The toxic Christian cultures of purity culture, courtship culture, and marriage culture have affected single Christians in the Church. I was deeply affected by these cultures when I was single until almost 30–“ancient” by the standards of my conservative evangelical Southern upbringing.
Yet now being married and a mom of two, I no longer have a personal view of what singleness is like for Christians in their 30s and beyond. So I asked my friend MaryB. Safrit, a singles coach, author, and podcast host, to share with my blog readers her thoughts on being a single Christian.
I love how MaryB. highlights how single Christians play a unique role in the Church–and how married Christians can listen, learn from, and advocate for their single friends. She shares why it matters to have single mentors, what happens when we don’t have positive models of singleness, and spiritual promises in singleness.
“My mentor longed and longed for marriage. Single, Black woman—and she loved the Lord. She passed away… and never got to be married.”
I scribbled a note in my journal as she continued to answer my question about unhelpful advice singles often receive. As she wound her answer to a close, I asked her to tell me more about this mentor.
Ekemini went on to describe that this woman was a teacher in a discipleship ministry in which Ekemini participated. She said, “She was somebody that embodied what it means to be a Christian wholeheartedly.” As she went on to use words like “excellent,” and “regal” to paint a picture of this person who had impacted her life, I was struck by the subtle profundity of this experience.
Here was a person of authority who was faithful and dignified, who poured into the next generation, who served with excellence. And she never got married.
It’s one thing to imagine what excellence and fullness look like for someone unexpectedly single for their whole life. It’s another to witness it.
It’s one thing to imagine what excellence and fullness look like for someone unexpectedly single for their whole life. It’s another to witness it.Tweet
Why We Need Single Mentors
Looking back, I didn’t experience having an unmarried mentor. In my memory, the vast majority of leaders and teachers I learned from in church were married. I also grew up in the southeastern United States, where the pressure to marry is astronomical, particularly for women.
I suppose I thought of marriage as something that would probably happen one day, but I was in no rush. My parents didn’t marry until they were thirty—practically ancient in those days. I got my degree, traveled the world, got my Master’s degree, and moved to New York. It wasn’t until I moved to New York City that I realized how much marriage culture affected me.
I wasn’t dating, but I also didn’t particularly want to. After an intense, unhealthy dating relationship ended in my late teens, I began to wonder. How were all of these people around my age so sure marriage was what they wanted–and what they’d always want?
I grew more open to dating over the years, but for the most part, the prospect of finding a partner made me feel more anxious than excited. Since dudes weren’t exactly lining up to ask me out, it got put on the back burner as I focused on other things.
Over the years, I had internalized the narrative that my singleness and lack of dating experience meant there was something deeply wrong with me.
In many ways, being single long-term felt like charting my own path.
After four years of writing and podcasting about singleness, I know I’m not alone in this experience. So, when Ekemini stated that, as a fresh college graduate, she’d had a mentor who was a single woman, I needed to know more.
Whether or not marriage is something we experience (or even want to experience), we need to be able to imagine what faithfulness looks like whether married or single.
Whether or not marriage is something we experience (or even want to experience), we need to be able to imagine what faithfulness looks like whether married or single.Tweet
What Happens When Singles Don’t Have Mentors (and Why It Matters)
I also spoke to Dr. Katie Gaddini for Season 8 of my podcast, Unsuitable with MaryB. Safrit. She is a sociologist who spent four years researching single, evangelical women and wrote a book called The Struggle to Stay: Why Single Evangelical Women Are Leaving the Church. We discussed the many challenges and choices facing women who are single and part of the church.
Lack of mentorship was one of those challenges. Why is there a lack of mentorship for single women, particularly for women who are called to and gifted in leadership? Katie said, “A lot of women don’t have mentors; they don’t have representation; they never get the roles that men would get because there is this block around mixed-gender connections.” In churches where most leadership positions are filled by men (and married men, at that), there is an even greater barrier to single women receiving mentorship from and connecting with leaders.
Apart from the issue of leadership, when single Christians feel like we have been left to figure out our path on our own, it’s only natural that path might lead us somewhere different than our married counterparts. When we can’t see the place and value we have in a community, it’s only natural that we would try to find it elsewhere.
This exodus of single Christians from the Church robs singles of their primary source of community, and it robs the Church of the unequivocal value singles have in that community. Beyond our usefulness and marriageability, singles embody and rely upon the gospel in a way married folks do not. We rely on friendship in a way married folks do not.
There are many ways singles embody and rely upon the gospel. Singles have the opportunity to daily work out the reality that Paul describes in Galatians 6:14. “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” Paul is specifically writing about circumcision in this passage, but I believe we can think of it more generally to refer to a culturally equivalent symbol of spiritual status.
