Living Single in the Suburban Church: “I’m Not A Problem to be Solved”

In the typical suburban evangelical church, being single is treated like a problem which needs to be solved, as though a single person must need a spouse in order to image God. I could not disagree more.

Often the church tries to create and manage matchmaking environments for those who are unmarried under the guise of “singles” ministries. Not that all singles groups live-action versions of Christianmingle.com. I’m not saying that. In fact I think it is actually pretty amazing when single Christians worship together and end up falling in love. Many of my closest friends at church met through a group just like that. But, what about the person for whom marriage just might not be in the cards?

Hauerwas rightly suggests that we all fear being alone. This is a basic human fear. The reason we fear being alone is that we have been created by God for community. The problem is that suburban culture is steeped in the narrative that the best way to avoid feeling alone is to get married. Our society seems to think that marriage is the end-all-be-all of community. I think it’s not. I counsel with married people who are desperately lonely all the time! The end-all-be-all of human community is not marriage, it is the church, or the communion of saints.

Is marriage the only remedy for feeling alone? I think it’s not.

Is it possible to live in fulfilling, loving community as a single person? I think it is.

Hauerwas suggests that the most basic form of Christian community is the communion of the saints. I think he’s right.

I love two things about this video. First, when Hauerwas talks about placing the casket on the baptismal at a funeral, he speaks as though the primary narration of what a person’s life means falls to the church; not the spouse, not the children, but the church. The church will bear witness to the life lived by the saint. He or she has come full circle from their baptism to their death and they have to die as they lived – trusting  that God will raise them to new life when it’s all said and done. That the community has this awesome responsibility should make us live our lives more vulnerably than we would otherwise.

The second important thing he says is that church membership is nothing less than participation in the communion of saints. Church is the most basic form of human community. Participation in the body of Christ is meant to be the most significant form of our communing. All other forms of belonging draw their meaning from this: we belong to Jesus and to the people of God.

I don’t believe Hauerwas means this in an idealized way (as though all my best friends must be at my church). I think he means that when I think about who I am at my core, basic, and most essential level, I confess that I am a part of the people of God at Redemption Church. All of the other relationships flow out of that most basic form of belonging, including my marriage and family. In fact this is not a married thing or a single thing, this is a church thing. It is our participation in the communion of saints which shows us how to do all other forms of community: marriage, family, close friendships, work relationships, hobby affinities, sports teams, and so on.

By the way, I say this as someone who has 16 years invested in a marriage about which I am ecstatic. I could not have hoped for a marriage as wonderful as mine. But even a good marriage is incomplete on its own. In fact, in order for a marriage to be intelligible at all I think it needs the church. Same goes for the life of a single person, for their life to be intelligible it needs the church. The church is the foundation upon which all human relationships are built. The church can work with marriages, it can work with singles, it can work with all kinds of relationships, to give their lives meaning and to draw them into the most essential belonging – our participation in the communion of saints and the mission of God.

What do you think? Yes? No?

About Tim Suttle

Tim Suttle is a pastor, writer, and musician. He is the author of several books: Shrink: Faithful Ministry in a Church Growth Culture (Zondervan 2014), Public Jesus (The House Studio, 2012), and An Evangelical Social Gospel? (Cascade Books, 2011). Tim's work has been featured at The Huffington Post, The Washington Post, Sojourners, and other magazines and journals. Tim is also the founder and front-man of the popular Christian band Satellite Soul, with whom he toured for nearly a decade. He has planted three successful churches over the past 13 years and is the Senior Pastor of Redemption Church in Olathe, Kan. Tim's blog, Paperback Theology, is hosted at Patheos.

  • Matt Jenson

    Great word, Tim. I couldn’t agree more. And as a single 36-year-old, I can testify to how central what you’re saying is to my life and the lives of many people (single & married) I know. Thanks for this.

  • Tim Suttle

    Thanks Matt – great to hear from you. I hope you are well!

