Singleness and the church

This is not another post with tangential references to a Leonard Cohen song, I was going to title it ‘A bunch of lonesome heroes‘, but in the end went for something more self-explanatory. It’s about singleness in the church, and in particular in the church in London.

London is a peculiar place. And the church in London is somewhat of a outlier as well. The church is younger than in the rest of the country, even taking into account differences in the overall population it is still astonishing that 57% of people in their 20s who attend church do so in London. This creates one problem for the church outside of London – the lack of young adults, but it also creates problems for the church in London that are not as often recognised.

For churches in the centre of London there is frequently a distinct lack of older people, families and even married couples. That’s not to say they’re absent altogether, just that young single people make up a disproportionately large block. A while back a theory of church growth was in vogue, it was know as the homogeneous unit principle, and it came with its very own acronym: HUP. The idea was that people felt at home around people like them so it made sense for churches to reach out to people who were like them.

This isn’t a post about church growth, but I’ll say this: sometimes it works, we like things to be comfortable and therefore are inclined to go where the path is smoothest and when the congregation is like us there are less obstacles to us feeling at home. The problem is that this could descend down a road of ever intensifying stratification and the end point of that would be an infinite number of churches with a single preacher/worship leader/pew filler: me, or you. But not both of us. At its more practical it means that churches develop that are mono generational or mono cultural. This comes to the fore in London with churches that are young and hip. That means the church family becomes slightly dysfunctional.

It means that churches in central London have a high proportion of single people. For my church the natural affect of being based in the centre of the city is aided and abetted because it was planted only eight years ago, so most of the newcomers are students or young professionals moving into London.

This does two things, firstly it means that the members of the church suffer from not having the full range of people to interact with and learn from. In particular there is a gulf where father and mother figures should exist to provide wisdom and guidance to the younger generation. Secondly, it means that a culture of singleness is fostered as normality.

And this becomes enshrined in all sorts of aspects of church life, whether it is the make up of small groups or the type of social activities that build community around the more formal parts of church life. Added to this is the occasional fallout of relationships that do occur: how friendship groups are rent by couples splitting up. This all makes life a lot easier when a comfortable culture of friendship between groups of guys and girls is the norm.

Into this climate we import a further demographic trouble maker: the disparity between men and women. This isn’t as bad as sometimes it is presented to be, it’s roughly 60-40 in favour of the ladies, or the guys if you’re thinking of prospective dates. While the norm for relational dynamics is the friendship group and the limited dating activity is partly attributable to not wanting to disrupt this, beneath the surface many people remain discontent with the status quo.

It goes something like this: the girls look at the guys and think they need to sort themselves out and ask girls out, in the back of their mind lingers the fear that if the odds stay the same a chunk of them will stay on the shelf. And the guys return the looks, slightly paralysed by the pressure to make a choice and make the most of the favourable proportions. Guys know they ought to do something but don’t want to get it wrong, girls want the guys to ask them out but think it’s too forward to make this desire clear.

Without the wisdom of elders and the frank conversations between people at various stages of romantic liaisons, this becomes a secret minefield out of which the culture of singleness thrives.

This is all a bit detached and technical but I wanted to try and tease out some of the reason singleness has became an issue in the church, and identify the particular form that it takes in churches in London.

I’ll write more later in the week about my own personal experience of singleness. Of all the issues I write about it is perhaps the one which I have the greatest personal experience to draw on, but perhaps something I have dwelt on the least.

What do you think: is singleness an issue in the church? If so, why, and what can be done about it? Do we really believe that single people are equal with those who are married?

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