Our theme for the month of June is “Sex and the Church.”
Another Sunday, another church.
Sitting near the back allows me to survey the heads of the congregation, and I start my usual count, identifying ratios of grey hair to dark hair, blonde to brunette to African. How many heads hover just above the pew, how many tall Dutchmen are in the rows? Who sits next to whom? Are there people in pairs? Seated as families? Is anyone alone? I smile at the usher, take a bulletin. “How many?” he asks, like I’m at a restaurant.
“Just one,” I say.
Last month, I moved to a new house (that I bought because I’m a grown-ass woman!), and so the church hunt has begun. I’ve attended my current church for almost five years, and while it was formerly not in my neighborhood, now it’s really not in my neighborhood. One of the things I like about my new house is that restaurants and coffee shops and the gym are all walkable, and I’d really like my church to be, too. Or at least drivable in five or ten minutes. This neighborhood is diverse, and I’d like a church that reflects that, a worship experience that feels genuine and well-planned, and a pastor (is female too much to ask for?) who speaks extemporaneously.
But if I’m honest, what I’m also really looking for are single people.
Walk into most Grand Rapids churches and these are a rare sight. Church is for couples, just married or about to celebrate fifty years. Church is for families, one kid or four, biological or adopted. In general, the church does a great job of serving a variety of ages and stages. Kids programming and adult education, children’s messages and care for the sick or shut-in. Bible studies for young couples, new moms, those fifty or older. But what’s a single twenty-something to do?
Many of the things we’ve written about this month are not new revelations. The church doesn’t always do a great job of teaching about sex, parents sometimes mess up, young people feel shame for a variety of reasons. And my feeling about not fitting in as a single person is no different. I’m sure pastors and leaders think about it. I’m sure you’ve heard this all before. But that doesn’t make it less true.
In some ways, it’s no one’s fault. It’s not so much that I feel pressure to get married, it’s just that it’s expected. Church just isn’t really designed for single people. This is how we do things: you meet your match at church, maybe, and then your pastor provides pre-marital counseling, and then she performs your wedding, and then you join a small group where you read books about Christian marriage, and then you sign up to make and serve coffee together, and then you’re pregnant and your small group throws you a shower and passes on hand-me-downs from their own children. And then you’ve been married for fifty or sixty years and maybe that same pastor does your funeral. That’s the dream, right? The tradition? There really is something lovely about it. But what is a single person in the church doing at age twenty-seven? Forty? Sixty? Who do they sit next to? What comes to their minds when the pastor uses a dating or marriage relationship as a sermon example? Are they tacked on in a families small group? Do they always feel like the babysitter?
I know some churches are trying. “Singles group” is a thing. But really? That’s depressing on a good day, patronizing on a bad one. What are we doing there? Option A) wallowing. Option B) trying to date. And once you’ve found someone, you’re out of the group. And like, what if I’m just dating someone, not married? Does that count as single? And what counts as “dating?” When do I have to DTR to know if I’m getting kicked out of the singles group? Once my church started a “post-college, no children” group. I thought that might actually be nice—relationship status didn’t matter, you just weren’t changing diapers yet. The first several meetings were four or five couples and then a smattering of single women, never the same few twice. I felt like I was intruding on a marriage club.
This spring, I mentioned in the lounge at work that I was on the church hunt and that I was hoping for a congregation diverse in both age and race. “More like, you gotta find the one with the most eligible bachelors, right?” laughed a coworker. It was a joke, certainly. Just teasing. But it stung a little, because isn’t that how most single people are perceived? Church is a place to meet someone, so that you can winnow down the population of single people that we just don’t know what to do with.
For now, I’m visiting churches with a friend who’s also looking for a new place, simply because it’s easier go somewhere new with a companion. You have someone to sit by and to talk with in the narthex during coffee hour. But he and I have different worship style preferences, so eventually I’ll have to strike out on my own. I hope I can find a church that has considered how to serve single people. I’m certainly willing to join in, to advocate for myself, even to talk to strangers. But I can only do so much for so long. So I hope they ask “what can we do for someone who comes alone but wishes he didn’t?” or “what can we do for an LGBT member who is single by choice?” or “how can we include that new girl hovering on the edge of the foyer?”
Abby Zwart (’13) teaches high school English in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She spends her free time making lists of books she should read, cooking, and managing the post calvin.