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Ministering to the Unmarried

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Archives / 1978 / September

 

 

Ministering to the Unmarried

Noel Cameron
Noel Cameron Gardner is a Master of Divinity student at the Andrews University Theological Seminary, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

 

 

Effective ministry to single adults—widowed, divorced, or never married—is one of the most difficult challenges facing the church today. Although church-related activities absorb youth, children, families, young couples, and other special-interest groups, single persons usually find themselves on the periphery of church life. Many beautiful lives go unnurtured, and the body of Christ is seriously crippled.

If the minister is to meet the needs of the unmarried, he must under stand what those needs are. He must understand the pressures the single adult confronts. And he must grasp the Biblical perspective of singleness.

Consider the dilemma of the single adult. He or she feels isolated and often neglected by the church for several reasons. First, the very fact of his singleness often creates insecurity that makes it difficult for him to point out the deep and varied needs of single people. Moreover, the single person is keenly aware of an apparent church perspective that implies that success and fulfillment and even normalcy as a person are to be found only in marriage. Christianity is often seen as a family affair. Thus, the single person has difficulty identifying fully with the life of the church.

Second, the church is oriented toward couples and families, especially in its social fellowship. How often have churches innocently planned dinners, weekend activities, or socials for couples and families, without a thought for single members, who circulated on the fringes of the activity or avoided it entirely, their hearts lonely and heavy, be cause they did not really fit? Unknowingly the church has many times shaped its life to inhibit the singles' involvement, thus neglecting vitally important needs.

In some places, organizations for single adults have been formed to meet the needs that the church did not or could not meet. Unfortunately, these groups have often developed a public image as dating services. Again the implication is that fulfillment is based on marriage. If singleness is life's dreaded dis ease, then marriage undoubtedly is the cure. Is it any wonder that singles walk away from life, disillusioned because they have failed to find the promised pot of gold at the end of the chapel aisle? Because of their image as dating services, organizations for singles face tremendous pressure in the form of skepticism from a large portion of the church, the attraction of unwanted interests, and the alienation of many lonely persons who desperately need the fellowship that such organizations could help to provide.

Third, the church pastor usually finds ministry to the single adult very difficult. Since ministry to singles almost always focuses on social relationships and needs, the pastor feels a desire to protect himself from real or potential dangers to his ministry and reputation, and thus shies away from an involvement in personal ministry with single adults.

In public ministry, church activities tend to center around youth and families or around singles as an isolated group. Both situations substantially sever the single person from the heart of the church.

Perhaps the most critical area in ministry to singles is the attitude of the minister himself. Insensitivity in ministering to any segment of the flock is a violation of the minister's sacred calling. The Good Shepherd left ninety-nine sheep in the safety of the fold and went to search for one single sheep. Likewise, ministers have been given the task of ministering to all the lost sheep—regardless of marital status.

The impact of society's disapproval (not to mention the disapproval of the church) can be devastating to the unmarried. Note the effects in four basic relationships:

1. Time relationship. The single person finds it difficult to live vibrantly in the present. If never married, he tends to feel incomplete. He robs the present of beauty by pushing important relationships into the future. If death has broken his marriage, he lives in the never returning land of yesterday. The divorced person often becomes a prisoner in time, locked into a fragmented present, rejecting and regretting a bitter past, and fearing and shunning a dubious future. In all tenses life be comes drastically narrowed in perspective and diminished in value.

2. Human relationship. The single person struggles to build meaningful human relationships. When marriage is the priority, every relationship is viewed through matrimonyscopes—marriage-tinted glasses. Even casual acquaintances are classified as potentials or nonpotentials. Friend ships become loaded with expectations that bleed them of their spontaneity and natural enjoyment. When all the marbles are played into the marriage bag (and one is playing for keeps), there is great pressure in the playing of every shot.

Close friendships between single persons of the same sex are avoided because of the risk of being classified as homosexual or lesbian. Friendship with married couples is a problem for the single adult, too, for his presence may pose a silent threat. So loneliness often walks in his shoes.

3. Self-relationship. Finding opportunity for meaningful interpersonal relationships increasingly re mote, the single person is prone to a poor relationship with himself. With a sense of being a fifth wheel, he grows unhappy with himself. Doubt and insecurity become his closest companions.

Thoughtless "old maid" or "con firmed bachelor" jokes accentuate the problem. In a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, the single person gradually finds himself conforming more and more to a role that he often despises. The more he perceives marriage as the source and sub stance of happiness, the more pronounced becomes his rejection of himself as a valuable part of society.

