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It’s tough out there for singles. What can churches do to help?

A new survey from Lifeway Research explores what Protestant churches are doing to minister to single adults

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Illustration by Eliza Anderson, Deseret News

The dating market has never been more difficult to navigate, after the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted relationship norms already roughed up by the rise of dating apps.

American singles are getting toyed with, lied to and ghosted — that is, if they’re finding dates at all.

Amid these depressing trends, and in recognition of the fact that even partnered Americans are waiting longer to get married, Lifeway Research surveyed Protestant pastors on how their churches are serving single adults over age 30.

The survey found that most Protestant congregations look for ways to empower singles to get involved in church programs. More than 9 in 10 pastors said that single adults are encouraged to either serve in leadership (92%) or volunteer (91%) roles.

“Clearly, pastors want single adults integrated into the life and ministry of their churches,” said Scott McConnell, executive director of Lifeway Research, in a statement.

But fewer Protestant churches offer Bible study groups (45%) or social events (43%) specifically for singles, the survey showed. Unpartnered churchgoers whom the Deseret News spoke with are torn on whether or not that’s a bad thing.

For example, Cherry Crayton, who co-led a singles ministry for a megachurch many years ago, said that groups or events targeted at singles are only valuable if they acknowledge participants’ actual wants and needs.

Too often, organizers just assume they know how unpartnered people are feeling, and never really ask for feedback, she told the Deseret News in an email.

“I think churches should not assume anything and instead they should intentionally seek to understand the needs of their members and communities. Get to know us, listen to us and act on what you hear,” Crayton said.

Similarly, Yana Jenay Conner, a Bible teacher, writer and host of the podcast “Living Single,” said that conversations are key. She said churches should be a place where members help one another handle all kinds of relationships and feel comfortable sharing what they really think.

“We need to be asking each other questions and not feel like those things are off topic,” Conner said, adding that her own pastor asked about her dating life just the other day.

“I told him I wasn’t seeing anyone and he asked how I was feeling about it. I was really thankful he asked,” she said.

Conner and Crayton both said churches can and should help singles navigate today’s dating scene. But it’s best if faith leaders mostly stay focused on single adults’ spiritual, rather than romantic, lives, they said.

“I think ministering to believers or seekers who are single should be the same as it would be for anyone — acknowledging and affirming our identity as children of God and helping us live lives that glorify God,” Crayton said.

Here are three other tips for pastors from Crayton and Conner:

Singles ministries shouldn’t feel like speed-dating events.

One of the most common issues with church gatherings for singles is that they end up feeling more like secular matchmaking events than church, according to Conner.

“There’s this mixer-like speed-dating environment where people just see each other as potential spouses,” rather than fellow Christians, she said.

Church can be a great place to meet a partner, since attendees typically hold many of the same values, Conner said. But connections will still happen even if events stay focused on whatever religious activity they’re advertised to be about.

Not all singles are the same.

It’s important for faith leaders to remember that not all single adults have the same needs, Crayton said, citing a recent Pew Research Center survey highlighting the varied views and experiences of American singles.

“Fully half of single adults say they are not currently looking for a relationship or dates,” the Pew survey found.

Although faith leaders might be unhappy to hear that, it helps explain why sermons or other types of talks about the beauty of marriage sometimes land with a thud. It would be valuable for pastors to speak about broader issues like loneliness or disconnection, rather than always talking about things in romantic terms, Crayton said.

“There’s always an opportunity for churches to be in a position to help by creating spaces for belonging, connection and community for any group of people, including young, single people,” she said.

Single and married adults look for many of the same things from church.

In general, creating a church that serves singles well is a lot like creating a church that serves anyone well, Crayton said. We all face similar challenges, whether or not there’s a partner by our side.

“We are all in some type of relationship with others, whether as friends, colleagues, teammates, collaborators (or) family,” she said.

Conner made a related point, noting that she regularly checks in with her married friends from church, just like her pastor checked in with her.

“I ask them how their marriage is doing. ... Questions like those should be part of the conversation at church,” she said.