Conclusion (or: Learning to Cook Vegan): Christianity and Singleness Part 7

This may come a surprise, but I’m a really good cook.

No; seriously.

My training falls under the broad headline of “forced culinary experimentation.” Being dirt poor, I’ve often had to be creative in what ingredients I can mix and combine to make a good meal (btw, you can make a good, well-balanced meal for only about $0.75…so beat that).

But my area of specialty is what one might call “faux ethnic cuisine.” Not only do I make the best Tacos this far north of Mexico, but my spicy Asian stir-fry is the biggest threat to Asian dining chains since Godzilla. Move over, P.F. Chang; make way for C-Dub’s gourmet food chains.

Being poor, however, often limits the number and quality of ingredients you can add to your dish. Frozen vegetables can be stretched, but sometimes my wallet’s a bit too thin to thaw out chicken to throw in there.

So, without really intending to, I’ve learned to cook vegan. And it can be really, really good. I’ve found myself surprised at what the simple addition of a few cashews and pineapple can do (maybe I need to start one of those recipe blogs and exchange comments with all the soccer moms…or not).

I cook vegan by necessity. I’m not, as Jerry Seinfeld would put it, “one of those” (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

Here’s where the story coalesces to a neat little blog-friendly package: sometimes learning to do without something can be a very rewarding experience.

A SINGLE KIND OF LIFE

My hesitation in writing on this subject is simple; I simply don’t want to get stuck with some kind of label, or relegated to some weird status of spokesman for the single, Christian twenty-somethings. At the same time, I have received oodles of feedback on what a necessary subject this is. So while this post is intended to serve as a conclusion, I certainly don’t mean that this is the final word on the issue.

The truth is I have no desire to stay single forever; I really do want to get married. But I also recognize that doing without is also an important part of life’s journey, one that I am thankful for…at least half the time.

Rather than try to assimilate paragraphs worth of advice, I’m simply leaving you with a semi-random list of concluding thoughts, which you should interpret more as anecdotes than actual advice.

  1. It’s not as big a deal as you think. Don’t get hung up on the high-pressure, hyperspiritualized nature of the dating scene. It will only cause more stress and lay down bitter roots that will only germinate in the form of despair.
  2. Don’t listen to stereotypes. Not all single guys are momma’s boys, and not all single girls are crazy cat ladies. Learn to deal with people as they are, not as what you think they should be.
  3. Don’t let them get you down. At the same time, remember that as you age, you will find yourself the target of increased stereotyping. Regardless of the opportunities of service the single life offers, guys will routinely be cast as non-committal video game junkies, and women will be more likely be seen as Cruella de Ville than Mother Teresa. Don’t let them get you down.
  4. Learn to differentiate between loneliness and solitude. If you can’t be by yourself without the TV, computer or iPod, it could easily be that you’ve never learned to be comfortable with yourself. It’s ok, though, we’re all a little broken, here. But there remains a very real need to cultivate times of intentional solitude and silence, disciplines long lost on a culture of billboards and internet pop-up ads.
  5. Seek community. Connection with others is key. Loneliness can never be cured through dating, unless you happen to like clingy, codependent relationships. Spending time with other people can also be a valuable way to find fulfillment in one’s single life.
  6. Exercise. Our bodies are extremely important, both at the level of our muscles and tissue, as well as at the biochemical level. Exercise not only keeps us disciplined about taking care of our health, but has been shown to improve our emotional well-being.
  7. Do something. Get involved. Find a hobby. Paint a picture. Anything. Exercising the creative gifts is a vital component of our lives, so don’t waste time on Farmville.
  8. Laugh easily. Life’s too short to get wrapped up in the soul-smothering religiosity of certain segments of American Christianity. It’s ok to be vulnerable. No one can ever judge you for smiling. So go ahead.

Thanks to those of you who read my blog regularly, have made comments, or sat down over coffee (or tea, for us non-coffee drinkers) during times when I’ve felt kicked around. I look forward to many more conversations to come. God bless.

Helping Churches Become Single-Minded: Christianity and Singleness Part 6

 It was called “The Mixer.”

 “The Mixer” was advertised on a photocopied flier that I and some friends received. It featured a large picture of a young woman with a 60’s era hairdo winking suggestively at you from her grainy black and white photograph.

Apparently a pentecostal church downtown was starting a “ministry” (and here I use the term quite loosely) for young, Christian singles. I don’t recall what the flier said, but it alluded to capriciousness of the “bar scene” and how it would be good for singles from various churches to be able to meet and mingle (I’m told of Amish communities where the gene pool has grown so shallow that they have to “import” Amish singles from Ohio communities to Pennsylvania, and I suspect that this was the same kind of thing).

“The Mixer” was kind of a big deal, albeit short-lived. My previous experiences with charismatic churches had been less than positive, stemming from a Bible study I attended wherein the participants went into convulsions an began speaking in tongues. Now mind you, some pentecostal churches (notably the Assemblies of God denomination) have admirably stood strong against theological conundrums over the year, for which I have deep respect. But this was the very sort of disarray that Paul warned about (1 Cor 14), and outsiders like myself find themselves caught in an epileptic yodeling competition.

But I digress.

To this day I still can’t hear the word “mixer” without thinking of The Mixer, where suddenly a dingy youth group room and a Foosball table became the place where dreams are made (or broken).

SINGLING OUT CHURCHES

It’s not that I think that this kind of thing is a bad idea. If you’ve been reading these posts so far, then whether you agree with me or not, you at least can understand why I might consider events such as “The Mixer” less than wise, as it directly appeals to the idolatry of family I spoke so strongly against.

