There seems to be a growing awareness that, despite all evidence to the contrary, single people are complete human beings deserving of attention and respect. I'm thrilled these conversations are happening.
These discussions have revolved around navigating friendships with those in different life stages, how marrieds can help singles not feel ostracized, and what the church can do to help. I have an incredibly diverse set of friends. They're all over the map in regards to age, occupation, and life stage, but they graciously share their life and wisdom with me.
A number of families have invited me for dinner, game nights, to the zoo, to hop in their open van seat to see Christmas lights, and extend open invitations to drop by any time. (Which I take them up on--especially when I "happen to be in their area" at dinner time.) I attempt to convey my gratitude, but these families will never fully know how much I'm blessed by this sort of inclusion.
Based on my observations, I've compiled my advice** to marrieds, singles, and the church on how to cultivate these relationships.
For the marrieds:
Please, please invite us into your chaos.
With a few exceptions, most of my relationships with friends who are married began with the line "you're welcome to come over, but just so you know, things are a little crazy here." (Side note: If you think I have it all together, just look in the back of my car. That mess comes from just me. If/when I ever have kids I'm gonna need to get a trash compacting suburban. If it doesn't exist I'll invent one.)
Don't be afraid of letting us into your mess. We can handle it. If we don't feel up to handling it we can say no. (That's a perk of being single.) Don't feel like you have to entertain or impress us. We're not there to judge. (If we do judge, that's on us not you.) I've had many deep conversations while helping someone fold laundry or unload a dishwasher. For me, it gives me a sense of belonging. Look for ways to include us at gatherings, seek us out at church, and invite us to sit at your table.
Please give singles patience and grace.
My friends have been so good at extending grace. They listen to my problems, which are so very different than their own. In fact, my problems may seem petty to a sleep-deprived parent who spent the night waiting for their child to pass a quarter they swallowed. Yet they offer encouragement, advice, and, very often, a cup of coffee and an invitation to stay for fish sticks and buttered noodles.
If singles seem ungrateful for their season or trivial in their complaints, please listen anyway. Our problems are real to us, and when we're married with a circus of our own we'll reflect back on how good we had it during our single days.
For the singles:
Accept/Embrace/Encourage the chaos.
When you're at a house with kids, prepare to get interrupted, crawled on, or have a child shoot past you in the kitchen on roller skates. (Whenever this happens I get a little jealous that it's no longer socially acceptable for me to go around the house on skates.)
Offer to help make dinner (stirring things is one of my spiritual gifts), hold a baby, or fold clothes. Meaningful conversations (however fragmented) happen in the mess of life. It's easier to build friendships when we desire to be included, not entertained.
Give the benefit of the doubt and a lot of grace.
I've felt the sting of being excluded from small groups and other gatherings simply because everyone else was married and I was not. It's understandable to feel left out when events are constantly geared toward families and Bible studies happen in the morning when most of us are working to pay our bills. (I see this often with women's Bible studies.)
Keep in mind, though, that these folks typically aren't trying to exclude singles. In the case of the morning Bible studies, these mamas are at a point where their free time happens in the morning. In the afternoon, when kids return from school and husbands get home from work, it's more difficult to run off anywhere. Let's choose to support and encourage the parents in our congregation, even as our hearts ache to be where they are.
In short, people aren't going to handle things perfectly. We're not always going to be included, valued and remembered. However, I'm convinced one of the most destructive attitudes to the body of Christ is the subtle grumbling about how we're being overlooked. Be quick to forgive, and turn your energy toward seeking out others who may not "fit the mold."
For the church:
Including singles isn't a matter of putting on more events specifically for them.
In my opinion, church leaders have the most difficult challenge in providing fellowship for single members. Because "singles" is such a broad category (age, divorced, widowed, career, etc.) it's difficult to lump us into one Sunday School class or event.
Rather than focusing on events geared especially for singles, focus on events that include everyone in your church. Make it a point to provide, as much as you can, an atmosphere where everyone feels comfortable, valued, and included. If necessary, give the families in your congregation a little push to take initiative, be intentional, and invite singles into their world. (Much of community happens on this level. The church can facilitate opportunities, but individuals ultimately need to take these steps.)
Be sensitive to your tone when talking about marriage to singles.
I used to joke that the church's message to singles was:
"Get married--it's great! You'll hate your life, but it's the good kind of hate that God uses to sanctify you."
It probably was unintentional, but in my twenties I heard a lot of negative things about marriage from the church. (While they were encouraging/scolding me that I needed to be making it a top priority.)
I became very cynical about love and marriage. (It didn't help that I was knee deep in standup at the time and was constantly hearing comics--even Christian ones--portray their marriage and spouse as a regret.)
It wasn't a sermon or book that softened my heart toward the idea of marriage. It was watching my married friends grow closer to each other and God through the ups and downs of life, and living on mission together for the gospel. It's been through hanging out with my married friends that I've seen the honest truth: Marriage is difficult, yes, but the blessings far surpass the sacrifices.
Generally, the pendulum in the church's presentation on marriage swings between it being a sanctification torture chamber (I once heard someone say "the first year is awful, but at least you get to have sex.") and a perfect fairy-tale ending.
In conclusion (I know, finally!)
Rather than keeping score on how we're being served, let's seek out ways to bless those around us, no matter how different their life looks than our own. Life is hard. For everyone. Each life stage comes with different trials and different blessings.
My biggest hope for singles and marrieds in the church is that we'll avoid the "us" vs. "them" mentality. We're all on the same team and we need to encourage and support each other. Sometimes that means stepping out of your comfort zone, other times it means giving someone space. In all situations it means offering up a lot of patience and grace and choosing not to be offended.
I can't wait until I wake up with a husband, six kids, a dog, a turtle, a couple of fighting beta, and a list of responsibilities that accompany those things. More than that, though, I can't wait to see God's will for my life. I don't know if it includes a husband, half a dozen kids and a pet store, but I know that life is made richer when you're surrounded by people who challenge you. And that includes people walking a different path.
What's your life stage? What would you want others not in your life stage to know?
**Please keep in mind when taking any advice from me that I teach children music during the day and tell jokes at night, which essentially makes me an adult Hannah Montana.
Teaching my friend's new baby play piano.
With my sweet friend Lisa and her family (everyone in the background, basically) at a Balloon Festival.