I'm in my midthirties and single. It's really starting to bother me that I don't have someone special in my life. How will I truly know if I'm meant to be married or single?"
"Do I just wait for the Lord to bring the right man into my life, or should I join a Christian dating service? I wish I had some clear-cut direction."1
This letter appeared in an online version of Today's Christian Woman magazine. It expresses the questions, longings, and frustrations of Jackie, a single Christian woman. Unquestionably she is one of thou sands. Doubtless, too, there are myriads of singles in the Seventh-day Adventist Church between the ages of 18 and 35 who would relate strongly to Jackie's private pain.
What can we as ministers do to assist these people? Don't we have resources beyond those offered in secular arenas? Do our single young people seek help through psychological, social, and other services, when we could offer them more satisfying alternatives or at least services in addition to those found in the secular community? What do pastors need to know so that they may more effectively and positively impact this burgeoning group?
A theological base for singles' ministry
The first two chapters of the Bible present God as a caring father who "formed man from the dust of the ground," "breathed into his nostrils the breath of life," and then made every provision for his happiness and welfare (Gen. 2). God's actions suggest that He had a particular relationship with this, at first single man, Adam. Following the footsteps of Yahweh, pastors need to personally know as many of their single parishioners as possible. It is not enough to be satisfied with filled pews and a growing head count.
It is not stretching the Genesis narrative too far to observe that God recognized, verbally noted, and entered into the lonely singleness of Adam, which stood in contrast to the "matedness" of every other creature in Eden (Genesis 2:18, 20). Is it not consistent with at least the spirit of the Creation story to observe that God moved creatively to minister to Adam's need by helping him find a mate and then that He brought that mate to Adam so that his solitude would be assuaged (Genesis 2:22,23)?
The essence and substance of pastoral ministry is this kind of personal service. Although we cannot, of course, "create" mates for the singles in our churches, we can enter into the spirit of service and help. The noun used by the apostle Paul for "gospel ministry" is diakonia, which refers to the activities rendered by a servant (Acts 20:24; 2 Cor. 4:1).2 Though it is impossible for one person, the pastor, to have a personal relationship with all the members in his charge, whenever any member of the group seeks pastoral attention, an immediate response would make a strong statement about their importance to the pastor and the congregation.
We also need to remember that singleness should not disqualify anyone from important service in any area of the church. It is clear in Genesis 2:15, 19, 20 that before God joined Adam to Eve, the single man had notable duties to perform. Adam was charged with the responsibility to not only "dress" and "keep" the garden; he also "gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field." God was obviously pleased with Adam's performance, for "whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof" (Gen. 2:19). A pastor needs therefore to see that each mature, responsible, single male or female young adult disciple have an opportunity to use their God-given gifts "for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ" (Eph. 4:12).
The future of singles' ministry
The single young adults of today were the children, junior high school, and senior high school students of yesterday. Just as the years passed and the children gradually changed into adults, ministry paradigms to nurture them have also gone through changes. In fact, ministry models are always in flux. Mark Senter III, of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, is heralding a "revolution" for youth and young adults that will have a "radical impact" upon ministers and their churches.
"There is no way," Senter writes, "in which the tactics currently being used will stem the tidal wave of spiritual, moral, and psychosocial problems faced by the current and coming generations of [singles] ."3 It is important and exciting to note that the epicenter of the next youth ministry revolution will probably occur in non-Anglo settings in urban Black, Hispanic, and Korean churches. 4
Inner-city pastors who start redirecting resources and employing new methods to reach their young single members may be the architects of a coming revolution. In order to start the process, I would like to suggest the following course of action:
First, it is important to recognize that single young adults are a mobile group. In many congregations the two dominant ages present on Sabbath are children and seniors. Pastors should not blame them selves for the absence of many singles between the ages of 18 and 35. Most are transitioning "between school and work and moving from life with parents to life on their own."5 The majority who leave for school never return to their home churches except for occasional summer vacations, holidays, or special-event visits. While this may be viewed as negative, there is an opportunity for service that accompanies this phenomenon. Large urban settings tend to have many educational institutions, job opportunities, and attractions that young adult singles from other congregations find appealing.
The minister who wishes to develop a singles' ministry will make his church "singles friendly." He may not be actively ministering to many of his "own" singles who may have relocated, but he will be serving single young adult members in the surrounding community.
Second, with this in mind, it is important to organize classes to address issues of interest to singles in contemporary ways. Sabbath School classes serve their purpose, but frequently the Sabbath School curriculum and the teaching methods employed by inexperienced instructors fall short of "scratching where young single persons itch." The pressing issues on the minds of a majority of single young adults relate to concerns such as intimacy, sexuality, relationships, careers, self-awareness, finance, ethics, education, recreation, nutrition, fitness, and spirituality. In the eyes of many older members these matters may seem too mundane or far removed from issues more "appropriate" to the church setting. They may seem too "secular" to be taken up as themes for discussion on the Lord's Day. But the truth is that they are life and death matters to singles. Many among this age group don't have a relationship with God or refuse to come to church because of failures in one or more of these areas of life. These topics can be presented in such a way as to be most apropos for any Sabbath setting.
Third, we must harness the energy of singles for the benefit of the church and its community. Pastors should take note that single young adults are often the most creative and energetic members in their parishes. They can add life to any church through their characteristic enthusiasm, eagerness to try new things, emphasis on action, and idealism. The problem, according to Alban Institute researcher Robert Gribbon, is that some churches "want new blood, but they don't want new people."6 Pastors must therefore exert their influence as soldiers or commissioned officers to en sure that fresh troops are readily integrated into the army of Christ. This course of action is not only for the vitality of the church now but also for the viability of the congregation later on. When the senior members are laid to rest and the adolescents have gone off to school, who, other than God, will guarantee the presence of the church? Often enough, those we call single young adults.
Pastoral ministry to single young adults is God's urgent mission to a new and maturing generation. It's hard work, but it is most rewarding. We must spare no effort to make sure that the Jackies in our midst may find answers, fellowship, love, and God in our churches. Eyebrows will be raised, some members may desire to take their membership elsewhere, and calls may be made to conference administrators but our churches must continue to be Spirit-supervised laboratories to devise and test paradigms of ministry to reach people no matter their age or social status.
1 Diane Mandt Langberg, "Help I'm Still Single!" Today's Christian Woman 18, (November/December 1996) ,6:30.
2. The Greek-English Dictionary, Delta-Epsilon (Missouri: The Complete Bible Library, 1990), 80.
3. Mark Senter III, The Coming Revolution in Youth Ministry (Wheaton, III: Victor Books, 1992), 16.
4. Ibid., 173.
5. Robert T. Gribbon, Developing Faith in Young Adults (Washington, D.C.: The Alban Institute, Inc., 1990), 3.
6. Ibid, 2.