Our theme for the month of June is “sex and the church.” To read posts from our first pass at this theme, check out our June 2018 archives.
When children start to reach puberty, adults start to decide that they are ready for grown-up conversations about romance and sex. Schools schedule special days to replace euphemistic terms with anatomical ones; vague conversations become more and more concrete. As the years progress, churches, too, begin to move their students from childish to adult conversations about romance and sex. Because they’re growing up, they must be ready for more mature conversations.
But, in all our planning for grown-up talks about marriage and sex, schools and churches often forget to also mature their conversations about singleness and friendship. In churchy contexts, singleness rarely appears except as a caveat. The state is framed as a season one eventually leaves, rather than a reality everyone will face at some point–and some may live for a lifetime.
When do we schedule our mature conversations about singleness and friendship? Usually, the answer is not at all. I’ve been deeply grateful for the conversations I’ve had with friends about singleness, dating, faith, identity, and how hard this all is. But these conversations have often been optional sidebars rather than easily accessible discussions. In many Christian circles, hearing faith perspectives on romance doesn’t require much work at all: just show up. But for those longing to discuss singleness and friendship, the topic always has to be brought up.
Like many of us writing this month, I believe that the American evangelical obsession with marriage, sex, and the family has been nearsighted and damaging. But at least the topics were acknowledged as important. Singleness and friendship, on the other hand, are often simply ignored. Perhaps your youth group made a pit stop at peer pressure, warning of the perils of the wrong friends, but—once one’s teenage years end—“friends” rarely appear in sermon examples or applications. Beyond a sentence or two about Paul’s singleness, most leaders rarely mention unpartnered experiences both inside and outside their congregations.
I can’t destroy longstanding trends in a few hundred words, and I can’t speak to all the many, many life experiences of those in the church. Still, here are three threads that I hope any adult Christian conversation about singleness and friendship might include.
No matter what your romantic life looks like, you need friends, and you need to value your friends.
I have a better-formed (or at least a better-instructed) theology of marriage than of friendship. The relationship between my faith and my friendships has rarely been discussed in sermons, small group studies, classrooms, or other formal “Christian” settings. Instead, these conversations have occurred in coffee shops, dorm rooms, and FaceTime calls. But if Christians are truly called to serve a God who laid down his life “for his friends,” then why do we not spend more time wrestling with how to embody this “greater love”?
By diminishing friendship, the church has increased the weight Western society places on romantic relationships. In this model, romantic relationships are the primary and most meaningful context for love, and all other forms of love are secondary and unfulfilling. Friendships are worthwhile, but they are only “practice” for the real work of romantic love.
When we place pressure on romance as the best way to express God’s love—rather than as one of many ways to do so—we unfairly slight other forms of love. This picture is deeply cruel to both single people and those in romantic relationships. Romantic relationships were never meant to be the only way humans receive and express commitment, support, or empathy. They cannot encompass every conversation, dynamic, or encouragement a person might need in their life. Friendship embraces the diversity of human experiences in ways no romantic relationship ever could. Dismissing those gifts as only “practice” is a tragedy.
If romance is the intimacy of united couples, then friendship is the intimacy of separate individuals. Friendship, unlike romance, has no hopes of exclusivity. It can be warm and expansive, no matter the friends’ situations or choices. If we are not committed to friendship, if we do not grieve and fight and ask questions alongside them, then we are the church but hardly a community.
The romantic variant of the prosperity gospel is a lie; faith is not a formula to produce the perfect life.
When I was a teenager, Christian books, leaders, and friends would sometimes suggest that my peers and I channel our feelings into a “future husband wishlist.” Perhaps this I Kissed Dating Goodbye-inspired task was a well-intentioned attempt to redirect teenagers into character-driven reflection. But even at fifteen or sixteen, I was wary of placing such incredible pressure on the idea of a person I didn’t even know. What if somewhere in the world, some guy was writing his list and I didn’t match his absurdly niche qualifications?
Still, some part of me bought into the idea that—since wanting to be in a relationship was a good (Christian) desire—God would fulfill it. It wasn’t wrong to want to be married, so how could God possibly say not ever, not yet, or not as quickly as culture or expectations demand?
