Note: As the prevalence of shelter-at-home orders and complete lockdowns increases, some solutions suggested in this article may become increasingly unwise. Everyone is accepting some level of self-imposed loneliness today so that those we love can have more life tomorrow. Even if some feel they are bearing more of that burden than others, they can look to Jesus, a sinless savior who bore the burdens of others so that they might have life.
The effects of coronavirus have highlighted the vulnerability of multiple populations: the elderly, the immunocompromised, and hourly workers—to name a few. Many more articles and news programs should advocate for these at-risk groups.
However, another group of people have been particularly affected by coronavirus precautions: single Christians. Our necessary social distancing and church cancelations have eliminated the primary ways widows, single parents, divorcees, and those called to singleness for the Lord experience family in the body of Christ. Single Christians rely on community groups and worship services to meet most of their needs for human connection in healthy ways. Coronavirus has left single Christians feeling even more alone and empty than usual.
But our churches can do something about it.
Those in nuclear families can open up their communities to single Christians in safe ways, and, in the process, married and single Christians alike will find a richer experience of family in the body of Christ.
You might be surprised how coronavirus precautions have affected single Christians. Like everyone else, widows, single parents, divorcees, and those called to vocational singleness are staying home. For some this has meant being stuck in a house with roommates they merely live with to pay rent. Other single Christians live alone, so quarantine has been solitary confinement. Still others are single parents, shut in with children without the regular support from church friends and public school. These hardships deepen at the sight of social media posts celebrating the surprising sweetness of traditional families forced to spend more time together.
Why are single Christians particularly affected by the cancellation of church gatherings? In-person Bible studies, accountability groups, house churches, small groups, community groups, Wednesday night potlucks, worshipping shoulder to shoulder with other people, and holding hands while praying at church—participating in these activities provides disproportionately more of single people’s experience of family in the body of Christ.
Those in nuclear families still need and benefit from these church gatherings, to be clear, but they meet many of their intimacy needs in healthy ways with their spouse and kids. So when church activities are, reasonably, canceled to prevent the spread of coronavirus, single Christians are cut off from the primary ways they meet their intimacy needs in healthy ways.
In particular, widows, single parents, divorcees, and those called to singleness for the Lord are getting even less of their needs for healthy physical touch met. The hand shakes, hugs, sitting close in the pews, physical closeness during worship, holding hands while praying in church, sitting next to each other over a meal of fellowship, playing with the children in a small group—all of these are gone. There is no replacement for healthy physical contact. While we all should be practicing social distancing and are, as a result, getting less of our touch needs met, spouses and children in traditional families are probably providing even more physical affection to each other during these troubling times. In contrast, single Christians are getting even less than normal.
Then what happens if a single Christian contracts coronavirus? If those called to singleness for the Lord are forced to seek care in a hospital, who will think of them? Who will make sure widows don’t go a day without meaningful virtual connection? Or if single parents are fortunate enough to get a milder case and require care from home, who will take care of them, knowing caretakers are risking exposure to the virus? Who will bring divorcees food and fluids? Help them rest? Encourage them to breathe in the steam from a hot shower? Who will comfort single Christians when they are scared? When single Christians desperately need someone to hold their hand and tell them, “It’s going to be okay,” who will interlock fingers with them, knowing the risk of this display of compassion?
The coronavirus pandemic hasn’t created new problems for single Christians. It has merely highlighted what’s been true for decades in our churches: they aren’t places where single people can find the family they need. The pandemic has just amplified the symptoms of lonely single Christians in our churches. Yet the solution to our present crisis is the same solution needed six months ago: become churches where single people can find just as much family as those in traditional families.
We can provide robust family in the body of Christ to widows, single parents, divorcees, and those called to singleness for the Lord. It will require those in nuclear families to take risks, but let’s be honest: those in traditional families are hurting during this crisis as well. Behind warm-fuzzy social media posts are parents overwhelmed with balancing full-time jobs and full-time childcare at the same time. While they have at least one companion living in their home, many married people have built a network of friendships in addition to their spouse, and they’re missing the healthy intimacy from those friendships. Marriage problems that were kept at a safe distance before coronavirus are now amplified and unavoidable because of the constant proximity and stress of the crisis, and married Christians need help from the rest of the body of Christ to process those challenges. Extending nuclear families to single Christians will provide family in the body of Christ to single Christians while also providing much needed support to traditional families at the same time.
I want to offer three powerful suggestions for how nuclear families can safely extend the love of God to widows, single parents, divorcees, and those called to singleness for the Lord:
In Genesis 2:18, God says that it is not good for man to be alone. He made us for human companionship in addition to intimacy with our Creator. Single Christians need human intimacy just as much as married people. Offer single Christians in your life small but meaningful doses of connection. Plan recurring video chats with single Christians and ask them how they are holding up—a connection they can look forward to when they are enduring periods of loneliness. Plan small group hangouts with a few single Christians while keeping surfaces clean and six feet of distance. Go on a walk outside or go grocery shopping together. Reach out to elderly single people and ask them if you can run errands for them or go grocery shopping for them. Contact single parents in your life and offer to babysit their children for them while they rest or run errands. Whatever you do, inject yourself in the lives of single Christians so they can experience the love of God in tangible ways.