4. God relationship. Self-rejection growing from the distorted marriage-happiness equation is devastating to a relationship with God. The single tends to blame God for depriving him of this most-important facet of life, for allowing the circumstances that terminated a marriage or the absence of potential marriage partners. Religion is often used as a spiritual-emotional pain killer. Spiritual exercises become an escape therapy, prayer a rehearsal of self-pity.

Singleness becomes a problem when societal and personal attitudes warp one's relationships with time, fellow humans, self, and God, and leave one convinced that unhappiness and singleness are bosom companions.

The Bible perspective

What does God say about the source and substance of man's happiness?

The Biblical view reveals that fulfillment in life comes not through marriage, but from knowing and doing God's will and living in intimate fellowship with Him, thus finding and filling the place of service that God designs. The psalmist declared of God, "Thou wilt shew me the path of life: in thy presence is fulness of joy; at thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore" (Ps. 16:11).

Jesus pointed out that the truly happy and blessed individuals were those seeking God's solution to their needs (Matt. 5:3-9). Fullness of joy is promised to those who have a relationship of dependence and communication with God (John 16:24). Love, joy, and peace are the fruits of being Spirit filled (Gal. 5:22). Happiness comes from living a life of loving service, characterized by the humility of Jesus (see John 13:17).

The Bible does not say that marriage is the foundation of happiness and success. The Bible does honor and exalt marriage, which was instituted by God Himself. When characterized by principles of unselfish love, this divine gift can be a tremendous blessing, a virtually inexhaustible source of joy. But God never intended for man to seek in marriage a fulfillment that can come only from a relationship with Him.

Then what of singleness? When Jesus emphasized the binding nature of the marriage contract by limiting the basis for divorce, the disciples answered," 'If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is not expedient to marry'" (Matt. 19:10, R.S.V.). They realized that marriage may not be the best life style for everyone. Singleness is better than a destructive marriage. Being single may actually be the best life style for some people.

Notice Jesus' significant reply: " 'Not all men can receive this precept [to remain single], but only those to whom it is given"' (verse 11, R.S.V.). He does not correct the disciples' assertion. Rather, He affirms their conclusion that marriage is not for everyone. But neither is singleness for all. It is for those who will accept God's guidance in this regard. It is for those to whom it is given. Singleness for the Christian, then, is not a problem, but a gift. Paul comments, "I wish that all were as I myself am [single]. But each has his own special gift from God" (1 Cor. 7:7, R.S.V.).

The gift is based on willingness to receive it (Matt. 19:11), suitability for singleness (1 Cor. 7:9), and choice (Matt. 19:12). Singleness may be a temporary gift which later is exchanged for the gift of marriage or it may be a lifelong special ministry.

Ultimately, life is good and fulfilling when it is lived as a gift, with God as the recognized giver. When we perceive that God loves us far more than any human being could and that He will choose for us far better than we would choose for ourselves, then we will live each day to capacity, as God's special gift. Freed from the crushing responsibility of determining his own destiny, the single person can joyfully accept God's gift for today, confident that his submission itself will result in a life that is the very best possible.

''When we really believe that God loves us and means to do us good we shall cease to worry about the future. We shall trust God as a child trusts a loving parent. Then our troubles and torments will disappear, for our will is swallowed up in the will of God. . . . One day alone is ours, and during this day we are to live for God. For this one day we are to place in the hand of Christ, in solemn service, all our purposes and plans, casting all our care upon Him, for He careth for us." —Ellen G. White, Thoughts From the Mount of Blessing, p. 101.

God has a solution for the problem of singleness. When we come to Him in surrender, willing to believe whatever He says, willing to accept whatever gift He offers, and willing to do whatever He asks, without reservation, we will find that wellspring of joy that never runs dry.

It is in giving self to God that we receive our gift. It is in accepting the gift that we realize meaning and new life. "If you will seek the Lord and be converted every day; if you will of your own spiritual choice be free and joyous in God; if with gladsome consent of heart to His gracious call you come wearing the yoke of Christ—the yoke of obedience and service—all your murmurings will be stilled, all your difficulties will be removed, all the perplexing problems that now confront you will be solved."—Ibid., p. 101.

Conversion, not diversion or matchmaking, is the desperate need of the single person. Conversion, not diversion, must be the primary focus of church ministry to singles. Conversion, nurtured by deep spiritual and social fellowship that binds together the broken hearts we all have, must be the first priority of every pastor.

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