Or, to say it another way, churches are largely clueless as to what to do with the growing population of singles. Many churches simply abandon any attempt to reach this group, which is especially sad considering that these are the very years that so many separate themselves from their faith, perhaps even permanently. Still other churches, like the one I mentioned, have no real idea what to do with singles other than try to get them married. Thus, “ministry” (there’s that word again…) is denigrated to the status of some God-forsaken chat room where the ultimate – if not only goal is finding a date.

Still other churches make it a point to zero in on singles within the congregation, complete with well-intentioned offers to play matchmaker.

And all the while, the church’s larger focus is on marriage and the family. Sermons often focus on things like “how to improve your marriage.” Small group curriculum takes the form of “family dynamics” and childrearing. Singles often have a difficult time relating to such issues, and may feel even more distant from the church body as they get older.

REVERSING THE TREND…?

Some churches are becoming aware of this. Seeking to reverse these trends, issues of dating and marriage are not thrust before congregations as the ultimate goal. I’ve even heard of pastors – from the pulpit, mind you – advising the congregation not to try and set up the singles in the church on dates.

See ya later, frying pan; hello, fire.

The problem here is that you’ve avoided the issue of maximizing the issue only by minimizing the issue. Single Christians are thereby cut adrift, finding no real structure or means to understand the confusing worlds of dating and marriage.

HELPING CHURCHES BECOME SINGLE-MINDED

So I’m not really an expert in much of anything, but having worked with young adults for several years I have a few general ideas, ideas I’ve even heard repeated by other, smarter individuals.

The truth is that churches across America need to awaken to the changing needs of their church populations. Nearly two-thirds of high school students walk away from church after graduation never to return. The church must seek to reach young adults. And doing so requires sensitivity toward their lifestyles and their cultural settings.

In short, churches need to become more “single-minded.” Unless the trends I’ve sited in this series reverse themselves, churches can expect to see a great deal more singles in the pew than ever before, and those who don’t may need to examine themselves to see if they are truly reaching the growing population of unreached young singles.

To that end I have a handful of suggestions. Some are practical, others deal with ministry philosophy. All are valuable, and all I believe can have a significant impact on the lives of young, single adults within the church:

  1. Find the balance. The problem with the maximalist and minimalist approaches I’ve sited above is that neither deals with the issue in an appropriate or healthy way. A church that focuses on marriage and the family but neglects the gospel has done a profound disservice to their congregation by ignoring the most important elements of the Christian life for the temporary institution of family.

But at the same time, a church that ignores marriage entirely has neglected to address the ay the gospel impacts these significant relationships (especially since most in the congregation will probably marry). As mentioned in a previous post, young people are increasingly confused when it comes to the issue of sexual morality. Sadly, most people are more going to hear more about sex from super bowl commercials than from their church’s pulpits. They need good teaching on the subject, something they can’t get if the church remains silent on these issues.

2. Intergenerational and transgenerational ministry. Young people need to be in connection with people from a diverse group of backgrounds and age groups. Older adults can provide mentoring relationships that demonstrate how the gospel affects their lives, and young people can learn greatly from their experiences – both before as well as after marriage.

At the same time, churches also need to encourage ministry that is intergenerational, but also trans-generational. That is, churches also need to provide solid teaching on issues that transcend all generations, whether this be solid theological teaching or missional imperatives for service to the community.

     3. Young adult ministry. First, let’s be clear. There needs to be one. Possibly even more than one, depending on the size of the church. Ignoring this age group is not an option, and expecting the young people who routinely abandon church to come back eventually is naïve at best.

To that end young people need a place where they can develop community within their own context and their own generation. These can become important missional centers within the church, where young people reach beyond their current social borders to impact the lives of others in the community around them.

But it is also important that these ministries be focused on promoting maturity and spiritual growth. Too often college students find themselves clinging to the nostalgic experiences of high school youth group – sometimes even returning to youth group for events or as leaders. As much as I do appreciate intergenerational ministry, I’m inclined to be cautious about this, because I suspect that for many this is less about mentoring young people and more about extending one’s high school experiences well into one’s mid-twenties. The end result is a life marked by a perpetual series of sweet-16 parties with no catalyst for emotional or spiritual growth.

To combat this, some churches are actually moving the umbrella of “young adult ministry” to encompass young married couples as well as singles. This can potentially promote spiritual growth and development, and avoids the “cul-de-sac” phenomenon that traps people into generational ministry.

And finally, a word of caution: never, ever use the phrase “singles ministry.” I know, I know; it’s a generational thing. Young people associate “singles ministry” with “meat market.” So unless you’re trying to start a “Mixer” of your very own, just don’t do it.

4. Marriage prep classes. Yes. Churches can go a long way in helping young people understand the principles of dating and marriage, and the accountability provided by such programs can go a long way toward helping young people struggling with the issues associated with forming a lasting relationship. This provides a useful outlet as well for missional living, as programs such as these may help solidify new couples to the church or even bring in some new ones.

5. Sensitivity. Churches must recognize the issues that aging singles face, some of which can be quite horrific. I don’t need to site statistics to tell you that young people face realities that the previous generation did not. The church doors may be opening this Sunday, to a generation where pornography addiction, rape and sexual abuse are ugly, yet common words. Churches must be sensitive and aware of such issues, with grace to cover these wounds as well as practical measures (i.e., counseling services) to offer healing.

 

I hope this has been at least marginally helpful. Tomorrow I have but a few remaining concluding thoughts. Thanks for all the feedback.

Dating’s Goodbye Kiss: Christianity and Singleness Part 5

It was our first date.

Or so I thought.

She was beautiful. I was foolish. I had just graduated from college, my head still reeling a bit from a girl I really liked but was…inaccessible (not going into that story), not to mention a girl that everyone knew I liked but me. So I was making an effort to get to know Stacy (not her real name…identities have been altered to protect the innocent).

