When I say the word ‘single’, who do you immediately envisage? A young person in their 20s who hasn’t yet married? Perhaps an older widow or widower? How about a single parent, or a woman in her 50s who has never married, or perhaps someone whose spouse is in a care home and no longer recognises them? All of these people are in our churches, but do we really see them?
Forty per cent of UK adults are single, but they don’t always feel welcome in church. At a time when singleness is increasing in every age group, many churches still continue to focus primarily on couples and families, leaving a growing number of single people to wonder where they fit in and whether church is even relevant to their lives. I work for campaigning organisation Single Friendly Church, which is calling on churches to recognise the needs of single people and ensure that everyone is welcomed, valued and included.
“My church is so family-focused I notice that I stand in church alone, and it hurts. In fact, so much so that currently I am on a break from church.”
That is just one response Single Friendly Church received when we asked over 3,000 single Christians to share their experiences of church. In the survey, commissioned by dating website Christian Connection (who provide ongoing support for the campaign), more than a third of respondents felt they were treated differently to people in couples. One in four often felt “inadequate or ignored”, and 43 per cent said their churches “didn’t know what to do with them”. Some had stopped attending altogether.
“In our churches we advertise family services, run marriage courses, structure activities around the school calendar and appoint leaders who are usually married with children,” Amelia Gosal, our executive director explains. “But society is changing, and many churches are currently missing out on a huge portion of the population by focusing on couples and families. Single people can be dynamic members of the congregation, and they are vital to the future of the Church.”
The good news is that making small changes can make a big difference to a single person’s experience of church. Single Friendly Church invites churches to embrace ‘5 Steps’ to welcome and include single adults. These 5 Steps correspond to five key areas of church life, including teaching, leadership and social activities. Leaders can run an audit to identify what they are already doing well to welcome single people, and areas where positive changes could be made.
The first step is to identify who is single in church, and recognise that this includes people of all ages and circumstances – including married people who attend on their own. When leaders take a closer look at their congregations, they often find they have more single members than they initially thought.
Then churches should think about how they welcome those coming alone, consider if single members are included in the social life of the church, and whether they are encouraged to use their gifts and take up leadership positions. Teaching is also key. Sermons are often targeted at married people; examples are drawn from family life and issues faced by single people are rarely touched upon. In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, topics such as loneliness, dealing with disappointment, and finding meaning and purpose for our lives are more relevant than ever – for everyone, not just singles.
Single Friendly Church has published an interactive map to help single people find a church. The churches that follow the 5 Steps and commit to welcoming, including and valuing single adults will be invited to become an official Single Friendly Church and feature on the map. And as they become more inclusive, they may see their congregations grow.
We have been encouraged by the increasing number of churches who are recognising this issue and seeking to do more to reach single people in their communities. Since social distancing has changed the way we do church, leaders are now able to physically see from seating arrangements how many people come on their own. Some are surprised at just how many single seats there are!
Local and national lockdowns have also brought to light how important it is to build caring church communities where we look out for one other and support those who feel isolated. Single Friendly Church longs to see churches grow from being a collection of nuclear families to a wider family of God that includes everyone. And, slowly, we believe that it is beginning to happen.
Find out more about Single Friendly Church, the 5 Steps and the audit tool at singlefriendlychurch.com