Column One:
Eye on Unmarried America

September 11,  2006  



Religious outreach programs target singles

By Thomas F. Coleman


Weekly church attendance in the United States now stands at about 31 percent.  That's down from 41 percent in 1972.

According to W. Bradford Wilcox, a sociologist at the University of Virginia, a considerable portion of the decline in church attendance over the past 30 years is attributable to changes in American household structures. 

Census data from 1970 show that 70 percent of American households contained a married couple.  About 40 percent of all households then consisted of married couples with children. 

Last month's report from the Census Bureau disclosed that fewer than half of American households are now maintained by married couples.  Less than 24 percent of the nation's homes include a husband and wife raising children.

"Being married and having children are both associated with higher levels of religious attendance," Wilcox says.  "Specifically, adults who are married with children are significantly more likely to attend religious services weekly, compared to adults who are single and/or childless."

Wilcox reports that as of 2002, 32% of men and 39% of women who are married with children attend church weekly, compared to 15% of men and 23% of women who are single without children.

Leaders of religious organizations have noticed this gradual but steady erosion of church attendance.  Many have surmised that unmarried people may not be attending church very frequently because they don't feel comfortable in a social setting geared primarily toward married parents raising children.

To attract more unmarried adults to church services, many congregations are creating "singles ministries." 

Earlier this month, the Charleston Gazette published a story about a new singles ministry, SoLife, organized by Rita Morris, a regular churchgoer who found her attendance dropping off after her recent divorce.  The purpose of the group is to reach out to people who feel less connected with their churches because they are single or divorced. 

Last month, the Herald-Leader focused on a singles ministry that has emerged in Lexington, Kentucky.

Anthony Combs, 27, who attends NorthEast Christian Church, helps lead "The Connection" on Monday nights.  About 70 adults ranging in ages from 23 to 39, attend the weekly gathering for a night of food, worship and solidarity. 

Another story published last month mentioned an outreach program specifically targeting mid-life singles.  Karina Penaranda helped organize the Phoenix-based Catholic Singles Ministry.

“Once single people reach this age, they don’t have a community,” Penaranda told the Associated Press. “They don’t really have a place to go where they can share their hopes and dreams.”

The group sponsors a variety of events, ranging from prayer breakfasts to spiritual retreats to bowling nights.

According to a story published two years ago in the Christian Science Monitor, not all church leaders are jumping on the "singles ministry" bandwagon.

"I will probably leave this church the day we announce we're having a singles ministry function," Rev. Marc Dickmann told the Monitor.  Dickmann, pastor of an evangelical church in Charlotte, N.C., feels that special outreach programs artificially divide congregations.

Rev. John Matusiak of the Orthodox Church in America agrees. 

Another critic of singles ministries is Chris Seay, founding pastor of Ecclesia Church in Houston, Texas.  In a commentary written a few years ago for Leadership Journal, Seay argued that singles ought to be incorporated into the larger life of the congregation, not segregated.

Churches in Lafayette, Indiana, apparently aren't listening to these dissenters.  Several have formed singles ministries in recent years.

Greater Lafayette Singles, a nondenominational group, provides a guest speaker once a week and offers a short vesper service afterwards.

Covenant Presbyterian Church conducts regular Bible studies for single people. Growing Single, a group affiliated with the First Assembly of God, meets for lunch on Sundays and has fellowship nights in each others' homes.

Faith Baptist Church has three singles ministries, organized according to the age of participants -- college age, career people 25-35, and singles over 35.  Two local Catholic churches have singles ministries too.

It remains to be seen whether the trend to create singles ministries will result an overall increase in church attendance by single people.  After all, there are many factors, other than changes in marital status statistics, contributing to the secularization of America.

But for those singles who do attend church, it's not a bad idea to have an opportunity to gather with like-minded people who may share similar concerns, hopes, and fears.


© Unmarried America 2006

Thomas F. Coleman, Executive Director of Unmarried America, is an attorney with 33 years of experience in singles' rights, family diversity, domestic partner benefits, and marital status discrimination.  Each week he adds a new commentary to Column One: Eye on Unmarried America. E-mail: Unmarried America is a nonprofit information service for unmarried employees, consumers, taxpayers, and voters.