We made plans to go for a walk in the park one cool, summer evening, the perfect, idyllic summer date. The weather was nice. She looked nice. I tried to be nice. We fed the ducks. We walked around. We talked. The evening seemed to be going reasonable well, even by my own standards of romantic ineptitude.

But then she asked the question.

The question.

Do you see me as a friend?”

Any guy knows that this question is instant death. Worse than death. It is on a kamikaze suicide mission with fifty megatons headed straight for the town of Awkwardville (population: you).

I don’t remember what I said exactly, but I believe my monosyllabic utterances were aimed at communicating that yes she was a friend but maybe things could be more…

Mind you, I’d never heard the lecture before, and maybe you haven’t either. Apparently there are some religious-types who don’t do the whole “dating” thing. Instead they favor this weird other system called “courtship” which centers around group and family activities.

It all sounds very wholesome. But this was the first I was hearing about it, and all I could think of was, “What are you, Amish?”

Needless to say, that date was no walk in the park (ha!).

THE ENDANGERED SPECIES OF CHRISTIAN DATING

What I was attempting to communicate in my last post is that not everyone has the “gift” of singleness. Delaying marriage means more time for singles to live in a world of omnipresent sexuality. Some, as I suggested, react against this sexuality by setting up an idol of morality, trying to “manage” their libido through a careful system of rules and order.

But at the same time, let’s recall my earlier category of the “idolatry of family.” Here’s where it gets…confusing. The uptight, moralistic religious crowd is simultaneously obsessed with the values of purity and family. Which means that marriage and relationships are a dominating goal within the Christian community, yet at the same time the demand for purity results in a whole other system of rituals and to-do lists.

The collision between the idolatry of morals and the idolatry of family is a bizarre form of schizophrenia, one in which many Christian singles find themselves either attracted to or repulsed from.

LIFE ON CAMPUS

Christian colleges are the worst places for this sort of thing. The pressure to find a marriage partner is unbelievable, yet at the same time, the pressure to obey the rules is just as strong. Many colleges even enforce strict policies regarding how dating is to occur (chaperones, policies on P.D.A., etc.) – if at all.

Even when such policies are not in place, interaction across gender lines is an awkward, stilted affair. In the words of one friend, “I’ve known Amish communities that are less uptight.” Every conversation and gesture has to be analyzed for sign that he/she “likes me.” I once had a girl think that I liked her and was pursuing her. Why? I held the door open.

Yet at the same time, there are strict, often unspoken rules associated with the dating scene, and when I had a girl tell me that she had an “emotional breakdown” over the thought of going out with me, I knew I was in over my head (she’s married now, btw; so it really was just me).

All of which only reflects the American tendency toward “hyperspirituality,” where every action in our lives must be fed through a filter and cluttered with a random collection of religious terms and jargon, such that every one of life’s events is viewed in a way disproportionate to its actual significance.

What’s worse, is guys who use spirituality like others use pick-up lines. I don’t know what’s worse, the guy who tells a girl “I’ve been praying, and I think it’s God’s will that we should date,” or the fact that I’ve seen this work. As if God is your wing-man at a singles bar.

WHY I KISSED POORLY WRITTEN DATING BOOKS GOODBYE

Taking center stage in all this weirdness is the whole “dating” versus “courtship” debate. Courtship, as I mentioned, means that you never spend one-on-one time with a member of the opposite sex, lest this lead to sexual impropriety.

This is the stance of Joshua Harris, or at least it was when he wrote Why I Kissed Dating Goodbye, a book which argues for this kind of lifestyle (original title: I Never Had a Prom Date, So Why Should You?). The problem, of course, is that Harris can’t take his own advice. He admits in a follow-up book that he was too emphatic and that there are better ways out there.

The problem is that many Christians have already kissed dating goodbye, leaving the bizarre practice of “courtship” in its abysmal wake.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that courtship is bad. But I really don’t see the necessity of yet another rule

HE’S JUST NOT THAT INTO YOU

The other, far creepier dimension? “Dating Jesus.” No, seriously. This is a bizarre trend, popular among young, affirmation-hungry single girls, wherein one considers themselves “dating” Jesus (“Why doesn’t He ever call me back?”)

The reasoning for this is taking Paul’s whole “bride of Christ” imagery from Ephesians 5 (a metaphor used for the church, mind you; never individuals) and misapplying it to themselves. Jesus ain’t just my homeboy, He’s my man.

And so one’s “quiet time” is described in terms of a “date” with Jesus. Just me and the Lord. On the one hand, I really can’t fault people for desiring personal connection with God – this is central to my own faith. But it speaks volumes of the lack of maturity that can’t distinguish between human, romantic love (which is, among other things, between equals), and the love that God shows Himself and His creation.   The truth is, He’s just not that into you.  God’s love is overwhelming, but it certainly should not be confused for romance. 

There are two things at play here: (1) emotionalism and (2) escapism. Emotionalism is the easy one: today’s young Christians define their faith almost exclusively through private, emotional attachment. Further. Romantic metaphors dominate our worship music to such an extent, that one can hardly blame young Christians for getting confused (e.g., the song “Your love is intimate…” I have an issue with “worship” music that sounds like it belongs at a middle school dance).

Escapism seeks to use God as an excuse for rejecting guys. “The movies? With you? Um…no thanks; I’m dating Jesus.” Or, alternately, “I’ve been praying and Jesus wants us to break up.” Ugh. Not only does it make rejection convenient, it spiritualizes it.

CITY DOGS, COUNTRY DOGS

I could go on. I have more stories than I’d care to share.

But the hyperspirituality that has come to dominate the dating scene isn’t making Jesus look better. It’s just making His followers look worse.

My friend Brian used to talk about the difference between city dogs and country dogs. City dogs, he says, are cooped up inside all day. Bound behind dull walls or – at best – a leash to take a stroll around the block (if that far) with their obese owners. And with a city dog, the second the front door opens, they are off. I remember my sister’s Husky who made a habit of bolting down the street the first chance he’d get. City dogs only seek out freedom to abuse it.

