The Missional Position: Myths and Musings on Being Single

I’ve been married for 16 years, so I can’t very well say, “I understand.”  But, I’ve ministered among college/career aged men and women, I’ve taught, counseled, and supervised many singles at a seminary, and live and minister now in Singles Mecca – San Francisco.  And I think I’ve heard it all.  Singles – I feel for you.  There are some crazy ideas out there…

…which led City Church San Francisco’s Anni Mingin, our Pastor of Spiritual Formation, to organize an event called The Gender Gap. Anni brought together a panel of pastors and therapists to facilitate separate discussions with men and women, and by all accounts the conversation was “lively.”  Who woulda thunk it?

But in these discussions and others, I hear a combination of of things that worry me…and provoke me to muse on my own “Missional Position” when it comes to singles.

Myths:

Myth 1.  The Church is responsible for providing singles healthy venues to meet each other – I’ve heard this and (thankfully) several singles debunked this myth at our Gender Gap event.  Now, if your church has a roller rink, and you can do a churchy version of “Gents Choice” (yes, we did this in the 70’s and 80’s), then go for it.  Yes, the church is responsible for casting a vision of the good life, shalom, the life of flourishing, and this ought to have application to singles (PS: Most biblical application to singles is shallow behaviorism.  Sad.)  But, I’ve seen what happens when churches give in to this modern-day consumer demand.  Most healthy singles will avoid these events like the plague.  Some will go out of a curiosity – a good speaker, an attempt at a healthy vibe.  But mostly, these foster a meat-market culture.

Myth 2.  God’s focus is on the family – Yes, you know what I’m getting at.  It is a uniquely Western and particularly American theology that focuses on the family as if the Bible advocates its primacy.  Without elaborating with lots of proof texts, I’m convinced a biblical theology places community (ekklesia) first, complete with singles, married, widows, orphans, and aliens.  We privilege Dick and Jane Tithingunit and their 2.3 children, but Scripture doesn’t.  Thus, to say marriage is normative or being single is normative, according to the Bible, misses the point.  “Life together” in community, as Bonhoeffer might say, is the point.  In the end, we are the “New Israel,” not the new Jones’s.

Myth 3 – God is most concerned about our behavior – So much of the moralistic literature on single life focuses on sin-management, not on a life of flourishing.  Thus, the college boys get together for behavioral accountability to confess their most recent J.O., or the single women define the characteristics of the perfect guy.  To be sure, how we live out what we believe is very important.  But more often than not, this leads to the production of the false self – the self we present to others which masks the darker parts of our soul.  Let’s get honest, friends, and let’s begin talking about what we really think, feel, and dream about.  Christian community that plays the game of sin-management may look clean on the outside, but is what Jesus calls a “white-washed tomb.”

So, let’s turn our attention to three musings – a biblical vision of flourishing for a single person.

Musing 1 – Your sexuality is very, very human –In the early years of the church, the answer to this problem was castration.  Bad idea.  Today, we choose behavioral castration, a kind of moralistic attempt at sin avoidance and management.  Bad idea.  God created you sexual.  Now, the opposite of castration is sexual consumerism.  Consumerism is yet another attempt to manage our desires.  Now, the Missional Position says that your attempt to control sin by avoidance, on the one hand, or indulgence on the other, is ultimately self-destructive.  Remember the words of C.S. Lewis: Our desires are not too strong, but far too weak!  Now, living into biblical desire is not killing off you want (castration) or enjoying what you want in the moment (consumerism), but living into your design.  This means that you were designed to enjoy your sexuality, even now.  Of course, being a consumer of information, you’d want me to elaborate and explain…but I’m going to leave this one at the moment of tease…

Musing 2 – Your disappointment is very, very real – Because our desires are thwarted time and again, we find ourselves confused.  After all, God wants us to be satisfied, right?  Jesus spoke of the “abundant life.”  Once again, we define abundance by what we avoid (I’m obedient!) or what we consume (I’m fulfilled!), but Jesus blows up the extremes and challenges us to live fully, in the now, despite our lack or privilege.  And this living requires the brutal honesty of lament – “Why, Oh Lord?”  Because you know that your singleness, more often than not, frustrates the hell out of you.  You know that you’ve been made to find your deepest joy in God, but let’s face it – lots of other Christians get to experience that joy plus a great spouse, a few kids, and a pretty good life.  Why are you called to suffer and not them?  We were meant to desire.  If you try to control desire through castration or consumerism, you’ll become angry, bitter, and possibly even manipulative.  If you live into desire, you’ll have to confess deep, deep disappointment.  And in this radical honesty, you may even find a kind of brutally honest relationship with God that feel as real as anything you’ve known…

