Religion & Liberty Online

The Single Christian

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When marriage and family are considered the ideal within church communities, how is the single Christian to find a place, a calling, where he or she can be at peace? A plague of loneliness is to be found in more than just the broader, secular culture.

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For Christians in the modern world, one of the aspects of our faith most central to daily life is God’s instruction to Adam and Eve in Genesis that they “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it.” Even before God instituted the sacrament of marriage, Genesis recounts the pinnacle of the story of creation, after God declares, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.’” When no animal proves to be that fit helper, God creates woman: “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh.”

Shaped by these verses, Christians have always believed that joining in marriage—and most often subsequently raising children—tends to be the primary means by which they are to answer God’s calling on earth. Marriage offers a lifetime of opportunities to sacrifice, grow in love, and draw closer to God through this most common vocation; it serves as an image of the sacrificial, loving relationship between Christ and the church.

In her new book, Solo Planet: How Singles Help the Church Recover Our Calling, Anna Broadway explores how single Christians around the world are practicing their faith and living out their own vocations in societies, and especially in churches, that tend to be structured around those who are married. Over the course of a year and a half, Broadway traveled to 75 cities across 41 countries to visit more than 300 Christians of all ages and all three major traditions—Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox—and discuss their experiences of singleness within their respective churches.

While her presentation of the material is at times a bit jumbled and disjointed, much of the book is highly engaging, peppered with what she calls “trip vignettes,” or little anecdotes and insights gathered from her time on the road. Her experiences and conversations form the backbone of the book, weaving a compelling narrative about the global experience of singleness among Christians, a different perspective from the typical U.S.-focused discussion. Broadway herself is a single woman in her 40s, which gives the book even more heft because she’s able to insert her own perspective to complement and comment on her conversations.

“To have a successful life, we think, you must marry and/or procreate,” Broadway writes in her introduction. “The Bible calls children a sign of God’s blessing, after all. How can single people fully enjoy God’s favor if we can’t receive such gifts from Him?” She considers additional hard topics such as “Can Christian singles thrive when the partners we’ve lost can’t return, our sexual desires cannot change, and God seems unwilling to provide the companionship for which we deeply long?” And this poignant question: “Does Jesus offer a full life to people like us, too?”

Solo Planet doesn’t offer decisive responses to any of these questions, but Broadway’s wide variety of interviewees give the book a compelling depth. She covers her topic from angles as diverse as the role of food in building community, the struggles of Christians who experience same-sex attraction, and singleness among Christian ministers. Again, readers looking for comprehensive solutions won’t find them here; it’s a book to pick up not for a clear-cut gameplan but for a deeper understanding of the problems that vex singles within the church. Instead of all-encompassing strategies for improvement, you’ll find a number of perspectives from singles on what might help them remain more involved with their faith and feel more a part of their communities.

Broadway’s own summation of the problem might best be characterized by this line: “Many factors keep people from marriage, but the church continues to emphasize ‘Be fruitful and multiply’ more than ‘seek first his kingdom and his righteousness.’” She situates her narrative in the context of what she describes as a significant demographics challenge facing the church: About 60% of churchgoers worldwide are women, leaving a lopsided ratio for Christian women who aim to marry a man who shares the same faith.

Rather than offering sympathy to those who are single for reasons outside their control, Broadway argues, Christians often send the message that singleness is an affliction endured by those who simply aren’t trying hard enough to find a spouse. But, as she explains, there isn’t an easy answer to what is ultimately a problem of numbers: “When women outnumber men in the church, that leaves three options: polygamy, marrying a non-Christian or staying single. Which would you like us to choose?”

She contends, and many of her subjects seem to agree, that the apparent lack of focus among Christians on the value and role of singles within the church is detrimental not only to single people themselves but also to the communities that end up missing out on their involvement. She cites a recent survey finding that, from 2018 to 2022, the share of singles who never attend church increased by almost 50%. The survey blamed the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on “those who had maintained the weakest commitments to regular attendance.”