Country dogs are used to the open space of the country. They have neither leash nor fence. And while they have opportunity to roam, they are equally content to lie on the wooden floorboards of their master’s porch, without hint of guile or the need to escape.

The problem with the religiosity and hyperspirituality of evangelicalism is that it naturally breeds “city dogs:” people who live in a strict set of rules and order, but will abandon these boundaries the first chance they get. That’s why “courtship” can just as easily result in unwanted pregnancy – maybe even more easily, as Christians are much less likely to use contraceptives.

Country dogs live in the freedom of the gospel. Strangely, their lack of restrictive rules and moral fences don’t result in the much-dreaded licentiousness that the bully pulpits are constantly warning about.

Maybe it’s time we learn to lighten up. St. Augustine used to use the phrase ordo amoris – that we would attach the appropriate amount of emotion and significance to the events of our lives. Part of maturity means learning what is “appropriate,” something that takes time, takes experience and takes learning. I’m not advocating some sort of laissez-faire, learn-from-your-mistakes kind of philosophy, only that I emphasize our need to learn how to handle the freedom the gospel affords us, without the unnecessary baggage of a moralistic lifestyle.

Tomorrow we touch on this issue and expand on some others as we discuss how churches can learn to be more “single-minded.”

“…to burn with desire” (your sex is on fire): Christianity and Singleness Part 4

 In the last post, we discussed the fact that while marriage is God’s design, the Bible presents the single lifestyle as something that is both accepted and recommended.

But we acknowledged (however briefly) Paul’s concession that “it is better to marry than to burn with desire” (1 Cor 7:9).

The single life is not for everyone. Nor is it always wise.

As we saw, the average age of marriage used to be 22. Now it is nearly 27. Which means there are five years during which a person is expected to maintain sexual purity, a task that statistics have shown to be quite daunting.

SEX ON FIRE

Recent data shows that the average evangelical teenager loses their virginity at the age of 15. Those who make an abstinence pledge usually delay the process by an average of 18 months, making something of a mockery of the whole affair: “I pledge that I will not lose my virginity until at least junior prom behind What-a-burger.” What’s particularly unsettling is that Christian teens are statistically less likely to use contraceptives, creating the risk of unwanted pregnancy or even disease. (there’s more data I could share…if you want more I’ll just make you read Mark Regenerus’ book, Forbidden Fruit: Sex and Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers)

American evangelicalism suffers from a plethora of abstinence campaigns and purity rings, but a dearth of meaningful commitments. And singles may quickly find themselves swallowed by the ever-widening chasm between promise and practice.

Singles face a significant challenge, much more than their parents. Where the difference truly lies is with prevailing attitudes toward sex – even among Christians. Nearly 80% of the previous generation defined premarital sex as “sinful.” Today, 44% of young Christians see premarital sex as morally acceptable (David Kinnaman, Gabe Lyons, unChristian).

Much of the sexualization of the culture has been achieved through technology. Forget porn for just a second; CosmoGirl reports that roughly a third of young adults ages 20-26 have sent “nude or semi-nude” photos of themselves to someone else via the internet or cell phone (just to be clear, I found the CosmoGirl article on my MSN homepage. I don’t read CosmoGirl…not that there’s anything wrong with that…). This statistic is all the more alarming when one considers that these are the very years formerly covered by marriage, and as these years go uncovered so do the bodies of men and women hungry for sexual fulfillment.

In the song “Sex on Fire” by the rock band Kings of Leon, the lead singer declares, “If it’s not forever, it’s just tonight…your sex is on fire / consumed with what’s about to transpire.” Momentary though it may be, sexual desire is indeed a consuming fire in which many singles find themselves, as Paul said, “burning with passion.

CULT OF ALONENESS

Douglas Coupland writes that many young people live in a “cult of aloneness,” accustomed to solitude and isolation.

And nowhere can this be seen more than in the lonely culture that favors interaction while mimizing relationship. Henri Nouwen writes:

“When I came to this country for the first time, I was struck by the open-door life style. In schools, institutes and office buildings everyone worked with open doors….It seemed as if everyone were saying to me, ‘Do not hesitate to walk in and interrupt at any given time,’ and most conversations had the same open quality – giving me the impression that people had no secrets and were ready for any question from their financial status to their sex life.” (Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out)

The glass houses of social networking sites and the blogosphere only widen the already open door, and demonstrate to us the ease with which we can separate physical and emptional connection. Wendell Berry writes:

“We’ve moved from villages where ‘everyone knows your name’ and where nearly everyone is committed to the same moral standards to cities where we’re all virtually anonymous and where anything goes. So sex and community are less connected than ever before.” (Wendell Berry, Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community)

The sad nature of this open door culture is that it can never speak effectively to Coupland’s “cult of aloneness.” Coupland writes:

“All looks with strangers became the unspoken question, ‘Are you the stranger who will rescue me? Starved for attention, terrified of abandonment, I began to wonder if sex was just an excuse to look deeply into another human being’s eyes.” (Douglas Coupland, Generation X)

So long as emotional intimacy is divorced from the physical, singles will find themselves torn in two directions as they struggle to find connection with others, and many will find it easier to “hook up” rather than engage. Still others will find themselves struggling with the cognitive dissonance and shame of holding a moral view that doesn’t fit the reality they’ve created.

SEX, IDOLS AND VIDEOTAPE

How do we approach this issue? There are two equal and opposite methods, regularly in use today.

The first is to embrace it. Sex is only natural. And whatever’s natural is good. So why can’t we sleep with our significant other before the wedding day?