Musing 3 – Your safety is more important than you know – In my work with singles, I hear a lot of constructive advice – “The church ought to provide more singles events,” or “Women ought to convey that they are available and interested by dressing in a more inviting way,” or “Guys need to pursue more,” or “Pastors need to preach more on being single.”  Fine.  There is probably some wisdom in there.  But here’s something to chew on.  In most singles environments I’ve been in, singles feel a whole lot of weirdness.  Guys expose too much chest hair.  Women expose too much cleavage.  Game on.

Now, someone broke through this meat-market craziness in the recent singles conversation when he said, “I think this creates an environment that makes everyone’s stomach turn.”  This was a private conversation, so I followed up.  I asked why, and he said, “I think that it is all about creating a perception, but it misses the real fact that we just want someone to know and be known by…someone to love.”

This is honest.  Listen, most singles I know would say that the exchanges they have, whether online or in person, exist somewhere above the water-line…where we pose and posture.  But beneath the surface, the question is, “What do you think of me?  Are you curious to know my story?  Do you want to talk more?”  Beneath the surface, in other words, is a person’s story.  And, to tell our story, we need safety.

Forget what the Bible says for a moment.  Some of you have become cynical about that.  The best psychological wisdom claims that relational connection occurs when people feel safe with one another.  Even married couples have no hope of communicating without safety, first.  Now, what counters a real feeling of safety?  That’s for you to chew on.  But more often than not, we have an intuition when a person is not safe, when the persona is in full gear, and the mask is on, and the false self is shining.  He’s a bit too cool.  And she’s trying to be a bit too sexy.  And this, on the surface, may be appealing.  But in a while, it becomes an impediment to honest relationship.

So, the Missional Position advocates honesty, curiosity, and story-telling.  It advocates the kind of heart-centered pursuit of another’s soul.  I’ve talked to men who seem fairly mature and who lead in their churches, but who are 15 years old emotionally when it comes to relationships.  Often, I tell these men that they need to relate with maturity to a woman before even beginning a pursuit.  However, these emotionally stunted men often attract emotionally stunted women, who play the game.  Maybe it’ll work.  Maybe they’ll get married.  But I can bet you this much – I’ll see them in my office for counseling soon.  Posing and posturing leads to disingenuous relationship – a form of contrived intimacy that may feel like real connection, but ultimately disintegrates it.  It kills any sense of safety – the safety to be you, warts and all.

Final Thoughts:

I probably don’t have much credibility as a 40 year old man who has been married for 16 years.  But let me tell you this:  those of us who are married, and married honestly, have hit bottom.  Our own crap and posing is eventually exposed.  Our marriages hit a place of death.  All of our former ideals around intimacy and success and sex and prosperity explode.  And we hear that old Scripture ringing in our ear: “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground…”  And we know life emerges from death.

In other words, we know the pitfalls.  We’ve entered the “garden”…and we’ve discovered thorns and thistles.  Many of you wish you were in our shoes, and perhaps our beds.  But let me tell you the truth.  Loneliness and difficulty only increase.  What you wish for may come back to haunt you.  And so, we all must be prepared to take the missional position – the road the less traveled, the way down, the path of the suffering Servant.

Keeping our eyes on Christ, we see that pleasure does not come in and through sin- management.  We can’t manipulate satisfaction and pleasure.  It comes through self-abandonment, the kind of cruciform life that looks as it cannot possibly offer fulfillment.  It comes not through managing and manipulating desire, but by living into it – “you only have to let the soft sound of your body love what it loves,” as the poet Mary Oliver says in the her poem “The Wild Geese.” You see, she gets it.  She trusts something bigger than her own ability to control pain and pleasure, castration and consumerism.