This romantic variant of the prosperity gospel promises that hopes and rewards always follow one another. It ignores the longstanding Christian practice of lament, and it fails to accept that God can be good in an unpartnered life. But the truth is that, especially in the realm of romantic relationships, good behavior will not always produce good results. Sometimes the right thing to do is to break up. Sometimes the right thing to do is to be on your own for a while, or maybe forever. Sometimes God does bring people into our lives, but our goodness or godliness will not force life’s narrative into our desired shape.
You need multiple examples of the “good life” around you—several different embodiments of what the good life can and might look like.
God has not abandoned the single person, the celibate person, the widowed person, the asexual or aromantic person. The lack of a romantic relationship does not imply a lack of God’s presence. The end of a romantic relationship is the end of a kind of good life, not the end of the good life. Our callings and situations can be different, but none of them will be lesser in God’s eyes. The “good Christian life” has very little to do with one’s roles or situations, and very much to do with one’s God.
All that is very difficult to believe—or even say—when the easily available examples of “the good life” look nothing like yours. Most of the adults I knew as a child were my friends’ parents or my parents’ friends, and the vast majority of them were married. Single people were the rare exception, rather than regular members of the community. Only as I grew older did I start to meet twentysomethings who weren’t in some form of a committed relationship. I am deeply grateful for the examples of singleness I saw back early on, but—in many ways—I wish I had seen more.
Statistically, Millennials are staying single far longer and far more often than previous generations, and Gen Z and the generations that follow do not appear to be changing that trend. In 2019, only 44% of Millennials were married, in contrast to 53% of Gen Xers, 61% of Boomers, and 81% of the Silent Generation at a similar age. Half of Americans between the ages of eighteen to thirty-four say they do not have a steady romantic partner. In a time when more and more of the church is likely to be single, it is even more important to recognize the stories and experiences of those whose primary relationships are not romantic.
In Protestant circles, the image of the “perfect Christian life” has swung from pious, monastic celibacy all the way over to pious, faithful marriage. But in trying to correct the mistakes of the past, the church has forgotten members of its body. It has supported the cultural idolization of romance and its corresponding lie: human value only exists when noticed on earth.
If we want a fuller understanding of God’s presence in our world, we need the full church. When stories about singleness and friendship are scarce, they do not feel important to those telling them or to those living them. But when they are plentiful, rich, and varied in all sorts of ways, we start to recognize their value both in the past and the present.
If we truly believe in a God who gives life abundantly, we have to expand our picture of God’s goodness beyond romantic and even familial love. Passing mentions of God’s faithfulness do little to confront our fears and doubts. But stories and examples can color those statements with the faces and experiences of real people.
We are not children anymore; we are adults. And adults do not need a fairytale faith that denies their reality or promises them what God never did. I long for a church where sacrificial friendship is praised and practiced, where conversations about how to support individuals are just as common as ones on how to support couples and families. I long for a church that—in its teaching and action—reckons not only with where people wish they would or could be, but with where they are.
Courtney Zonnefeld graduated in 2018 with a degree in writing. She currently lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she works for Eerdmans Books for Young Readers. In her free time, she enjoys reading, baking, and saving up for more herb plants. You can usually find her wandering a farmer’s market, hunting for vintage books, or browsing the tea selection in coffee shops.
“The “good Christian life” has very little to do with one’s roles or situations, and very much to do with one’s God.”
Amen! It’s funny how easy it is [for me] to forget the big picture and how our God is really the best and most glorious part of that picture.
Thank you for the call for more intentional conversation about singleness and friendship. I recently attended a church conference where people were grouped by life stage/situation for a small group session, and I walked into the “working singles” room with some trepidation. However, we didn’t talk about dating/marriage at all but instead spoke at length about the blessings and challenges of being single, focusing a great deal on how important our friends and our church community are for us. It was refreshing and encouraging–like your post! We definitely need to have more of this in the church.
*snaps* Yes! The Church needs more of this, more of your voice, Courtney! Thank you for sharing.