The other approach is to try and manage it through moralistic regulation and rules. Sex can (and probably will) lead to sin. The best approach is to hush up any discussion of it, except to promote abstinence, typified through the Christian trinkets of purity rings and wristbands.

Now let’s be clear. Most of our arguments about sexual purity fall significantly short – the only true argument I can provide for sexual purity is to appeal to the character of God. I realize that most would sooner base their morality on the Betty Crocker cookbook then they would the Bible, but I nonetheless affirm its ability to guide us in our lives and choices.

To that end, I find it impossible to read Paul and conclude anything other than the fact that premarital sex is off-limits, and that inordinate desires are potentially destructive, a characteristic epitomized by the Greek word epithumia, meaning “inordinate desire” or “lust” (cf. Gal 5:24).

Both approaches are guilty of idolatry, though in different ways.

The hedonist makes an idol of his own pleasure, purchased at the cost of his own soul. An old, old Italian film by Fellini depicts a young man madly in lust with a Hollywood starlet, as well as the pleasures such a jet-set life could surely afford him. The end of the film finds him in a cottage, wherein we are led to believe that he is able to experience the very pleasures he had so desperately sought. From across the lake where the cottage sits, an angelic figure appears, beckoning him away from this cottage and its imprisoning vices. The man can only turn and go back inside, saying “I can’t hear you, and what’s more, I can’t feel anything.” Epithumai has its final outworking as a form of spiritual anesthesia, numbing us to our self-made prisons.

The moralist makes an idol of his own rules. Epithumai must be managed and controlled, therefore all forms of human sexuality are to be shunned and avoided.

Both approaches neglect the beauty of human sexuality, a gift from God (nowhere does the Bible make this more explicit than in the pages of the Song of Solomon, a collection of oriental love poetry that finds its place in the canon as a testimony to the wonder of human sexuality). Hedonism rips away the beauty the way one casually uncorks a precious bottle of wine. Moralism covers the beauty behind a utilitarian veil of rules and order.

Aging singles often feel caught between these approaches, and perhaps this is another reason so many are willing to delay marriage.

As I finish writing, I feel I have done little – if any – real justice to this topic, and my writing requires much clarity. I would respectfully ask that you stick with me – tomorrow we’ll look at how we find the balance between these two worlds.

I Am Single (and so can you): Christianity and Singleness Part 3

I tried to be a truck driver once.

Notice I said “tried.”

It wasn’t even one of those ginormous big-rigs that run you off the highway. I was trying to get a job as a delivery driver for a major parcel corporation. Part of the process involved navigating a box truck through a series of obstacles to test one’s truck-wrangling abilities.

The first and most daunting of these was the serpentine course, wherein you had to slalom your truck through a series of closely-spaced orange cones – first forwards, then backwards.

Let’s be clear. My tiny Hyundai, composed mostly of Korean plastic, is the largest vehicle I’ve ever driven with any regularity. So strapping myself behind the wheel of the rumbling behemoth of a box truck was tantamount to trying to ride a wooly mammoth.

We were given the day to practice, so as the rain slicked the macadam, I painstaking turned the wheel, eased the gas, and repeatedly whomped my way over the cones in what was initially comical, though as the day wore on, became increasingly sad.

The other applicants were encouraging. No one there was an expert. So the open window let in the cold November rain as well as words of encouragement. But as the hours slid by, the ratio of rainwater to encouragement began to go in a very different direction.

The others had improved drastically. Me? Not so much. And the worst was I honestly didn’t understand what I was doing so very wrong. And by day’s end, my formerly encouraging co-applicants could only stand by and watch me snuff out the life of yet another traffic cone.

If you’re an aging single, this may seem a familiar experience. Friends marry and start families. You still find yourself struggling through bad dates and disappointment. Friends initially are helpful and supportive, offering encouragement and even offering fix-ups and blind dates.

But as time wears on, there seems to be an increasingly smaller pool to draw from, and folks shake their heads in bewilderment as to where your life went so “wrong.”

If you’ve been reading, then you may already identify this attitude as the by-product of what I’ve called “the idolatry of family,” which assigns a social stigma to singleness that is as unhealthy as it is unChristian.

So today, I thought we’d take a positive look at singleness, and what it can mean for both us and the church.

SOMETIMES MISSIONARIES SING SOPRANO

The road was dusty. The young man was traveling from Jerusalem to his home in the region presently known as Sudan.

When traveling with the queen, the man would ride in chariots of luxury and importance. But today he traveled alone, in a rugged flatbed wagon that could only be called the “jeep” of the first century world.

He had been to the temple in Jerusalem for worship. Returning home he reflected on his experience, though as always tinged with the haunting knowledge of being an outsider, relegated to the temple’s outer courts during the worship ceremonies.

As a servant of the queen, he was a eunuch – castrated at a young age to prepare for royal service, and ironically the feature that granted him access in the royal palace only offered isolation in the temple, where he was isolated for being both a eunuch as well as bearing the ebony face of an Ethiopian.

He traveled onward, unfurling a long scroll, and found his place. His lips moved as he read the words of Isaiah, who spoke with such poetry about a lamb who was slain. It was then that a man by the side of the road – had he been there the whole time – called out to him: “Do you understand what you are reading?”

The eunuch arrested his chariot. “How could I?” he replied. “Unless someone explains it to me?” The man by the side of the road – introduced as Philip – slid next to him on the chariot, and as the two men sojourned steadily on, Philip patiently detailed Christ’s immeasurable sacrifice.

The eunuch, eyes welled with tears of both sadness and joy, nodded to a nearby body of water. He had tasted and seen that the Lord is good. And when he rose from the water he found himself alone. Philip, the man who had just baptized him, had vanished.

But the eunuch journeyed on. And the man who found no place in the temple now became the first missionary to Ethiopia.

