diapers. At my small church, I’m one of just a few young adults. I don’t feel comfortable meeting strangers online or in bars (and my best guess is that the person I’ll be a good partner for isn’t likely to be in those places anyways…but I’m willing to be surprised) but like every other part of my life, I know that waiting around for something to change isn’t going to produce the results I want. My experience with people in church is different than what Silas (comment above) has had. People don’t ask if/why I’m single. That has never happened to me. When the topic comes up, they often seem embarrassed for me and change the subject, with a curt “It’ll come along sooner or later” or “Just waiting for Mr. Right…” possibly without realizing that most of my free time is spent rolling up snotty sleeves, not turning down would-be suitors.

    If someone in my community (who knew me fairly well) had someone in mind that I might be a good match for, and could vouch for them (I don’t need details on every piece of relationship baggage he has! Just guarantee that he isn’t a criminal or dog person. Kidding!) I would happily meet them for coffee. Historically, people nearly always found spouses in their (small) communities or through “arrangements” by friends and family- this was normal and part of taking care of each other. It feels like my community doesn’t want to take care of me in this way because of the false assumption that I don’t need or want help. It isn’t unlike so many other life stages- if I desired a job, I would welcome interviews with businesspeople in my church. If I was sick and needed to see a specialist, I would happily take referrals from someone who had experience. If I wanted to buy a used car, I’d prefer to buy one from someone I trust who can attest to the quality. Sorry to everyone who I just offended for comparing marriage to a job, a sickness, and a used car. You get the point.

    I don’t know if it needs to be as formal as a “matchmaking service”. I think a great first step is to take away the pride and shame that surround this singleness/dating/marriage conversation and be alright talking about it. If you are content with where you’re at and confident managing things without the input of your community, say that graciously and continue to build deep and lasting friendships, leaning on them for other needs you have. If someone tells you they don’t want your dating advice, accept that and enjoy the community you’ve been given together and explore other areas of your lives where you might be able to help each other (mutually!). If you’d like the help of people in your community to meet the desire you have for marriage, be open and honest about it and understand that it might be a little messy, which is okay. If you are set up on a date, give it a fair shot but don’t feel pressured by anyone’s expectations that it has to be the person you marry. Moving towards gracious and open communication should be our goal in all areas and singleness, marriage, sex, and relationships don’t need to be taboo.

    Thanks for hosting this conversation!I am glad to have my ideas challenged by other people who are interested in this.

  4. #7 by RandomChance on March 12, 2012 - 5:18 am

    Hi Phil

    The quote from Duin really hit me. “Singles desperately want to marry, although many feel ashamed to admit it. If churches automatically assisted their singles in finding mates – unless specifically told not to – this would remove the shame factor and restore the marriage process as a natural stage in life.” Wow! she just told me that I desperately want to marry. How incorrect is that. I have been a single for 35 years. In my opinion, I’m better off for it. Being single is not for everyone. If anything, I find shame in is that the church is so bent on “man not being alone”, and “being fruitful and multiplying” that it can not accept that some want to remain single.

    Why should I as a single be forced to constantly be told I need to couple up? I should not have to tell the church not to automatically try to find me a mate. Can you imagine the questions that would bring up? . Would the gays/lesbians have to say they are not interested, or will the church help them find a mate of the same sex? Would I have to explain why I wish to remain single? Can you imagine the stigma attached to that? The church could not find Mr. X a mate, what’s wrong with him? Would the church report the statistics? “Church X matched up 28 people this year, with 14 singles still in the membership. Church X expects to match those 14 people together next year. 9 of those are ladies, 5 are men. Oops. Church X seeks 4 single men to correct it’s match making ratio.”

    Personally, I get offended when a friend of mine keeps trying to hook me up with a friend of his. He says we would make a good couple. I would leave a church that had such a automatic service. There is alone, which God said, “it is not good for man to be alone” and then there is single. I find it hard to be in church as a single, especially when visiting another church. The ritual greeting time, people tend to hold back when they realize I’m not about to introduce a wife, or say I’m visiting a family member. It’s almost like single is a disease to the church.

