There is an episode of the hit TV show New Girl in which the main character, Jess, decides to embrace her newfound singleness by starting a Singles Club. She invites the group on what is supposed to be a couples’ camping trip and is met with frustration by her ever-exasperated friend, Schmidt, who eventually condescends, “You guys are telling each other that you’re happy being this, when we all know that you would rather be this” [referring to himself and his partner]. It’s an unvarnished moment that is obviously met with defensiveness from the Singles Club, but it hits a nerve for a reason. Many of us who have been single, perhaps longer than we expected, may find ourselves wrestling with such messages. Do I actually want to be single or am I just convincing myself to make the best of Plan B while still hoping that Plan A will pan out? Is being partnered really intrinsically “better,” or are there other factors that make singleness feel so difficult sometimes?
Rather than resisting the surrounding culture’s obsession with love and romance (thoroughly exemplified through TV shows like New Girl), the American Evangelical Church has largely bought into this and rebranded using spiritual messaging. This includes but is not limited to the notion that, while society says you need romantic love and an idyllic family to be happy, the Church frequently communicates that you need these things not only to be happy but to live the ideal Christian life and to be a valuable part of the faith community. This messaging is implicitly communicated by who the Church most values, what is preached about, and the types of ministries offered. (How many sermon series have you heard about marriage versus singleness? How many resources are allocated to family ministries like Sunday school, youth group, parenting classes, VBS?)
The irony is that in seeking to cultivate relational healing and wellbeing by bolstering marriages and families, this hyper-focus instead further alienates the many who don’t fit this nuclear family ideal.
In a fascinating historical analysis of how family structures have changed over the course of human existence, cultural commentator David Brooks doesn’t mince words in calling out the myth of the nuclear family in the United States in an article entitled, “The Nuclear Family was a Mistake.”
Brooks writes, “When we have debates about how to strengthen the family, we are thinking of the two-parent nuclear family, with one or two kids, probably living in some detached family home on some suburban street. We take it as the norm, even though this wasn’t the way most humans lived during the tens of thousands of years before 1950, and it isn’t the way most humans have lived during the 55 years since 1965. Today, only a minority of American households are traditional two-parent nuclear families and only one-third of American individuals live in this kind of family. That 1950–65 window was not normal. It was a freakish historical moment when all of society conspired, wittingly and not, to obscure the essential fragility of the nuclear family” (Brooks, 2020).
Additionally, the idea that a tight-knit nuclear family with a mom, dad, and 2.5 kids is the biblical ideal is misguided, given that most examples of family in the Bible look nothing like this. Most biblical households were intergenerational, included non-biological members such as servants, and some even involved polygamy. You would be hard-pressed to find a biblical example of a “nuclear family” as understood in our modern context. Yet, the Church’s emphasis on this ideal is relentless, and this influence can be felt from a young age.
Growing up in church, I was surrounded by lots of “good Christian families,” and the model of a successful Christian woman was primarily to marry a godly man and raise godly kids. I deeply internalized this, even writing letters to my “future husband” starting at the age of 11 or 12. (Why is that what I was thinking about? Why wasn’t I just being a kid?) I wonder how much less suffering I, and countless others, would have experienced if we were encouraged to have other dreams for our lives as well? I wonder what else that curious and creative 11-year-old girl might have imagined for herself?
The suffering that results from not “achieving” what is deemed most important by your faith community is compounded by the sense of invisibility that often accompanies singleness in the Church. A good friend of mine recounts a noticeable uptick in dinner invitations once she was married, even though she had belonged to this small, tight-knit church as a single woman for several years prior. It was as if she now “registered” in the church’s collective consciousness in a different way now that she was part of a couple. In evangelical spaces, where patriarchal roots run deep, one’s status is often elevated through association with a man, primarily through being someone’s wife.
Because of this, it often feels like the Church doesn’t know what to do with you while you are single. There may be awkward singles groups, patronizing shout-outs during the inevitable marriage series, even unsolicited advice or set-ups. For many, there are few places more painful to be single than an evangelical church. Rather than being a place of belonging, the structure and activities of the church often serve to magnify one’s loneliness. How many programs, activities, special events, and sermon series are centered around couples, families, and children? Even in these environments, I have certainly felt enveloped in loving church relationships. But other times, I have left feeling lonelier than when I arrived. It can be less lonely simply not going to church than going and trying to be a part of something that largely was not designed for you.
There are countless statistics about the health dangers of loneliness as well as the health benefits of marriage. But it makes me wonder: is it really because being partnered is intrinsically better for us or because being single in this society (the church being no exception) is so alienating? It should be just as possible to lead a healthy, thriving life, so long as one is in a supportive and non-stigmatizing environment.
David Brooks proposes a possible solution in the form of chosen or “forged” families, which include non-biological individuals who are nonetheless deeply committed to one another. Sounds a bit like what the Church was intended to be, yes? But because many of our churches have been so intoxicated by a sociological fantasy from the 1950s, we all miss out on the deeper, wider, richer community God has envisioned for us. The roots of our ancient faith, which has a long history of bringing together people who would normally never even associate, provide us a path forward.
The Church can and should be a refuge from the onslaught of unrealistic ideals about love and family, a safe place where all people, regardless of societal status, can feel seen, included, and loved. What would happen if the Church loosened its grip on the nuclear family ideal and was willing to reimagine the concept of family? Nuclear families would be invited out of their insular units, which can be isolating and overwhelming in their own right, and the church family encouraged to engage as a whole, across socially-constructed stratifications. Single people would be empowered in positions of influence and leadership. There would be support for and resources encouraging intergenerational and other nontraditional forms of communal living. Maybe even a sermon series about singleness that married people could learn something from? At its foundation, a healthy church must cultivate a culture that values people as people and sees them for who they are as individuals made in the image of God, rather than ascribing value based on who they are attached to or in relationship with. The Church must resist the myriad ways society tries to assign us more or less status and insist on radical inclusivity and equality in Christ. As Galatians 3:28 says, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, [neither single nor married], for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
And let us remember what Jesus said about true family: it is not flesh-and-blood but those who do God’s will. The family that will transcend biological heredity is the spiritual family of God. Therefore, true belonging is found in one’s identity as a child of God, a beloved member of the wider human family. From Jesus, we will always hear, “Yes, there’s a place for you in this family, you are needed and wanted here, you belong.” May the Church be known for its radical embodiment of this message to all.