What are the keys to starting and growing a ministry that reaches singles? A panel of singles pastors agreed that every singles ministry—small or large—is based on 8 specific principles.
by Brian Mavis
from Outreach magazine, May/June 2004
I was happy. I was in charge of outreach and small group ministries at my church. I was helping reach the lost and discipling the found. It was all good. But then some single adults in the church tried to upset my world. Here's how it went down:
A couple of singles came to my office one afternoon with a deliberate request in mind: "Brian, we would like you to lead the singles ministry."
I gave them my "I feel your pain" look and said, "I wish I could" (yes, a big fat lie), "but I'm too busy with all my other responsibilities."
But they persisted. A few weeks later they asked again, and I made the mistake pastors never want to make. I agreed to provide "temporary" help. The moment they happily skipped out of my office, my head hit the desk. What have I done? They've sucked me into their dysfunctional world. I'll never escape.
I never wanted to be a singles minister. I had even told God that, which if you don't know, usually destines you for a career in that very field. When I thought of singles ministry, the thoughts weren't happy ones.
I'm guessing that's true for most of you, too. What comes to your mind when you hear "Singles Ministry"? In a recent OUTREACH reader survey on the state of singles ministry in today's churches, only 12 responses out of 700 could be classified as "positive." The others echoed comments like:
"It's the most challenging group to reach."
"They [singles] are treated as misfits who need a little therapy to get over their 'singleness.' "
And for you "Family Feud" fans, the most frequent answer given? "Help!" (with varying numbers of exclamation marks).
I went into singles ministry with these same thoughts. But a couple of weeks into it, my attitude really began to change. The transformation grew out of a dream: I was looking over a huge wheat field. A bunch of people were harvesting only half of it, and leaving the other half of the field untouched.
God immediately showed me what it meant. The harvesters were church leaders reaping traditional families. The untouched half of the field represented single adults. The single adult ministry is a huge and responsive mission field.
Within a couple of months, the singles ministry became my favorite one, and in less than a year it grew from 12 singles to more than 200 actively involved each week. But more importantly, we saw many lives changed, healed and saved.
Clearly, the single adult ministry in our churches needs attention. Out of 700 reader survey respondents, 72.2% said that their singles ministry was either non-existent or so small as to be ineffective in outreach. When you consider that 48% of female adults and 42% of male adults in the U.S. are single, you can see that we're missing an entire segment of the population.
Outreach asked a panel of four current singles pastors to identify key principles for starting and growing an outwardly focused singles ministry. Keeping only the responses that all four pastors identified, I compiled a list of the eight most important elements of a dynamic singles ministry. I consider the first three to beessential and the next five to be strategic.
1. CREATE A CHURCH CULTURE THAT VALUES SINGLES
Most of the pastors we interviewed ranked this concept as the No. 1 element. "I think there is a prevalent preconceived notion that if a person hasn't been married by the time they're middle-aged, it's because they're socially awkward," says Jonathan Damiani, executive director for Crossfire. "Sure there are socially awkward singles, but there are plenty of socially awkward married people too."
Other pastors identified three specific action points for developing a singles-friendly environment churchwide:
- Preach positively about singleness. "[Senior or teaching] pastors really need to consider how they can affirm single adults," says Susie White, singles pastor at Christ Church Episcopal in Plano, Texas. "When was the last time you heard a sermon on the high calling of being single?"
- Don't segregate singles. "Our church doesn't want the singles program to become its own subculture," says Ramon Presson, single adult and college minister at Brentwood Baptist Church in Nashville, Tenn. "It wants them to be a part of the church, just like married adults are a part of the church. The operative word is adult not single."
- Put singles in positions of responsibility. One of the ways Presson's church affirms the value of single adults is by putting them in positions of significant responsibility in the church. "We've got more single adults serving outside our singles ministry than in it," Presson says. The church asks singles to serve on its personnel committee, the deacon board, etc.
The panel of pastors we assembled overwhelmingly agreed that if churches are serious about growing their singles ministry, a staff position specifically designed to reach this target group is essential.
Jarett Stephens, a young adults pastor at Prestonwood Baptist, notes that because singles ministry is so transitional, consistency in the leadership is critical. Single adult ministry, observes Christ Church's White, is often at the bottom of a church's priorities. "A church's unwillingness to pay a staff person to focus on singles supports that argument."
In Plano, Texas, where she serves, single adults comprise more than 30% of the city's population.
"As a group needing the ministry of the Church and the message of Christ, singles should be at the top of every pastor's list," she says. "Singles struggle with a sense that the culture around them is waiting for them to get married and become 'legitimate.' The way in which churches allocate their funds reinforces that message."
White stresses that a singles leader needs strong communication skills and an ability to articulate the ministry's purpose: "With moral issues being what they are today, I believe it is imperative for a leader to be clear about the ministry's focus on Christ and on biblical values as a basis for living."
3. DEVELOP A LAY LEADERSHIP TEAM
Our panel's responses indicated that a lay leadership team—even if it's just two people—is critical to starting and growing a singles ministry. The overarching principle here, explains Stephens, is "giving away as much of the ministry as possible." The more ownership someone experiences, he says, the more ministry he or she will do. Stephens, who identifies his greatest emphasis as developing his leadership team, makes the people on his team a priority. He takes one day a week to call each person and check in with him or her.
Presson's experience has shown him that a singles leadership team should be comprised of the actual people the ministry serves. "I have a thing about single adult ministry being single adult-owned and operated," he says. "I do have some married teachers, but sometimes they tend to do the ministry 'to' or 'for' single adults rather than 'with' them." The exception to this rule, he says, would be a previously divorced couple working with mostly divorced singles.