    Pastor Reitsma once preached a sermon on being single, And how the church needs it’s single people as it needs it’s couples and families. There is advantages to being single, just like there is advantages to being married. As a single, I don’t have to confer with the household committee. I can work on my own schedule. Should I choose to head out on a trip, I only have to coordinate one schedule. Need to stay late after an event, I can do it. I have no one waiting and worrying about me.

    Don’t get me wrong. For some, a list of available people maybe a good thing. (An I’m desperate list on the wall of the local church?) Can you tell the going steadies from the singles? Not every couple binds together with a ring. A mating service might help some people. I just don’t think it should be forced on the members.

    In Calgary (RPC)

    • #8 by phil on March 13, 2012 - 9:00 pm

      Thanks very much for your thoughts. I think the key thing everyone needs to know is that singles are not a monolith – there’s deep diversity that must be honoured and loved. In the church, both the married and single state are honourable ways to pursue the Jesus life. I do think there are ways to avoid some of the pitfalls your characterize here but I get your point. Thanks much.

  5. #9 by Joe on March 16, 2012 - 11:46 am

    I read “Quitting Church” and found myself on many pages. I’ll answer one of your questions,

    What has kept you single?
    Simple, fear of divorce. At any time a woman can file for no-fault divorce, take custody of the children and leave the man in the poor house.

  6. #10 by coraquilts on March 21, 2012 - 8:47 pm

    Hey Phil!

    Wow I never would have connected marriage or singleness as root causes for the exodus of faith-filled Christians from participation in the local church. Frankly, I don’t think they are. The word that comes to me is family. Wether we are single or married everyone starts out in a family by some definition and for the most part continues to have a relationship of some sort with their family.

    What I find alarming is that most church going people’s first concern for the church quitter is:

    What about fellowship?
    What about accountability?
    what about your responsibility?

    Bear with me here I communicate much better verbally :)

    But why is it that when your attending church you rarely feel pressed to answer how your fellowship is with your Parents? With your siblings? With your grandparents? With your Aunts/Uncles? With your Spouse? Etc…..

    What about discearning the functionality of the accountability in ones family?

    What about the responsibility of family?

    What about family community then community with the saints? What if the driving motivation of the corporate gathering was to first ensure everyone that existed in person also belonged, was celebrated, understood, fought for, first by their family.

    1 Tim 5:8 “But those who won’t care for their relatives, especially those in their own household, have denied the true faith. Such people are worse than unbelievers.”

    I am reminded of the greeting in the movie Avatar ” I see you” Maybe if the church was more interested in building parents who saw their children, invested in them, understood them, fought for them, maybe then a persons singleness or marriage would seem as a mute point?

    I was awestruck by the line in the recent movie “real steel” in where a misdirected father when challenged by his young son, asked him ” What do you want from me?” The son then replied ” I just want you to fight for me! Thats all I ever wanted!”

    The church is a place where we are introduced to our real Father who has perfectly fought for us. We as His children might consider his example for us to fight for one another. First in our families and out of that belonging, to fight for each other as saints, and through that a miracle that would confound the world because of such love and care!

    awe……. to be either single or married and it not to matter because you were understood and knew you belonged.

    Ronny

  7. #11 by Episteme on October 10, 2014 - 11:37 pm

    My difference in opinion could be a Catholic-Protestant thing, but my thoughts (as a church-going single 35-year old who can’t locate single Catholic women) are more nuanced. I think churches in general — the congregations and clergy — need to adjust their thinking on the singles around them. They tend to either consider us broken/sinners-until-proven-not or else cast us off to Internet Dating. Historically, church communities & Christian neighborhoods were good about friend-of-friend and neighbor introductions of those who might go to another church or parish: not match-making per se, but individuals keeping an eye out for individuals (like secular friends do for one another). After all, we can’t easily locate those who may be of interest necessarily on our own, but we can have unofficial help if church culture is such that we’re treated as something other than lepers. Plus, honestly, if a fellow churchgoer knows the person they’re introducing or pointing out, that’s a somewhat better chance than the usual “cold call” of chancing asking out a total stranger with no links but common faith and a common collection plate — here you have common friends or acquaintances, the way dating usually works.

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