In contrast, Broadway uses her discussions and her personal experiences to suggest that what she calls a more biblical approach to singleness can strengthen churches and help singles thrive. One major roadblock to this approach that she identifies in her conversations is the tendency to treat marriage as the normative, even ideal mode of Christian life, which can be discouraging, especially to those who likely will never be married. “The Bible offers a more ambiguous account of our relational options,” she writes. “On the one hand, the book starts and ends with weddings. But on the other hand, Jesus Himself never married. … God clearly values both states.”

From my own perspective as a Catholic, I find that this assessment tracks pretty closely with the church’s understanding of vocation. Various modes of singleness have always been central to the church, most notably the priesthood—which requires celibacy—and the long tradition of religious orders of monks and nuns who bolster the church through prayer and ministries such as in healthcare and education. There has been a growing recognition among Catholics in recent decades that, even for the laity, lifelong singleness can be a true calling, albeit a fairly rare one. Although marriage is the most common vocation, it’s certainly not a privileged one when it comes to participating in the life of the church; indeed, due to the Catholic understanding of the priesthood, all lay vocations were treated for much of the church’s history as lesser, and in a theological sense they still are.

Nevertheless, a key insight from Broadway’s interviews is that theological truths don’t always trickle down into the hearts of people in the pews. In other words, a sincere belief on the part of churches that single people are just as valuable as the married doesn’t necessarily make unattached congregants feel welcome when they show up for the post-church pancake breakfast alone.

That reality, too, echoes my own experience. There is a marked restlessness present among many single Christians who feel called to marriage but have yet to meet a spouse. Many struggle with a deep sense that their lives are, in some important sense, on hold until they enter marriage, when “real life” can begin. Something similar can happen among married couples who have yet to bear children. Many of the conversations in Solo Planet get at precisely this discomfort, especially for those whose circumstances mean they’re likely to remain single for life, often not by choice. Broadway’s chief exhortation to church leaders and married members of churches is that we put greater emphasis on welcoming singles into deep relationships, tying them into our families and congregations in a more meaningful way that honors their unique role in our communities.

The book offers helpful insights not just for Christian readers but also for anyone concerned about the so-called loneliness epidemic, or the growing crisis of social disconnection. Just last spring, the U.S. surgeon general issued a formal advisory on the topic, introducing a framework called the National Strategy to Advance Social Connection, which highlighted the consequences of poor social connection, such as “a 29% increased risk of heart disease, a 32% increased risk of stroke, and a 50% increased risk of developing dementia for older adults. Additionally, lacking social connection increases risk of premature death by more than 60%.” The announcement compared this crisis of loneliness to other serious public-health issues such as tobacco use, obesity, and substance abuse.

Perhaps most interesting, the advisory noted that, while all Americans are spending less time together in person than they were two decades ago, the trend is most pronounced among those ages 15–24, who reported 70% fewer in-person interactions with friends. It’s easy to point the finger at smartphones, and especially social media, to explain this troubling phenomenon.

It isn’t just singles, in other words, who are struggling with disconnection from the people around them. And while it’s encouraging to see this crisis receive serious attention from high-level authority figures, it’s difficult to imagine that real, lasting solutions to deeply rooted social problems will come from frameworks proposed by federal agencies. Loneliness and isolation are both created and solved at the lowest possible level, primarily by the health or decay of relationships between neighbors and members of local communities.

In this broader context, Solo Planet offers important insights for building a society more mindful of the need for human connection outside marriage or committed romantic relationships. Even the married need more social structure and connection than the relationships within their homes. How can we make room for those in our midst who are not immediately connected to us by familial bonds or the relationships that flow naturally from marriage and parenthood? Broadway’s work suggests that a renewed effort to answer that question might not only enable Christian churches to better serve their single members but also might contribute to easing the broader loneliness from which so many around us suffer.

Alexandra DeSanctis Marr

Alexandra DeSanctis Marr is a fellow in the Life & Family Initiative of the Ethics & Public Policy Center and coauthor, with Ryan T. Anderson, of Tearing Us Apart: How Abortion Harms Everything and Solves Nothing.