When 18 single adults get together for their weekly Wednesday night meeting at Christ Church United in Lowell, Mass., they abide by one strict rule: thou shalt not date anyone in the group. "It's a place for working through your own issues," says the Rev. Virginia McDaniel, pastor of the church. "It's not a place to get matched up."
In other words, it's not a place to view singleness as a problem that the church needs to solve by encouraging marriage. Being single is increasingly seen as a condition to be accepted, whether as a temporary challenge or a lifelong blessing, in a religious landscape where singles groups in churches are being transformed.
Across the nation, religious communities of varied stripes are taking steps to welcome the growing the number adults who have chosen - at least for now - not to marry.
According to US Census projections, singles will constitute nearly one-third of American households by 2010. Already, the nation's 86 million unmarried adults make up 42 percent of the workforce and 35 percent of voters.
Conversely, the most recent Census numbers show that married-couple households have dropped from nearly 80 percent in the 1950s to just 50.7 percent today.
The demographic shift means a vast cultural challenge for family-centered
institutions to embrace everyone from young adults postponing nuptials, to divorcees choosing singleness, to widows and widowers who have lived with a partner for years.
As congregations adjust, singles ministries with a match-making undertone are giving way to new projects meant to weave individuals into the wider fabric of community life. But whether these single lifestyles are being blessed, tolerated, or gently criticized varies largely along regional and denominational lines.
"I will probably leave this church the day we announce we're having a singles ministry function," says the Rev. Marc Dickmann, pastor of Commitment at Warehouse 242, an evangelical church in Charlotte, N.C. "Our vision of community is not one of ostracizing or isolating single people as lost souls. The attitude of churches used to be: 'You aren't married. What's wrong with you?' But we know it doesn't work that way for everybody."
In Charlotte, where conservative megachurches flourish, virtually everyone wants to find a mate, and singles often wonder why God hasn't provided one, according to Mr. Dickmann's experience. Warehouse 242 responds by exhorting all singles to retain "sexual purity" until marriage, while urging them to ask, in small groups where married and single people come together discuss scripture, popular literature or movies, "What does God want to teach me at this stage of my life?"
But in Portland, Ore., and Tacoma, Wash., Reform Jews packed meeting halls in December to begin developing rituals for marking milestones in the lives and relationships of single people. Some voiced concern about "cheapening" the value of marriage by blessing other relationships, but Rabbi Richard Address instead expects a redefinition of a contemporary Jewish family.
"It's a real struggle to make divorced people feel welcome because congregations send out such a feeling of coupled-ness," says Mr. Address, director of Jewish Family Concerns for the Union of Reform Judaism. "But this project [of creating rituals for singles] represents the next 30 years of Reform Judaism."
In Christianity, single status has at different points in time carried either a mark of holiness or a stigma of deformity. Roman Catholics, for instance, have preserved the ancient and medieval standard of celibacy for priests, nuns, and monks as the highest sign of a life set apart for God. Protestants, meanwhile, have since Martin Luther's day upheld married life as ideal, leaving singles to feel at times like second-class church members. And while both hold holy matrimony in high esteem, neither has ever established any sort of blessed distinction for singles, however faithful, who forego the taking of vows.
Today, however, singleness is being viewed through a changing lens, at least in certain religious circles. Some mainline Protestants, for instance, are replacing the 1980s and '90s model of singles ministry, which brought together people of similar ages and often devolved, according to Dickmann and other sources, into "Christian meat markets."
In the Northeast, more than a dozen churches use the "New Beginnings for Single Adults" program, which has flourished especially in urban areas like Lowell. Its success, Ms. McDaniel says, stems from helping people accept their single status through what she describes as "a self-help 101 class, where people are working through loss and grief, gaining new communication skills and boundaries."
Growing regard in congregations for singleness as an acceptable condition, however, does not necessarily mean singles have assimilated. Carl McDonald, a divorced father of two adults, says he still feels a discomfort in suburban congregations where couples are the norm.
"I think Christmas is a very painful time for single people to go to church because it is so family-centered," says Mr. McDonald, a youth ministries adviser at the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ. "And these are people who are sometimes better off than when they were coupled. They find joy in their work, they have lots of friends, but even when they go to singles ministry, it's about grieving."
As congregations seek new ways to bring singles into their mainstreams, the challenge yet to be surmounted is how much a community will acknowledge or accept about a single person's personal life. At Warehouse 242, singles who cohabitate may take part in church life but are forbidden to lead small groups, since their lives fall short of church standards. By contrast, at Christ Church United, an unmarried couple may have a child baptized as long as they agree to join the church. No commitment toward marriage is expected, McDaniel says, because "sometimes it isn't a good relationship, but we still put the child first" by welcoming a bond with the church through baptism.
So far, singles are often being welcomed in communities across the religious spectrum along the lines of a "don't ask, don't tell" policy about personal lifestyles. But whether the probing goes deeper with time or not, the process of discovery for what makes for a holy single life in the 21st century will surely be lived out in settings where married couples and single people explore the depths of faith side-by-side.
"The question is, 'Do you minister based on a person's station in life?' " asks the Rev. John Matusiak of the Orthodox Church in America. "Or is the goal to get people together from different stations in life together to enrich each other? We believe it would be totally artificial to create a specialized ministry for single people. And single people find that refreshing."