How do you start a leadership team? White launched with a lunch. "I found it extremely helpful to hold leadership luncheons right away," White says. "A free lunch will always attract a few people, and out of that initial group you can find some leaders who are interested in helping you launch the program."
Brentwood Baptist's Presson adds, "Start by identifying lay leadership who would be interested. Start with the people who are coming to you to say we should be doing this."
4. START SMALL
Instead of throwing open the floodgates in hopes of thundering crowds, our pastor group advises churches to "think small" when beginning a singles ministry. Even if unchurched singles are your target, an outreach-oriented singles group has to start with a core group committed to the ministry and to each other.
"My advice would be to take it slow and realize you're trying to hit a moving target," says Prestonwood's Stephens. "And that's okay. Pour your life into the singles that are coming and always have something for them to do. Any singles ministry—regardless of size—must be an active ministry."
White found it easier to start from scratch with small groups and build on that philosophy. Presson agrees, stressing the importance of keeping a new and small singles ministry close and focused.
"Identify a few things the singles ministry wants to concentrate on and do well," he says. "I once supervised a men's ministry in another church that tried to do too many unrelated things right out of the chute. They floundered. The subsequent team majored on doing two things well, and the ministry grew."
The emphasis for small groups should be cultivating a place where people feel like they belong, Presson says. "When you think about it, singles ministry is the only area where someone walks in completely alone. Teens are likely to see someone they know from school. Married people have each other."
5. DIVIDE BY AGE
Not all singles are created equal. They are in different stages of life. Some are young, some are hitting middle age and some are approaching senior years. Some are never married, some are divorced and some are widowed—all reasons for dividing by age, our group said.
"We believe that mixing the older with the younger singles can be detrimental to growth, particularly in the younger demographic," Christ Church's White explains.
Brentwood Baptist divides its Sunday morning ministry into three departments: Single Focus 20s; Single Purpose 30-40; Single Direction 50-60. Prestonwood Baptist also separates its singles into three age groups: 18-29; 30-37; and over 37.
6. OFFER SEMINARS AND SMALL GROUPS
Though most of our group's singles ministries divide by ages, they agreed that churches must also provide special ministries, such as special small groups or seminars, for singles in different stages of life.
A few months ago, Christ Church Episcopal's singles ministry launched a weekly seminar series featuring a guest speaker (either live or on video) each time. In February, the seminar topic was "Love, Sex, Marriage and Romance," a study of Song of Solomon taught on video by Tommy Nelson. More than 40% of the people attending the seminar had never attended any of the organized single adult events in the past.
"We are hopeful that the seminar concept will have long-term viability," White says, "and will serve as a more specific tool for reaching unchurched single adults in our community."
When deciding what to offer, consider two primary groups: single parents and recently divorced singles. In Boulder County where I led the singles ministry, public records registered 500 divorces a month. Knowing that, I placed invitations to our divorce recovery program in the courthouse and mailed invitations to the divorcees.
For any single parenting class or group, make childcare your No. 1 logistical priority. Without it, many ministries that might otherwise succeed, fail. If childcare is a problem, then you'll need to rethink your meeting time for the regular Sunday morning service when child care is built in.
7. OFFER SOCIAL EVENTS
Statistics show that for people to keep coming to church, they must have at least five good friends there. In other words, people are looking for community. In addition to small groups, social events are key to developing community in single adult ministry.
"We live in such an anonymous world today. I think it's critical for single adults to feel known in their church family," White says. "I know that helping people to find friends will help them stay in the church," she says, "and will give us the opportunity to help them mature as Christians. That's one of the main reasons why we continue to experiment with different types of social events."
Crossfire's Damiani identifies diversity as the key to social activities and programs in singles ministry.
"You've got to meet each single adult where they are and understand that a 29-year-old businessperson is not the same as a 60-year-old farmer" he says. "That's why we do so many different things."
Prestonwood's Stephens reinforces the community requirement. "Personal relationships are key. It doesn't matter how big or small your church is; it's about relationships."
However, Brentwood Baptist's Presson warns against using a large, flashy social event to launch a singles ministry. "You're going to keep having to do whatever it was that initially attracted people to the ministry to get them to come back," he explains.
Our panelists suggested various types of social events for reaching diverse groups: holiday gatherings (especially New Year's Eve and Easter); sports nights (basketball, volleyball, baseball, bowling); a Christian comedy event; parties (Super Bowl, costume, etc.); progressive dinners; professional sporting events; dinner and a movie; game night (board games); and picnics. For White, the highest attended social activities, at first, were restaurant gatherings and movie nights.
8. PROVIDE OPPORTUNITIES TO SERVE TOGETHER
Singles ministry shouldn't just be ministry to singles, but ministry by singles.
"Single adults are available for mission projects," Presson observes. "There are things that young single adults will get up and do together on a Saturday morning that families who are rushing around to soccer practice just can't.
"We have single adults involved in children's ministry, inner-city ministry and overseas missions, etc. Serving the community together builds community with each other. There's something about working for one common goal."
Prestonwood's Stephens notes that service projects have been catalysts to seeing single adults at the church become more evangelistic. "People seem to want to be more inclusive when they get outside the church and into the world at large. We've seen more of our core group reaching out to unchurched singles to bring them into the ministry."
This content originally appeared in the May/June 2004 issue of Outreach magazine, the gathering place for ideas, insights and stories of today's outreach-oriented church leaders. For more ideas and information, visit outreachmagazine.com. For your free 3-issue mini subscription to Outreach magazine, click here.
Copyright © 2004 Outreach.