A few years ago, I had a Mormon friend who invited me to attend a service at his church (also known as a “ward”). I had visited a Mormon church service in high school, so I knew what to expect — or so I thought.
Upon my arrival, I noticed that everyone there was young. Seriously, it was a room full of 20-somethings. And although there was one young married couple who appeared to be in leadership, none of the women that I saw had on wedding bands. Another thing: During the music, I was pretty sure one woman in the choir kept looking at me, which made me feel uncomfortable because I was a newly married man. But I figured I was just seeing things — that is, until she came and sat in the pew right in front of me, turned around and smiled. I politely smiled back and raised my left hand in a little passive-aggressive wave so she would see my wedding ring.
When the service ended, I was ready to head home because frankly, something about the experience felt uncomfortably peculiar to me. I mean, I knew I had serious theological differences with Mormons, but that wasn’t what was bothering me. There was just something odd going on, and I couldn’t put my finger on it. But then the removable wall in the back of the room parted, opening to a banquet room with non-caffeinated drinks and generous helpings of finger foods.
I looked at my watch and headed for the spread of food, hoping the mingling festivities didn’t last too long. And in the meantime, I lost my friend in the crowd, so I went to the corner of the room where a guy was sitting by himself eating ham on a sweet roll.
The Truth Comes Out
“Is this your first time here?” I asked.
“Well, it’s my first time back,” he said, looking a little uncomfortable.
“Did you leave the church?” I asked.
“No, I was at another ward for a while,” he said.
I was confused, because I thought you didn’t have a choice which ward you were in, so I kept prying until he said, “I was at the ward for married folks, but my wife and I ended up getting a divorce.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said. “So why did you come to this one?”
“Dude, this is the singles ward,” he said.
And that’s when it all made sense — the awkwardness in the air, the staring, the hors d’oeuvre buffet — this was the Mormon equivalent of an evangelical singles ministry. I was taken aback. It had been years since I had been to any sort of singles church function — much less presumed to be single. And as a married man, I saw it with a fresh pair of eyes.
My experience at the singles ward brought back some of the memories of how it felt to be single in the church, and quite frankly, I think it would probably be a good social experiment for a lot of married folks to go on a field trip to a random singles ministry every once in a while. Because if we were to dig back through the cobwebs of years that have passed since then, we would remember that being single in the church isintense.
Part of the reason it’s so intense is because, after the college years are over, there are fewer opportunities to interact with people of the opposite sex in church without it being some intentional setup. And when the church sets up social engagements between sexually abstinent church members, there’s bound to be at least some inherent degree of social awkwardness — not to mention the pressure. Every meeting that is singles-centered carries with it the unspoken goal of getting everyone hitched, which leads to all kinds of nail biting for the folks who wonder if this event will lead to their deliverance into holy matrimony.
I’m not saying we should nix these kinds of social settings; in fact, I know a lot of people who met at church singles events and got married (not to mention the fact that Boundless just did an awesome event for singles in Colorado Springs). What I’m saying is that churches need to avoid making the mistake of assuming that all single people want to do is be around other single people if they’re not in a church service. Because when we do that, we rob single people of the opportunity to be a vital part of the life of the larger congregation, and we rob the congregation of the opportunity to receive from the gifted, single members of the church.
Some of the practical ways churches can steer away from that mistake is by having married couples of all ages make a point to hang out with church members who are single; regularly sponsoring group events that involve the entire church body (including the kids); and making a concerted effort to put singles in places of leadership (and I’m not just talking about doing nursery duty or trash pickup after the Sunday night business meeting).
Don’t get me wrong: I think we ought to be doing our part to encourage marriages in the church, including having singles’ events and ministries. But as we do so, we also need to make every effort to communicate that the pursuit of marriage doesn’t happen in the vacuum of singles ministry. It happens within the larger context of a healthy church family.
This post originally appeared at Boundless.org.