Sometimes, even missionaries sing soprano. God uses eunuchs just as easily as he uses married people, proving that sexuality is not a prerequisite to service in God’s kingdom.

EUNUCHS FOR THE KINGDOM

This is an important enough point that Jesus taught His disciples about it, saying that

 “…there are some eunuchs who were that way from birth, and some who were made eunuchs by others, and some who became eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who is able to accept this should accept it.” (Matthew 19:12 )

Being a “eunuch for the sake of the kingdom” sounds…less than pleasant. And thankfully Jesus was not advocating any form of self-mutilation (though the church father Origen took Jesus’ advice to “cut off” any body part causing sin quite literally. My thoughts? Ouch.).

Being a “eunuch” means to embrace a lifestyle of singleness. Potentially this means a lifelong commitment to remaining single.

Let’s not understate the radical nature of this command to a Jewish audience, that confused family with blessing. Being a eunuch would have been jarring, if not insulting to his disciples. But according to Jesus, celibacy could be an asset to God’s kingdom program.

PAUL’S ADVICE

The church in Corinth existed in the heart of sin city. It was Vegas culture times ten. “What happens in Corinth…,” well, you get the idea.

So it’s little wonder that he tells his readers that he wishes everyone was single (1 Cor 7:7). Now, he makes clear that there is no specific teaching on this issue, but offers his free advice to the unmarried people in the city. There is an “impending crisis,” he says, meaning the difficult mission of reaching the city with the gospel message. And so he advises:

“Let each one remain in that situation in life in which he was called. … With regard to the question about people who have never married, I have no command from the Lord, but I give my opinion as one shown mercy by the Lord to be trustworthy. Because of the impending crisis I think it best for you to remain as you are.” (1 Corinthians 7:20,26)

He gives similar advice to the married, his overall point being that people should learn to serve God in their individual contexts rather than pursuing change. The only concession he makes is that singles avoid sexual temptation (an issue that I’ll address in the next post or so).

Why? His reasoning is an expansion of Jesus’ idea of being a “eunuch for the kingdom:” “I want you to be free from concern,” he writes. “An unmarried man is concerned with the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord” (1 Cor 7:32). The married, by contrast, have to spend time and attention on getting the kids to soccer practice and watching Mad About You reruns, potential distractions from the overall mission of God.

SO…TODAY? SERIOUSLY?

Seriously.

Now don’t get me wrong. Marriage is still God’s design. But there may be a time, whether for a season or for a lifetime, that you find yourself single.

But that could be a good thing. Don’t let the family-idolaters get you down. Singleness may have many practical benefits. It is wrongly assumed that singleness is a life of less. On the contrary, singleness may offer a life of more. Among these:

  1. More free time to accomplish educational and occupational goals. God needs good people of varying educational levels and in varying career fields. Grad school may be a wise reason to delay marriage.
  2. More time for service to others. Singles have more time to volunteer both in their church and in missional centers in their communities.
  3. More social interaction. Deny it all you want, but once you marry and have a couple kids, your social life takes a nose dive. Singles have more freedom to interact with others, potentially forming meaningful relationships and having an impact for the gospel.

The Bible presents singleness as not only an acceptable lifestyle, but – in some contexts – a recommended one.

Jesus was single. Paul was single. And so can you.

The Idolatry of Family: Christianity and Singleness Part 2

Yesterday I lamented the way that singles are stigmatized within the Christian subculture. Among my whiny protests was the fact that prospective employers have turned me down for jobs based on the fact that I’m single.

Which kinda raises the question of whether or not this is lawsuit territory (Frankly I’ve been half-tempted to start a second blog that simply lists the names of churches and pastors who have turned me down in the hopes of shaming them into changing their minds).

Because this truly is discriminatory in the purest sense, because no other career field can use your marital status as a basis for employment, unless of course you’re applying to be a White House intern (cheap shot).

Ah…but that’s the real key issue, though, right? What are the proper credentials for working in full-time ministry?

See, for most people, they assume that applying at a church is the same as applying anywhere else. You put together a good-looking resume. Maybe even draft a cover letter. If you get to the interview phase, you put on your best clothes and try to put on a good impression. In this scenario, being “qualified” is determined on the basis of your education and experience.

Church? Not like that. No; instead of presenting your credentials, you’re presenting yourself. The church is more interested in your life story. Your convictions. Your personal “testimony” (churches like this are big on testimonies…but that’s another issue for another day…). And so if you’re presenting you rather than a resume, then it’s only natural that your family would have a significant role in the hiring process.

Now let me first say that I get that, and admittedly I’ve set up an unfair dichotomy between qualifications and character. Given the real threat of scandal within the church, I affirm the need to hire men and women whose character matches their resume.

But there’s a significant problem in the way this is carried out. Character is judged based solely on one’s marital status. Like we observed yesterday, marital status is often seen as a mark of spiritual maturity, and aging singles are often weeded out as being immature or incapable of handling the demanding role of Christian ministry.

These unfair (and unChristian) standards reveal something dangerous about the evangelical church, what I will simply categorize as “the idolatry of family.”

FAMILY FIRST

Idolatry is serious business. Pun intended.

D. M. Lloyd Jones defines an idol as

“…anything in our lives that occupies the place that should be occupied by God alone. Anything that… is central in my life, anything that seems to me…essential… An idol is anything by which I live and on which I depend, anything that… holds such a controlling position in my life that… it moves and rouses and attracts so much of my time and attention, my energy and money.” (D.M.Lloyd-Jones, “Idolatry” in Life in God: Studies in 1 John)

Within Christianity, morality often supplants the place of God. This is where the business end comes in. The average Christian bookstore (I hate that phrase…since when did “Christian” become an adjective?) is overflowing with books and pop-culture remedies designed to scratch us right where we itch (2 Timothy 4:3, gentlemen).