In church cultures, singles often struggle to be seen as spiritually mature, whole, and justified. In contrast, marriage and parenthood are more readily equated with sanctification, refinement, and credibility. So singles embody the good news that, in spite of our circumstances, we Christians are called to live out of a different value system—one preached by our single Savior.
We are desirable, not just because a human wants us, but because God wants us. A human has not entered into a life-long covenant relationship with us, but Jesus’ New Covenant creates a bond deeper and more eternal than the comparatively ephemeral bonds of marriage. We live this reality despite a culture that consistently implies (or explicitly states) otherwise.
When it comes to friendship, singles rely on friends for most of our relational needs. I’m having a procedure next week that requires someone to sign me out of the doctor’s office and escort me home. It’s in the middle of a weekday. Fortunately, I have a few friends whose work schedules are flexible enough to give me options. If I need help with anything, I have to ask someone outside of my household.
I love how Wesley Hill describes friendship in his book Spiritual Friendship. “Unlike romantic relationships or the bonds between siblings, friendship is entirely voluntary, uncoerced, and unencumbered by any sense of duty or debt.” There’s something extra vulnerable about letting yourself be truly seen by someone who chooses to stick around when they could just as easily walk away without ramifications. I think Jesus captures this lack of obligation in John 15:13 when he says, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
We were made to be with one another in all types of relationships. When we read the Gospels, we see Jesus’ deep love for his friends. John describes himself as the disciple whom Jesus loved. When messengers told Jesus of his friend Lazarus’ sickness, they said, “Lord, he whom you love is ill” (John 11:25). Jesus loved deeply and intimately despite never experiencing a marriage relationship. Singles know how to go outside their household for this kind of intimacy, however imperfectly, because we have to.
Our perspective on the gospel and human relationships is uniquely beneficial for the whole body.
We are desirable, not just because a human wants us, but because God wants us. A human has not entered into a life-long covenant relationship with us, but Jesus’ New Covenant creates a bond deeper and more eternal than the comparatively ephemeral bonds of marriage.Tweet
Advice for Single Christians Who Want a Mentor
One of the main goals of my podcast is to expand our collective imagination for what is possible for the lives of single Christians. Each guest, all single Christians, has a nuanced perspective on what’s hard and great about the single life. They share about their relationships, their callings, their spirituality, and the weird reality of being single in a culture obsessed with marriage.
In several episodes, guests describe how they found mentors. Typically, they came across someone they admired and asked if they would be interested in mentoring them. If finding a local mentor was not feasible for them, engaging with the stories of single Christians, like on my podcast or Living Single with Yana Jenay or Where Do We Go From Here?, is a great starting place.
Spiritual Promises in Singleness
As Christians, we live by faith. Even when it’s hard and even when it seems like we have no idea what we’re doing, God is with us. Hebrews 11 describes many of our ancestors who were faithful to God’s call in their own imperfect ways. Verse 13 says, “All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth.”
This passage culminates in chapter 12, where we read, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (v. 1-2).
Our great cloud of witnesses, our ancestors of the faith, include all sorts of people. The Bible tells us about a God who sees (Genesis 16:30), a God who promises that the barren will have more children than the married (Isaiah 54:1), and that, at the resurrection, we’ll “neither marry nor be given in marriage” (Matthew 22:30).
This might not change the reality of our present circumstances. But it might help us remember that we have an excellent companion and model for a single, faithful life in Jesus.
Advice for Married Christians
That’s not to say that the onus is on singles to figure this out. I also challenge married folks to listen to and learn from singles, whether on a podcast or in real life. Build mutual, reciprocal relationships with one another. And when you see leadership potential in your friends, leverage your married privilege to nominate them for leadership and support them through that process.
Married folks may have an easier time accessing married church leaders. Therefore they have the ear of church leaders in a way that most singles do not. Use that to advocate for your single friends, particularly those with leadership gifting. Help singles make connections with one another, particularly intergenerationally. When you get to know someone who would make a great mentor, tell them.
Have you had a great mentor? What’s your experience of navigating the path of long-term singleness been like? Leave a comment and let us know!
MaryB. Safrit is an author, producer, and singles coach passionate about closing the gap between what the church offers and what single Christians need.
Her book, The Single Christian’s Church Survival Guide: How to Navigate Church Culture and Conversations Without Losing Your Mind, is available on Amazon. You can listen to Unsuitable with MaryB. Safrit wherever you get your podcasts. Follow her on Instagram and TikTok @maryb.safrit. Check out more writings, resources, and freebies at marybsafrit.com.