In Going Solo (a summary of the argument here), Eric Klinenberg documents a growing trend in American social life: more and more people are living alone. As I read this book and thought through the idea that this is an unusual trend in human history, I was somewhat surprised that there was very little about a religious approach to this issue. Klinenberg mentions at a few places how a few “singletons” are sustained by their faith and how a few religious organizations are serving elderly singletons but there is no bigger mention of how religious faiths address this issue. Although I don’t study this area, I believe this is a golden opportunity for evangelicals and others in the church to respond to this growing trend. Here are a few thoughts about the issue at hand and how churches can begin to tackle the issue.
Many churches, particularly the average evangelical church, are built around the family. Many programs are geared toward kids and families. Sermons are much more likely to be about family relationships that about living alone. In my own experience, you often don’t “fit” in these churches unless you are married and have kids. Even being married is not enough: I’ve felt this in multiple churches, that you aren’t fully a participant unless you have children who are involved in kid’s ministries. If I didn’t volunteer to serve or seek out relationships, simply being part of a married couple isn’t going to get me far. While we have been invited to some events and groups, we have rarely been invited to the house of a couple who has kids. (I am more than willing to admit that this may have more to do with me than my family status.)
This is not just a feature of the church. As Klinenberg points out, the societal expectation is that people will get married and have children. Not following that course leads to questions and sometimes bewilderment. I’ve heard the idea from others that having children allows one to more easily make connections with other adults. For example, having kids in school or in a neighborhood means that parents will inevitably meet other parents as their children interact. Without children (or perhaps a pet?), it can be difficult to strike up conversations even with people we see on a regular basis in the neighborhood, in public places, or at church.
I’ve thought at times that some churches verge on placing families higher than God. Which one is mentioned more? What are the subtle and not-so-subtle messages broadcast to people who attend? I wonder how much of this is driven by a perceived demographic need, a feeling among evangelicals that the best way to continue our churches and our faith is to raise children in this faith. A great example of this is a supposed statistic sociologist Christian Smith pointed out a few years ago: “only 4 percent of today’s teenagers would be evangelical believers by the time they became adults.” As Smith notes, this statistic is not true but it fits a mindset where there is a continuous battle between evangelicals and the rest of the world. One of the best ways to fight back is to have children who will continue the fight. Of course, Smith’s later work in books like Souls In Transition suggests that parents do indeed matter for a lasting religiosity.
While supporting marriage and families is a good thing (though I am reminded of sociologist Mark Regnerus’ arguments several years ago in an article titled “The Case for Early Marriage“), this leaves a lot of people out: younger adults, the widowed, the divorced, the separated, those who haven’t married. A common message is that once you leave these categories and get married, you are “normal” in the church’s eyes. Otherwise, you are more on the margin.
One possible solution to some of these issues is to have more intergenerational classes and activities. Churches often group people by life stages, often literally separating groups from the main activities from the church (like in youth groups). I’ve never been a fan of this: both personally and as a sociologist, I see a lot of value in interacting with and learning from those who have more experience and wisdom than I do. There is much to be gained by building relationships with those who are experiencing similar issues related to age but it also emphasizes certain landmarks. For example, singles’ ministries or small groups based on childless couples can be odd in that the unstated goal is to leave these groups. Why not treat people as whole people who can learn from other whole people rather than pushing ourselves into easily defined and sorted groups? Simply worshiping together in a large service doesn’t lead to deeper relationships in the way that consistent intergenerational interaction can.
Another possible solution is to broaden the focus away from nuclear families and to a more expansive definition of “families” and “neighbors.” This does not have to look like the final scene from the movie About A Boy where the lonely teenager Marcus and the lonely middle-aged man Will have found a group of people they like and that like them who they now define as their “family.” Rather, this could and should include people we wouldn’t immediately gravitate to, people who aren’t necessarily easy to make initial connections with. We can be reminded that the suburban nuclear family that many churches are built around is a relatively recent invention in human history. The Biblical characters we uphold in church would have seen themselves as part of larger families, clans, and tribes. As historian Robert Fishman points out in Bourgeois Utopias, William Wilberforce and friends, renowned persons of faith, contributed to this in the late 1700s by moving their families to one of the first Western suburbs, Clapham outside of London, in order to preserve their wives and children from the evils of the city (much more could be said about this topic). Retreating to a suburban family life with limited contact with the world may limit some dangers but it might also introduce some others.
Third, this trend presents a chance for the church to push for and truly live out the ideals of “community, ” a word oft discussed in Christian circles but much harder to put into practice. What does this really look like? How many people are really striving for this? Or is it something that tends to come up in times of trouble? Even further, Klinenberg argues that behind the trend of living alone are American cultural values are self-reliance and individualism. Neither of these are Christian virtues and yet we Americans need to be reminded, as one of my former pastors was fond of saying, “there are no solo Christians.” This broader Christian community should care for all, just as the sociologist Rodney Stark argues the early Christians effectively did. Sure, this is an uphill battle in a world of many single-family homes, cars, long work hours, and growing opposition to organized religion but it is a battle worth fighting.
In sum, this is an opportunity for Christians to uphold values of marriage and family while also addressing the trends of American social life toward singleness. It will not be enough for churches to argue that people should simply get married and then support those people. In dealing with issues like loneliness and searching for meaning that Klinenberg suggests are common along those living alone (and frankly, most people), the church should be leading the way. The church can be a place where close relationships with others are created and nurtured. The church can challenge ideas about self-reliance and independence, ideas about having to be tough to face the world as solitary people. If there is any place where the single and married, young and old, people of different classes, races, and ages should be able to come together, it should be in the places that claim that “God so loved the world” and whose followers are called to “love their neighbors as themselves.”