The end result is what I recently referred to as “justification by association.” Our spirituality is contingent upon our ability to conform to the idols set up for us by the Christian subculture. Christian radio? Check. Homeschooling? Check. Christian college? Check. Looking good in front of others? Oh, you better believe that’s a check.

And among these idols we have family.

Now don’t misunderstand me. Family is a good thing, and a precious gift of God. But it becomes an ugly, festering idol when we make it such a priority that God is not enough. Stephen Charnock observes that the problem with idolatry is not the idol itself, but the fact that when idolatry has its say, everyone “acts as if God could not make him happy without the addition of something else. …All men worship some golden calf, set up by education, custom, natural inclination and the like…”

To that list we may certainly add “family,” through which one is made complete. Whole. “When are you getting married?” “Are there any guys/girls in your life?” To this extent I doubt seriously that such idolatry is isolated to the Christian subculture, but part of a larger cultural demand for social conformity.

But the problem is more than simply this, because with idolatry comes boredom. Thomas Oden observes that “To be bored is to feel empty… To the extent to which limited values are exalted to idolatries…boredom becomes pathological and compulsive…”(Thomas C. Oden, Two Worlds: Notes on the Death of Modernity in America and Russia). So idolatry is in a constant, uphill battle of one-upsmanship.

In the idolatry of family, this means a continual lifestyle of pleasing others. You get married, sure. But the pressure doesn’t stop there. Now, “friends” (and I use the term in the same way you might call Job’s accusers “friends”) are tapping their watches reminding women that their biological clocks are ticking. It’s time to have a baby. And another. And another. Then, as the children age, there is the dichotomy of being a stay-at-home versus career mom – both of which have their detractors depending on the social circles you run in (as if there were superiority in one over the other rather than dignity in both). Then, once the kids are grown and in their teenage years, the cycle starts all over again, albeit vicariously.

AND THE JOB MARKET

So back to my employment woes (I’m my own favorite subject, by the way. You can deal.).

First, I can’t sue, at least not really. Churches are largely exempt from the hiring standards you might expect (whether officially or unofficially). Even if I could, would it really get what I want? A church that makes an idol out of marriage probably has enough golden calves sitting around to start their own petting zoo.

I’m admittedly a very calm, gentle person (perhaps to a fault), but on issues like idolatry God has also blessed me with a hint of a mean streak that’s about as pleasant as biting into tinfoil. I doubt significantly that I would fit into that kind of environment without turning over one too many temple table.

But churches will nonetheless insist on their small-minded standards to an unsettling degree. Since I wish to educate as well as entertain, I will address the two key arguments central to my employment woes.

Argument # 1:

To speak effectively to people experiencing ‘A’, you must yourself experience ‘A.’”

In other words, if I want to speak to married people, I must myself share in the experience of marriage. It kinda makes sense; experience is often a good (though unforgiving) teacher.

But wait a second. I’m also (whether I want to or not) going to be speaking to people experiencing sexual immorality of every, unprintable kind. By the above logic, I should also experience these things. Yet strangely (and fortunately), no has ever suggested “fornication” as a job prerequisite.

Besides, why is it so important I speak about marriage anyway? This brings me to…

Argument # 2:

Marriage is God’s plan. Most of the congregation is married. Therefore you must be equipped to address the issue of marriage.”

Ok. Jesus? Dr. Phil? Different.

Does the gospel speak to the subject of marriage? Of course it does; Paul addresses marriage in a significant way in letters to the Ephesians and Colossians (as well as other letters in the Greek Testament).

But the gospel is assuredly not exhausted in the subject of marriage. The church is about the gospel. The great commission (Mt 28:19-20) should be our first love, but like the church at Ephesus (Rev 2:4), it has been lost by any church that allows its focus on family to distract from living out God’s mission.

“STEREOSCOPIC VISION”

I borrow the phrase “stereoscopic vision”from Philip Yancey, (who himself borrows from St. Augustine’s language of a “heavenly” and “earthly” city) and suggest that our vision encompass both the world we live in as well as the world to come.

Family? It is an important institution of this world. But not the next. Jesus taught that “In the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven” (Mt 22:30). While there is much more to come tomorrow, I close with a brief excerpt from John Piper’s book This Momentary Marriage (available for free by clicking here):

“I am not sentimentalizing singleness to make the unmarried feel better. I am declaring the temporary and secondary nature of marriage and family over against the eternal and primary nature of the church. Marriage and family are temporary for this age; the church is forever. I am declaring the radical biblical truth that being in a human family is no sign of eternal blessing, but being in God’s family means being eternally blessed. Relationships based on family are temporary. Relationships based on union with Christ are eternal. Marriage is a temporary institution, but what it stands for lasts forever. .…“Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel,” Jesus said, “who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life” (Mark 10:29–30). Single person, married person, do you want children, mothers, brothers, sisters, lands? Renounce the primacy of your natural relationships, and follow Jesus into the fellowship of the people of God.”

The Scarlet Letter: Christianity and Singleness Part 1

I was perfect for the job. More than perfect. There are no words in the English language to describe my occupational transcendence.

Ok. Perhaps I exaggerate. But the truth is I could not imagine a more perfecter candidate for the position for which I was applying.

The job in question was with a church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, that was in the process of starting a Saturday night venue oriented towards young people in the area. The venue had a missional focus, oriented around worship but also focusing on engaging the arts and apologetics. The ideal candidate would help organize the venue as well as teach classes as needed. Which mean that in addition to teaching on such cool subjects as philosophy, I could help start art classes that the community could participate in, ideally building bridges between the church family and those outside the walls.

Me? Philosophy? Apologetics? Art? Young, emerging-type Christians? Where do I sign up?