Finally, this:  I’ve often told singles that their vision is too “singular” – they focus too much on finding someone rather than focusing on how others might thrive.  What would it look like for men to focus on creating a safe place for women to feel at home, and not like meat at the local market?  What would it look like for women to envision the safety of men – a context where they don’t have to become hyper-masculine, posing like the secure and mature men they are not?  What would it look like to focus on the community?  Not the family.  Not singleness.  What would it look like to anticipate the “new community,” on the new heavens and new earth, where posturing and posing will be no more, and where self-sacrifice and other-centeredness will reign?

The Missional Position.  It’s not just a funny word play.  It’s a call to cruciformity in your singleness.  Let’s talk about.

23 comments

  1. This touches on some of the issues Chuck. But taking this discussion further … living alive to the desire and the ache (not castrating or consuming) is what’s so hard. Staying alive deepens the longing for knowing love. It is a lonely place, especially since you know you were created for such a relationship. In that lonely place, it is possible to experience God in rich ways. I have. But that usually happens after much aching and seeking. Sometimes it’s God’s rest at the end. Sometimes it’s exhaustion.

    1. “And this living requires the brutal honesty of lament – “Why, Oh Lord?” Because you know that your singleness, more often than not, frustrates the hell out of you. You know that you’ve been made to find your deepest joy in God, but let’s face it – lots of other Christians get to experience that joy plus a great spouse, a few kids, and a pretty good life. Why are you called to suffer and not them? We were meant to desire. If you try to control desire through castration or consumerism, you’ll become angry, bitter, and possibly even manipulative. If you live into desire, you’ll have to confess deep, deep disappointment.”

  2. “And this living requires the brutal honesty of lament – “Why, Oh Lord?” Because you know that your singleness, more often than not, frustrates the hell out of you. You know that you’ve been made to find your deepest joy in God, but let’s face it – lots of other Christians get to experience that joy plus a great spouse, a few kids, and a pretty good life. Why are you called to suffer and not them? We were meant to desire. If you try to control desire through castration or consumerism, you’ll become angry, bitter, and possibly even manipulative. If you live into desire, you’ll have to confess deep, deep disappointment.”

  3. Yes, and yes. Marriage, as well as singleness, are vocations to particular kinds of suffering (as a well as particular pleasures). Great post.

  4. Chuck – Thought-provoking post that gives me much to chew on, but I do have a question about the last part of what you wrote…

    “But let me tell you this: those of us who are married, and married honestly, have hit bottom. Our own crap and posing is eventually exposed.”

    It’s hard for me to read the above sentence (and the paragraphs that follow it in your post) without hearing you say that single people can’t ever understand / experience this kind of place of being relationally exposed, of knowing that life emerges from death. I acknowledge that this happens in a unique way in marriage, but I think that ultimately all experiences of true community can expose our hearts, our small desires, our misdirected longings.

    Could you clarify if you are implying that singles can never know these things to the same depth (albeit in a slightly different way) as married people do? If that’s not what you are saying, what are you saying?

    1. Elizabeth, Good thoughts. No I’m not saying that. No, it’s precisely because community is normative, not marriage, that we can all experience it. I’m just saying that marriage isn’t the end-all, be-all some singles expect. It’s really hard. Don’t make marriage an idol, in other words. Make sense? Thanks for writing.

      Chuck

  5. A friend of a friend posted this on Facebook, and I couldn’t have stumbled upon anything more articulate. You’ve given me a lot to ‘chew on’. Many thanks!

  6. Hi Chuck

    Wow!
    Since stumbling on your blog about a month ago i’ve really enjoyed your musings – and this one is no exception, and is particularly poignant at this time in my life.

    I really liked Myth# 2 – and the ‘focus on the community’ point. From my own experience, ‘community’ doesn’t just happen because you believe the same things as other people – i think maybe the only way you get ‘community’ is through shared experience, particularly going though difficult things with people is how you get community.

    one Question – where do you think the ‘sin management’ worldview of faith in general, not just being single, comes from? and why is it so ‘hammered home’ to single people?

    i think that it comes from what i call ‘ranking of sin’ – where envy, anger, gossiping etc are overlooked, and sexual sin is seen as almost unforgivable.

    your thoughts?

    also – in your opinion – how does one persue ‘a life flourishing’? i’m not even sure that ‘living well’ is on the radar at most churches.

    cheers from Australia.
    Joel.

    1. Joel,

      Thanks for writing. Wow, the “Gospel” of sin-management is as old as the Pharisees, right? It gets at our need to fix what we’ve broken. I assume you are a control freak like me and can relate. 😉

      A life of flourishing? I agree this is not on the radar at most churches, at least in its more sober, biblical view (in contrast to the “victorious Christian life” stuff out there). I wish it were different.