  • drdanfee

    Well Pastor Tim, I can only read/hear your words as a call to live towards the One Who Calls Us, and as many witnesses attest from many different sources of authority, as an individual human I can only live into and towards, whatever calls and lures and draws me on, daily, with and among others. I don’t see much in my local churches these days regardless of their sounds, colors, textures, and plethora of messages pumped out … that actually engages me for real on a human positive basis … as an aging single gay man with life threatening chronic illness who is also coping (befuddled, I’ll admit, readily) with flashbacks to rape and stress injury, not the least of which was giving ten years of my young life between about 13 and 23 years old to church and counseling aimed at ‘freeing’ me from vivid capacities for same sex intimacy, along with ‘empowering’ me in Christ to either become blessedly ‘celibate’ (a striking sort of disembodiment, as I only found out to my pain and peril) or ‘straight’ (in that curious, special exgay/postgay sense being extolled these days). Nobody but nobody is our authentic human companion as we march doggedly through years of never, ever being touched physicall and emotionally in our deepest selves embodied. I ought to know, I’ve been trudging dutifully and imperfectly for more than half a decade. Shaking hands is fine, and hugs are sometimes deeply touching in ways that belie their brevity. The empty core that feels something like the ritual Christian starvation I once pursued to prayerfully as a fifteen year old Christian boy who was constantly in three day cycles of fasting and prayer … (I concluded I must be a wimp because I just had to eat something every fourth day) … never goes away, alas. Few people to nobody at all, ever, touches/makes contact with what makes me, me. Imperfect, weighed down as I am by ordinary life duties (work, staying housed, observing the general social norms that allow me to blend into everywhere I happen to go, learning to manage and live alone as I grow older), I am easily prepared to confess that whatever it is that would for real provide me with life-affirming companionship is best guess unlikely if not impossible at this stage of my life. Going to church is so far short of the knowing and contacting which I am trying to mention that one either has to break out laughing at the absurdity, or run sobbing in tears from the room, embarrassed. I’m not telling anybody who hears this enduring Call to be among, to stop. I’m just saying it gets complicated, not least in a guy body for a single person who isn’t ever really touched and who knows he will never, ever be touched. We are the human mammals who are called into personality and interpersonal relationship consciousness, developmentally, by the very physical-emotional care and literal to interpersonal ‘holding’ we receive from birth to five, at least. After that age? Well, the intimacy slowly drys out, shrivels, and turns to dust. I more or less am forced to entertain and imagine how I’ll probably be more intimate with my last hospice morphine pump (stage four prostate cancer with bone/lymph metastasis and counting) than I will have been with any other human mammal for the last few decades. I suspect that I may be an outlier, eccentric, grandpa, still gay and all. I suspect I’m not as exceptional as it sometimes appears to be. I can’t quite dream up any form of ‘church’ that would for real ‘cradle’ us beyond childhood. It all reminds me of an exchange I recall from many years ago. We were doing a workshop at Harvard about LGBTQ issues. An older man stood up and said: “Okay so you are telling us that people have a right to try to find safety, love, happiness, and work, all as openly gay people. But, what about those of us for whom such a path is too late? What about those of us who took the advice we were given, got married, had kids, and blended in as well as we could, with the dominant straight society? What’s all this got to offer older people like that? I was still in my 20s at the time, as were most of us gay workshop young Turks, and all we could do at that moment was acknowledge the generation gap, along with the grief implied. Talk about paths not taken, whew. Hang in there, peeps. Don’t stop trying. A few like me will always fall through the cracks on the floorboards of the Pilgrim Wagons.

    • http://www.Yeshua21.com/ Wayne

      What a wonderful expression of the loneliness and despair of our separate, egoic existence. I feel your pain. And perhaps it will have an effect inasmuch as it is not unique to homosexuals growing up in conservative Christian communities in the 20th century, but is felt by lonely people everywhere (young and old, gay and straight, rich and poor). But whether or not your local church ever steps up to the plate as far as homosexuality is concerned, Jesus had you in mind when he quoted this scripture:

      “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19).

      Indeed, all that separates us from the joy of our salvation is a counterfeit reality—an imaginary projection of the carnal mind which fabricates a complex illusion through which you have been impoverished, imprisoned, blinded, and oppressed. Jesus proclaims deliverance from this illusion.

      As I see it, you have two options: 1) hold on to this “story of ‘me” and continue to suffer until you die in the warm embrace of your morphine pump, OR 2) realize who you really are, prior to and apart from this story and enjoy the love of your life…

      I hope you will step through door number two, here and now. If you’d like to do that, this article may be of interest:

      http://spiritlibrary.com/eckhart-tolle/the-inner-body

    • http://www.Yeshua21.com/ Wayne

      See also:

      Anthony de Mello – Awareness pt.56a Land Of Love

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fWGnV4eFCbM&feature=player_embedded

      [and pt.56b -- also available on YouTube]

  • Chris Lemmon

    Thanks for the word Tim. Singleness is sometimes equated with immaturity.
    I would say that the Bible presents us with a realistic view of both marriage and singleness.
    Both are equally dignified choices for Christians to make. Thanks for the healthy discussion. If the only way we talk about singleness is with the assumption that those who are single will and should eventually marry, then we do a disservice to those who are single. Single folks have additional energy, time, and attention which they can give freely to the church body, which married folks do not have because they must first direct that energy toward each other (their spouse) or toward their children.

  • http://www.Yeshua21.com/ Wayne

    ["The end-all-be-all of human community is not marriage, it is the church, or the communion of saints."]

    Lovely vision, Tim. I would only suggest that the body of which we each are members is more than just the local church and more than just “Christendom”, narrowly construed. Rather, there is a union that exists between each of us and the whole of creation. Moreover, any authentic relationship at the level of family, local church, and society at large depends upon– and is enhanced by a realization of –this more cosmic connection. And any realization of this is best understood (in the words of Plotinus) as “the flight of the alone to the alone.” As such, the local church must not be merely a herd, gathering together for warmth and protection, but point of entry into eternal life, through our death and ressurection, here and now. Thus, the narrative of the community will, ideally, point the individual beyond his or her separate existence (beyond the story of “me”) — but also beyond the local community, as such — to an authentic life in the Spirit where Reality is seen to be One (its manifold appearance, notwithstanding). From that standpoint, life, love, and relationships can spontaneously unfold as God works in us both to will and to do of his good pleasure. Glory be to God for all things! :)

    http://jeshua21.wordpress.com/2012/07/09/take-up-your-cross/

  • D. Lowery

    Thank you for this article. Was married for two years 25 years ago and it was the loneliest time I can ever remember. Since then…have gone and left churches who believed it was a sin for anyone to be single. When I would quote Paul about the blessing of being single…was told on more than one occasion that is not what Paul was talking about because it says in Genesis that everyone should be married.

    Now…being 51…I see how my life has turned out an am so happy He kept me single. Don’t get me wrong…I do feel loneliness and heartbreak from not having someone else I can lean on during the bad times…but I learned that being single all these years meant not facing a tougher past than I have. Times like now when I feel like I’m hitting my head against the would have been almost impossible to face having to worry about the welfare of someone else.

  • Nick Gotts

    In fact, in order for a marriage to be intelligible at all I think it needs the church.

    So according to you, all marriages between non-Christians are “unintelligible”. What a bizarre form of bigotry.


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