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Singleminded

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"And do you have family?" he asked. I was slightly thrown, as we'd just been talking about my brother and his wife and kids in California, and my parents in Northampton. Had it not been clear that they were my family? Then I realised what he meant: are you married?

No. I’m not.

There’s not a lot to say after that. We fumbled around ‘That’s OK. Or is it?’ ‘Yes, it’s fine. It seems to be God’s plan, so who am I to argue?’ And eventually, being at a Christian conference, we got to ‘We need to do better at our preaching around singleness.’

The trouble is, though, that preaching about singleness implies that singleness is a problem. I’ve never heard anyone express concern that there aren’t enough sermons about left-handedness, or shortsightedness, or less-than-five-foot-three-ness. Why not? These are genuine abnormalities that require adaptations to enable me to function fully in our world, yet no one preaches on them. Why?

Because no one thinks that really it would be better if I was taller, right handed or had 20:20 vision. They’re not cultural churchy values. No one is considered more qualified for a ministry position because they are the right height or they don’t wear glasses. No one is overlooked because they write with the left hand.

If singles are struggling with singleness it’s because our surrounding culture tells them that marriage is the goal. And our churches don’t argue. We don’t say it through our preaching (usually), but we say it through our practices, through what we (rightly) celebrate (weddings, babies), through who we choose to lead Bible study groups and Alpha courses, through how often we treat singles as an afterthought or a slightly awkward embarrasment.

But don’t get me wrong - this doesn’t bother me. If you genuinely believe that the Bible teaches that small groups should be led by married couples, and that being single means you’re somehow deficient and less able to serve, well, that’s between you and your Bible. One day you’ll find yourself preaching about Jesus and notice that he didn’t seem to see his singleness as a handicap. Then you’ll bump into Paul who argued it is actually the more desirable state, as it frees you to serve God whenever, wherever and however he calls. [Aside - I wrote this last week, and yesterday saw this tweet. Amen.] You’ll get it. And if your practice doesn’t follow your understanding of scripture, then you’ve got more problems than I can help you with.

The thing I’m looking for in preaching and teaching in church is what the Bible teaches and what God’s call on my life in response to it is. Not what the Bible teaches left-handers. Not what it teaches short people. What it teaches. Full stop. Yes, there is room for application (‘If you’re not a Christian here today…’, ‘If you’re struggling with addiction…’, ‘If you’ve been neglecting this command of God…’) and there are times when it will be appropriate to say ‘If you’re single, divorced or widowed [I don’t think I’ve EVER heard that last one - why not?], this may be a tough sermon for you to hear, next week’s message will have more relevance for you, but this week, why not pray for your married friends as they take on board some of the lessons God has got for them?’ [Note the emphasis on what they can contribute, rather than the self-focussed ‘you’re on the outside for now’]

Last week I was in a conference hearing from church leaders from around the world. The guy ministering to Iraqi and Iranian refugees in Turkey didn’t seem to think anyone’s marital status was significant in what he was being called to do - he was too busy getting on with feeding families, converting, baptising, and training people so they had a firm grounding in faith when they got approved to move to their new home country. He was too concerned with helping hopeless people find hope and getting them serving. He was too busy helping people from three conflicting cultures learn to love one another, and helping his church deal with the fact that they were no longer a stable group of 50, but an ever-changing community of seven times that.

The guy from the Ukraine wasn’t concerned about marriage except insofar as the war had put so much pressure on him and his wife that they barely saw each other for two years, despite living in the same house (and sometimes sleeping in the same car, with their kids). He was too busy buying thousands of candles in case the power shortages continued all winter. He was too concerned with providing torches for families in the church so that no one accidentally stepped on a landmine when walking home from a Bible Study at night.

The guys from China didn’t mention marriage when they talked about following God’s call to change the system and place orphans with families instead of in institutions.

The man working in Zimbabwe helping impoverished landowners change their mindsets and practices to bring fruitfulness to their land and prosperity and hope to their communities - he didn’t mention marriage or singleness.

What’s my point? There’s more to life than my marital status. Living for the glory of God is bigger and wider and more challenging and more fulfilling than any human relationship I may desire. If we’re wondering about how to teach singles and how to talk about singleness, I think that’s a sign that we’re too comfortable. I don’t think marriage is God’s top priority for your life, or for the life of anyone in your congregation. I don’t think it hits the top ten.

Preach in such a way that your singles, marrieds, divorcees and widow/ers feel more equipped to run after God with all their hearts, to live fully sold out for him. Preach about God’s priorities - love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself.

Teach the singleminded pursuit of godliness - just like Jesus.


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Image credit: Joshua Earle (cc)

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