And above all that, the information I had on the church indicated that they were desperate to hire someone to spearhead this initiative (do you like that “spearhead/initiative” phrase? I do. Makes me feel like a high-powered businessman, like a younger, less objectionable version of Donald Trump).

So I promptly sent my resume and cover letter to the contact person for the search committee. He responded the same day. His question? “How many kids do you have?”

Now let’s be clear. Contrary to what you may have heard, I’m not stupid. I knew the question he was really asking, as blatantly as if he’d requested a digital photo of my left ring finger to see if it bore the “mark of spiritual maturity.”

So there were two facts I needed to square with. First, I was not married. Second, I wanted the job. So I wrote back with equal promptness to explain how being single is actually a really, really good thing, as it has afforded me the opportunity to better myself educationally so that I can engage throughtfully in the areas of apologetics, art and emerging Christianity.

“Well,” he would later reply. “We’re really looking for married candidates.”

And that’s the end of that story.

To my knowledge, they never looked at my resume. They never saw the years of service and education I had racked up in the very areas in which they were most concerned. Instead, they could only brand me with the scarlet letter “S.”

I am single.

In the evangelical world, this is not that far away from carrying a sign and ringing a bell when you come into town to warn people of your uncleanliness.

To be fair, if this church didn’t want me for that reason, I was probably only seeing the tip of the iceberg, the rest of which representing a conservative environment that would only chafe me like a cheap pair of underwear.

But sadly this is far from the only church that has (ahem) singled me out – based not on the content of my resume, but on my bare ring finger.

And something’s gotta give.

SOCIAL STIGMA

Never mind that dudes like Jesus and Paul were single. We’ll get to arguments like that in the next post or so.

No, right now I need to keep ranting. Because there is something dramatically wrong with an evangelical community that sets family and marriage as the highest – nay, only virtue.

And this, folks, is why I steer so far around fundamentalist publications that are so hell-bent (no pun intended…?) on marriage and family, and frankly the next person who recommends I read Focus on the Family’s “Boundless” magazine I will personally hunt you down and stick chewing gum in your hair.

Because what we get from fundamentalism is a steady stream of moralistic rhetoric – a “what’s-wrong-with-you” mentality that seems just as content to point fingers as put rings on them.

Consider one such article, appearing in Boundless, called “The Cost of Delaying Marriage.” According to the author, single women are making a mistake in postponing marriage. The author compares this delay in marriage to waiting at a train station. The aging, single woman

“…may find herself tapping at her watch and staring down the now mysteriously empty tunnel, wondering if there hasn’t been a derailment or accident somewhere along the line. When a train does finally pull in, it is filled with misfits and crazy men — like a New York City subway car after hours; immature, elusive Peter Pans who won’t commit themselves to a second cup of coffee, let along a second date; neurotic bachelors with strange habits; sexual predators who hit on every woman they meet; newly divorced men taking pleasure wherever they can; embittered, scorned men who still feel vengeful toward their last girlfriend; men who are too preoccupied with their careers to think about anyone else from one week to the next; men who are simply too weak, or odd, to have attracted any other woman’s interest. The sensible, decent, not-bad- looking men a woman rejected at 24 because she wasn’t ready to settle down all seem to have gotten off at other stations.”

Ouch. Let’s repeat that one delightful phrase: “men who are simply too weak, or odd, to have attracted any other woman’s interest.”

Hey now. I may be weak, and I may be odd, but I’m certainly not…(wait, what was that third thing you said?)

DELAYING MARRIAGE

According the the amalgamation of statistics over at Internet Monk (click here to read his insightful article), the average age for marriage has risen from 22 in the 1940’s and 50’s to 26.5 in 2008.

Young people are choosing to delay marriage for a variety of reasons, including furthering one’s education or focusing on career.

Yet churches often are uneasy about the aging singles within their congregation. Lifestyles that made sense in the college years start to become conspicuous as young adults advance in years. Given that many churches focus on things such as marriage and family, many young people only experience further alienation from God and the church through constant reminders of what they have not yet “achieved.”

And I say “achieved” only halfheartedly. I can remember a day when a young couple was introduced before my church congregation. The person introducing them (mercifully, not one of the church staff) told the congregation that the couple had actually met within the church and went on to marry. And I bristled when he remarked that they were the “first success” that arose from the ministry to young adults.

That really does sum it up, doesn’t it? Marriage is defined in terms of achievement and failure. Is it any wonder that I can’t get hired? Clearly my singleness constitutes a significant moral and spiritual failure – this is probably why one church used the word “dangerous” when referring to hiring a young, single pastor.

Ugh.

So what do we make of this?

I’ll play their game. I will. Let’s pretend there is something “wrong” with being single.

THE WORK OF GOD

I can’t help but remember the story of the man born blind (it’s in John 9. you should look that up, because John was a way better writer than I could ever hope to be).

When Jesus and the disciples passed this guy, they asked, “Hey Jesus, see that blind guy? Is he blind because of something he did, or was it his parents?” The disciples, like many others in their culture, understood infirmity and sickness in cause-and-effect terms. But thankfully, God’s kingdom is not based on karma. “Neither,” Jesus replied. “But this is so the work of God may be displayed in his life.”

The man was healed, declaring before sinners, skeptics and the church crowd, “I once was blind, but now I see.”

Could it be that singleness works the same way? Could it be that your marital status might – just might be a means through which God can demonstrate His significance? It’s not about the fundamentalist categories of blame and shame. It’s about understanding the gifts of God in our lives, whether those gifts be marriage, or even the lack thereof.

And so, with Valentine’s Day right around the corner, I thought it would be appropriate to put up a few posts about singleness and the Christian life, largely inspired by the suggestion of my good friend Sara, who frankly needs her own blog because she’s smart and (relatively) good at being awesome. This series is (loosely) designed to explore the ways that this issue impacts the lives of both the younger generations as well as the life of the church as a whole.