In Psalm 68:6, the Psalmist celebrates that “God sets the lonely in families.” God’s solution to loneliness is to place lonely people in families. Those in traditional families can follow God’s example by placing single Christians in their families. But truly being family requires more than virtual hangouts, six-foot distances, elbow bumps, and limited exposure. To truly be included in a nuclear family, single Christians need to connect at a depth and frequency that will necessarily expose those people to each other. So to reduce exposure to too many different people, traditional families could adopt one or two single people into their family during this time, inviting them into their isolated germ pool and asking them to limit exposure to anyone else outside of this cell. But since they’re a part of the family now, you can include them in much more meaningful ways. Invite your single Christian to visit often, include them in meals, ask them to help with chores, do laundry together, clean the house together, and most of all, touch them. Share healthy physical affection with them. Don’t treat them like a leper. Treat them like a sibling, even if your sibling had coronavirus.
In Matthew 12:46-50, Jesus teaches that the Church, the communion of all Christians, should be a Christian’s first family. Jesus subverts our understanding of family, rejecting familial ties based solely on biology and instead establishing that Christian family is bound by the blood of Christ.
If our churches are supposed to be family for every believer, we need to ensure that our churches are truly places where single Christians can find a robust experience of family. We don’t have to wait until coronavirus has passed to begin developing this capacity in our churches.
Widows, single parents, divorcees, and those called to singleness for the Lord needed family in the body of Christ long before coronavirus, and because becoming churches where single Christians can find real family will take time, we would benefit from starting now. Volunteer to gather with leaders at your church to honestly assess the health of single Christians’ church family experience. Cast a vision for what it would look like to be a church where single Christians find the same depth and permanence of family as those in traditional families. Develop a careful step-by-step strategy for realizing that vision.
Vocational Singleness is the Activating Agent for Church Family
The ragtag cohort of single Christians includes many who are single because of circumstances entirely or meaningfully beyond their control: widows, divorcees, single parents, and single people who want to marry. Then there are Christians who have answered a call to lifetime vocational singleness for the sake of the kingdom. Unfortunately, those who are single because of circumstances are unlikely to find family in the body of Christ until churches take vocational singleness seriously. Let me explain.
Christians leaders can procrastinate offering family in the body of Christ to widows, divorcees, single parents, and single people who want to marry by simply offering marriage as the solution. Pastors and lay leaders can say, “If you’re lonely, go get married.” At some level, this message translates to, “We are too busy to be family for you. Get married like everyone else so we don’t have to bother.”
But when churches recognize that God calls a meaningful minority of Christians to a lifetime vocation of singleness for the sake of the kingdom, churches are motivated to provide practical support for those called to singleness for the Lord. These churches believe that God intended some Christians to remain permanently single, and marriage is not the solution for them; therefore, these churches are willing to accept the responsibility to be family for the vocationally single. Yet those called to vocational singleness aren’t the only people who will benefit from this new support.
Churches that provide those called to vocational singleness with robust family in the body of Christ will also be places where divorcees, widows, and single parents will find the support they need. All single people will find family in the body of Christ, whether their singleness is for a long time or lifetime, by calling or by circumstance.
Your church can become a place where those called to vocational singleness experience family in the body of Christ by
- Teaching what the Bible has to say about vocational singleness
- Guiding teens and young adults to discern whether they are called to vocational singleness or Christian marriage
- Boosting the number of vocationally single leaders and pastors in your church
- Celebrating the callings of those called to vocational singleness, and
- Helping the vocationally single build intentional Christian communities where they can find lived-in family.
Don’t know where to start? Want a curated list of suggested resources about vocational singleness? Need help casting a vision and developing a strategy for your church? Contact me today at email@example.com to learn more.
In the meantime, let us pray for the Church and for the whole world:
Increase, O God, the spirit of neighborliness among us, that in peril we may uphold one another, in suffering tend to one another, and in homelessness, loneliness, or exile befriend one another. Grant us brave and enduring hearts that we may strengthen one another, until the disciplines and testing of these days are ended, and you again give peace in our time; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (Occasional Prayer #44, BCP 2019, pg. 659)
Pieter Valk is a member of Church of the Redeemer Anglican in Nashville, TN. He studied at Vanderbilt University, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminar, and Lipscomb University. Pieter is the Director of EQUIP, a team of missionary consultants who help churches become places where LGBT+ people can belong and thrive according to an orthodox Christian sexual ethic. He is also a clinical mental health counselor that serves LGBT+ students at a local Christian university. Learn more about his story here.