What If We Don’t Focus on the Family?

The Other 6
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I’m 25 and I’m not married. I’m fine with that. But sometimes I feel like I need to say this more loudly when I’m in church.

I’m happy with the way my life journey has allowed me to build wonderful friendships and a strong academic career. Sometimes, though, I still feel like I’m not fulfilling expectations, as I see more of my classmates post photos on Facebook with wedding veils, pregnant bellies, and infants. It’s tempting to make dramatic statements like “Everyone is married except me!”

The truth is, though, that most of my old friends aren’t married—they moved away from home in order to pursue a career or education. Studies show that this is the case for many young people across North America. But from the ways that churches focus on family life, you’d think they’ve either forgotten about single adults or they aren’t interested in including us.

Recent articles in The Banner indicate that the Christian Reformed Church has been making a greater effort to understand the exodus of adults in their 20s and 30s.  I think one reason young adults feel alienated by the church is the emphasis on families.

Of course, ministry to families and children is crucial. However, certain structures, practices, and attitudes can create an atmosphere that makes single adults and childless couples feel abnormal. Many messages are sent unintentionally, but are received all the same. Here are a few:

  1. Singleness is a problem. Sometimes well-meaning older adults ask young adults about their love life or make comments like “We need to get you married off.” While some people might appreciate being set up with your nephew or coworker, the underlying assumption is that singleness is a problem that you need help dealing with. Church members can help affirm single adults as valuable people by asking about other aspects of life more often and with sincere interest.
  2. Families are the only relevant unit. Many churches are organized around families. In some cases this makes sense: when organizing tents for a church camping trip or photos in a church directory, dealing with members of a family as individuals seems silly. Even in these cases, though, assuming families as the relevant unit can leave singles feeling out of place. For example, many churches measure membership by families rather than by individual members or adults. Invitations to a potluck ask for one or two dishes “per family.” Small groups are sometimes set up with a certain number of families. In such cases, counting adults rather than families would be more inclusive.
  3. Singles are not adults. Because single adults do not have the same needs that families do, we often get grouped with students and teenagers. This creates the feeling that we are not considered quite as adult as people who are married or have children or own their own homes. Such experiences do change a person in important ways, but so do moving away from one’s parents, starting a career, and finding community without a partner or family. The church has the opportunity to encourage and support this growth. That becomes much easier with an intergenerational approach.

Let’s Adapt

Family-focused behaviors do not alienate only young adults. They can be especially hurtful to those who have experienced divorce or other failed relationships. They can also hurt gay Christians—adding to the sense that they aren’t fully welcome.

The good news is that congregations often adapt their expectations and find ways to welcome and include “atypical” individuals. Changing some existing structures and assumptions can help singles feel confident enough to give the church a chance to do just that.

About the Author

Bethany Keeley-Jonker is an associate professor of Communication Arts at Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights, Ill. 

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