Demographics involve the statistical characteristics of a population. Demographers gather data that is used in sociology, public policy, and marketing. Commonly examined demographics include gender, race, age, disabilities, mobility, home ownership, employment, where people live (rural, suburban, city, etc.). What researchers call demographic trends describe changes in demographics within a population over some period of time. We have often hear lot about this kind of study after the national census of 2010. Taking a census is as old as antiquity and still has immense value to a society. We should pay attention, if we are missional, to what is hapenning to people in the larger culture.
There are a number of evident demographic trends that have a considerable impact on our society at the present moment but none may be more significant, for both culture and the church, than the rapid increase in unmarried adults. There are now 59 million unmarried, never-been-married adults in the United States.
But this is not all. The mortality rate for single men is 250% higher than that of their married peers. And the mortality rate for single women is 50% higher than their married peers. Lifestyle choices regarding sexual expression seem to be one part of this equation but it clearly is not the whole reason. I leave to the experts to explain this data but it is striking for sure. And single men are twice as likely to commit suicide as married men. And 40% of married people say they are happy (that is a shockingly low number frankly) but only 25% of single people describe themselves as happy. You get the feeling from all of this data that the majority of people do not describe themselves as happy!
In addition to this interesting and revealing data we learn that the most recent data says single men drink twice as much as married men and single women are five times more likely to be victims of crime than married women.
Where does the church come into the lives of these single adults? Less than 20% attend church on any regular basis and nearly two-thirds of single adults believe the church has nothing to offer them at all. I will not go into all the reasons why this is true since I’ve done a good bit of this kind of “guess work” over recent years. The question I pose today is simple: What does the church do about the fastest growing demographic in our society and the one least interested in the church?
I suggest the following as starting points for the consideration of churches and Christian leaders:
1. Get to know single adults and listen to them. This will require you to seek them out in your neighborhoods, work place or other places of social interaction. The general principles of friendship apply here as in any context but if you’re married it will present bigger challenges for sure.
2. Recognize that many singles are lonely and starving for human interaction in many cases.
3. Understand that singles cherish their freedom and flexibility deeply. They love to be spontaneous and travel. They like events and dialogue. You may not have the freedom to “hang out” but you can include singles in your life in many creative and positive ways. As a man whose children are grown and married I have more time for singles than ever and invest a good bit of it building relationships with them.
4. Realize that there are many misconceptions about singleness and you very likely hold to several of them. Singles are not single because they are odd or socially maladjusted. Some are single because they’ve seen what marriage meant to their parents and do not want a bad relationship in a marriage. Some are single because they have a desire to see more of the world and to experience more of life before they marry. Some are single because they want to wait until they meet the right person. Others are single because of sexual orientation and personal struggles with sexuality. This is the third rail for much of the church. How do we embrace people, listen to them, encourage them as neighbors and NOT judge their sexual practice as the deal breaker in a friendship? A considerable number of singles now want to live in a relationship, where they are sexually active with one person, without marriage! The list could go on.
5. The biggest misconception about single life, at least among married people in the church, is that married people think “something is wrong with you” if you are in your mid-twenties or older and not yet married! Married church members are socially and emotionally tone deaf when it comes to knowing how to include and love single adults. We think they need and desire “singles groups” so we offer that and believe we’ve done what is best. I question this solution on several fronts. It has a place but it should not be primary. I’ve seen, in the house church movement for example, that single adults can relate to married adults quite well in the same social and spiritual context.
Finally, I wonder what the Christian doctrine of celibacy means in a culture as sexually confused and morally promiscuous as our own. I have heard almost no teaching on celibacy inside the church. Unless you are Catholic, and desire to pursue the priesthood or holy orders and monastic life, celibacy is seen as odd and unacceptable. This is why, it seems to me, celibacy is almost never seriously considered in addressing same-sex attraction. A celibate is weird in a culture gone mad over sexual freedom and pleasure. But celibacy has an ancient and spiritual foundation in Christianity.
John R. W. Stott died a few weeks ago. I have spoken of the great contribution of his life here on several occasions. Most readers may not know that John never married. He believed that his mission would never have been accomplished for the global church had he taken a wife. He never strongly urged others to remain single, precisely because the Bible honors marriage so strongly, but his life was always a quiet witness to the power of singleness lived for the glory of God and Christ’s Kingdom. Personally, I believe some of our greatest Christians leaders in the future could well be single men and women who give themselves totally to others and not to a spouse. The problem we face, however, is that most of the church is not ready to accept this reality yet. Single pastors, male or female, and single leaders in Christian missions are not generally well received. It is, I believe, time to rethink singleness whether we want to or not. The demographics are forcing us to respond if we are missional people.