      Best,

      Chuck

  7. Brilliant. As a 32 year old single woman, I have found many of these truths on my own throughout the years. And, as a pastor, I come in contact with many people–both men and women–walking the same path.

    What I have concluded is that we often ask the wrong question. Questions out of the flesh are exactly that, while questions out of the spirit put us in a posture that is ripe for revelation. So, when I ask the “why am I still single?” question, I find myself spiraling into a bunch of questions that seem to be focused on what’s wrong with me, what I’m doing wrong, and how quickly I can beat myself up for not being enough. Self-pity reigns.

    But, when I ask the bigger questions–what is God calling me towards? Who are the relationships in my life that pour into me? Who do I need to be pouring into? Where do I get my identity from?–my heart becomes open to so much more that God has planned for me. And that plan may include a significant relationship like a marriage in the future. And it might not. It becomes a secondary issue in my life.

  8. Chuck,

    Great stuff. Having two young adult sons who are still single I found your piece to be instructive in terms of how I can best encourage them when the topic surfaces in our discussions. I do wonder however how much of this problem is in some way related to how generationally divided the evangelical church has become. If you are in the youth or marrieds category we can easily find a place to “plug you in”. However, it seems that singles have either no options (singles?? What do we do with them?) or unhealthy options (meat market). It seems to me that we need fewer groups, and more ekklesia community.

    Grace and Peace to you.

  9. I am 28 and it is my experience that it is easier to start relationships and be in relationships with non-christian women than christian ones. They don’t “Idolize” marriage in the same way most christians do. I feel that the authenticity is often easier to attain when you are being more present minded than future minded.

  10. “This means that you were designed to enjoy your sexuality, even now. Of course, being a consumer of information, you’d want me to elaborate and explain…but I’m going to leave this one at the moment of tease…”
    By the way, I trust there will be a part 2 to this post and that in it you will elaborate on this hanging statement:-)

  11. It was great meeting with you last week. Thanks for the link, I love your thoughts on singleness and feel that this has been a pretty dominant theme for a lot of people at City Church over the years. In high school I remember thinking about this stuff often because there’s a lot of subliminal peer pressure to prove you’re not asexual. And what a place (Musing 1) to leave us hanging! 😀 But admittedly that’s a bit of a “sticky” issue.

  12. I don’t think anyone likes the meat market set up. Like one of the other commenters, I think it would be a good idea for less age segregation within congregations. If we fostered community among the body of Christ, it would provide everyone, singles included, with the opportunity to meet other people. I think you’re absolutely right, in that God created our sexuality, and it’s good. We can’t live in a constant state of sin management, and we don’t want to give into sexual sin. As singles, where does this leave us. Basking in the full pain that singleness often brings us? Actually, I think the bible would tell us the answer is to be intentional about pursuing marriage. As supposed to trying to spend years simply making the best of our singleness, I think we are called to be good stewards of our God given sexuality and desire for love by providing ourselves with the only moral context for experiencing both, which is marriage.

  13. I liked how you pointed out that the main focus of biblical theology should be eklessia and not “focus on the family.”  As a young single person, it is hard to feel like you belong to a local body of believers when the family is the ideal.  Often there is too much emphasis on the earthly, physical family, and not on being a port of the community of God where we are all brothers and sisters in Christ…

  14. Thank you for taking the focus outside of the category of single or married and into the life of a community that Christ calls us to. a breath of fresh air for my single exterior. my heart and soul is with Jesus and while I do truly believe that is all that matters and rejoice that God has me where He has me, it is difficult to mute the voices of this world, both in the church and outside of it. Keep speaking. Both singles and marrieds need to hear what God has placed in your mouth to say.

  15. Great points – for a married guy of 40:-)

    If there are any singles reading this, I wrote a book on singleness where I honestly and openly explore in much greater detail the issues brought out here. Book is called Thrive: the single life as God intended and comes out May 1 by moody press.

    I also am posting some free excerpts of the book on my website every Friday this month:
    http://www.livingwithpower.org/excerpt-from-thrive-intro.

    Ill be giving away a 7 day “are you a satisfied single” challenge next week!
    Thanks-
    Lina Abujamra

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