Singleness is a wonderful gift – in our churches and on the mission field. So, why do we act like there's something wrong with it?
Here's an idea. What if we didn't tell single people to wait? What if we decided not to assure them that God has the perfect person out there for them and they just need to be patient while he refines them? What if we stopped treating singleness like a stopgap, took the words of Paul seriously and realised that maybe it actually is "better to stay unmarried" (1 Corinthians 7:8)?
Some single Christians have believed a lie. An unbiblical lie that the evangelical community has subscribed to and disseminated. A lie which says happiness, fulfilment and success come from a ring on your finger. That marriage and adulthood are synonymous. Single people have inadvertently been told that they're not ready or grown-up enough to be used by God. They have been put in a waiting room while there are hundreds of opportunities available for them to serve right now – in a myriad of ways in which their singleness actually gives them a practical, and maybe even a spiritual, advantage.
Amazing single Christians have been changing the world for the last 2,000 years. And they are doing so today. It's time for the Church to start recognising it and encouraging single people to use the gifts God has given them, at home and in overseas mission. They've got a lot to offer.
"I felt a freeness to go, being single," says Justin, a missionary in Chad (name has been changed). "I realised I was in a stage of life where I could just drop everything and try this out." Justin is working in a very rural area in Chad, a majority Muslim country. Life can be unstable and, for him, being single has significant benefits.
"It's the reason I'm here," he says. "I think if I was married and had a family I would really feel the burden of it. That is not true of everyone, and there are amazing couples and families out there serving. But personally I just feel so much less worried. I can go out and come home whenever I need to. And it's really easy to make decisions."
When Justin decided to take the step into overseas mission there were people who asked, 'are you going to Chad to find a wife?' It's an undermining questioning of motive that married missionaries face far less often. "I think a lot of people haven't even thought that you can live life in a state of singleness and that be okay," he says. "It doesn't come up often, but sometimes there's a need to just tell people, 'actually, I'm having a great life.'"
Rev Dr Lina Toth (formerly Lina Andronoviene) has studied singleness and the evangelical Church's view on it extensively and has come to the conclusion that our view on marriage and family life is based on Old Testament pinciples. "One of the accusations towards the first Christians was that they were destroying the Roman society because they were anti-family," Toth says. Early Christians found their primary community in the church, and many of them were purposefully single – an approach that directly contrasted with the Roman pagan emphasis on family. "I don't think most Christians and most churches grasp quite how radical the New Testament is," Toth adds. "Starting with Jesus saying: 'who is my mother and who is my brother?', all the way to Paul saying: 'I wish all of you were single, because it is so much better.'"
According to Toth, while our churches occasionally preach on the 'gift of singleness', an undertone in church life often implies that there is something wrong with single people – leaving many singles fervently praying that God hasn't given them that gift. Questions that amount to: 'why are you still single?' are asked over coffee at the end of a Sunday service, and well-meaning couples relentlessly try to match-make their single friends. It's rare to find single ministers, and in some churches it is an actual prerequisite of leadership to be married. "There's an assumption somehow that single people are less mature, less experienced," says Toth. "I would say many churches are suspicious of singleness."
The overwhelming emphasis on marriage within the church can result in single people missing the unique opportunities their singleness provides – whether they are single involuntarily and temporarily or whether it is what God has called them to long term.
World mission owes much to singles. People like Mother Teresa and Jackie Pullinger. People like Paul. And of course, the author of mission himself, the one who told us to 'go' – Jesus.
The freedom found in singleness creates opportunities to work in places where it would be very difficult for families to serve. Laura-Lee Lovering is living and working in a rural town in Peru's Amazon, with Christian charity BMS World Mission. There are no international schools where she is serving, so if she had children it would be challenging to work there.
"The benefit of having single people on the mission field is that we can just get up and go wherever we need to," Lovering says. "Single people can be sent to places where it wouldn't be practical to send a family."
There's also the gift of focus. "The very biblical answer is that 'of course, if I am single, I can focus fully on the work and my relationship with the Lord,'" says Laura. "And to a big extent, that's true. I don't have to worry about anything else – I can simply worry about my relationship with God and how I can maximise my time for the ministry. No-one's going to say: 'you haven't spent time with me. You need to spend time with the kids.'"
While it may be easier to focus, being single in mission is not straightforward. If it's an uncomfortable novelty for someone to be single and happy in the UK, in countries like Peru and Chad, where Lovering and Justin are serving, it's completely counter-cultural. Laura is often asked when she is going to get married by her Peruvian colleagues and the people she meets. "It used to bother me," she says. "I used to think, 'why aren't you asking me if I am happy? Surely that's the important thing.' But now I just gloss over it. It's important to them."
Singleness is often equated with loneliness, and the fear of being lonely is undeniably a big factor when choosing to become a missionary. For many people, the leap of faith needed to embark on mission is too big to take alone. While in the New Testament, Christians' primary community was the church family, in our modern Western society the 'normal' way to find belonging is often through marriage and children.
And concern about being alone – and lonely – is legitimate. "At times it is lonely, yeah," Justin says. "I think that's part of the cost. Loneliness is always an issue. You can be married and lonely, or single and lonely. I think that sense of belonging only comes through committed community. We all need that. Marriage is obviously an amazing means of finding that, but it is not the only one."
Society's obsession with a 'happily ever after' has rubbed off on the church, and "we have completely sold ourselves to the myth of happiness coming from coupledom," says Toth. Buying into that lie can rob us of our joy and potential.
"This is a good part of my life," says Justin, "and from my perspective it's ideal right now."
The Bible celebrates a diversity of people and relationships, and Toth believes the church will grow healthier and stronger if we start to do the same. "The evangelical church often prides itself on following the Bible, but it's definitely failing to take seriously what the New Testament says about singleness and marriage," she says.
"We need to convert and really embrace the radical nature of our call."
Of course, that doesn't mean it's wrong for single people to want to get married, or that marriage and family don't bring great things to the church and the mission field. Of course they do. But God's will looks different for each person.
Perhaps it's time to start building real Christian community, where we love each other – singles and marrieds – like brothers and sisters, children and parents. Marriage is a wonderful gift – but it's a calling, not an inevitability. Singleness can be a wonderful gift too. If we encourage people to cherish it and use it while they have it, our churches could be safer spaces and our mission more effective. We'll also stop annoying the single people in our lives – and that has to be a good thing.
"If the Lord's chosen you to do something then let him guide you, let him send you. You don't have to be in a couple to do mission," says Lovering. "If you do need to be in a couple, he'll provide you with someone. And if you don't, you'll be OK."
Sarah Stone works for a British Christian mission agency.