In one sense, it’s no more important that we Christians be more faithfully single-minded right now than at any other point in our history. The Body of Christ has always included single men and women. Biblical passages such as 1 Corinthians 7 and 1 Timothy 5 disclose the vital presence of unmarried, divorced, and widowed members within the first-century church. The Early Church Fathers demonstrated high regard and concern for those who remained unmarried (or, in their vernacular, virgins). There was also a prevalence of unmarried men and women throughout the Middle Ages. This included monks, nuns, priests, and ordinary, everyday “single” and “single-again” Christians. Indeed, unmarried individuals, particularly unmarried women, would go on to constitute a significant portion of the population of early modern Europe as well as those nations that it would colonise.
That is to say, there has never been a time in the church’s history when singles have not formed a recognisable and substantial part of its membership. As a result, there has also never been a time in the church’s life together when it hasn’t been necessary for the church to be genuinely and earnestly mindful of its unmarried members. And yet, there is a genuine sense in which our current moment seems especially imbued with a call towards a renewed and re-energised sense of faithful, Christian single-mindedness. The reasons for this are theological, pastoral and also, missional.
While the Australian divorce rate has, happily, remained reasonably stable for some years now (in 2020, there were 1.9 divorces per 1000 people), the same cannot be said for our nation’s marriage rate. In 1989, Australia had a crude marriage rate of 7.0 per 1000 people. By 2010, this had decreased to 5.4 and then to just 4.5 in 2019. (In 2020, it plummeted to only 3.1. However, this very steep decline was largely reflective of pandemic-related gathering regulations.)
Of course, such statistics do not allow us to extrapolate that there has been any directly correspondingly sharp increase in the number of Australians who are remaining single. After all, the prevalence of de-facto relationships provides some vital context to our nation’s decreasing marriage rate. But perhaps even more significantly, the term “single” itself is rather challenging to define in our modern missional context. In a society with countless relational in-betweens, what does it mean for someone to be single? Adding yet another layer of complexity is the fact that society’s apparent classification of whether an individual is single or not may stand at odds with that individual’s self-perception of their own status.
Because what it is be single is a very complex matter, so too is an accurate understanding of what proportion of the population we seek to evangelise are, in fact, single. And yet, there are some data points that do elucidate the growing significance of singleness as a life situation for Australians, and so also the ever-increasing significance of singleness for the gospel mission of our 21st Century evangelical churches. One of these key data points is the number of Australians who live alone. According to the results of the 2021 census, 26% of all Australian households were solo occupied, while another 11% were occupied by a single parent.  That is to say, more than one in every three dwellings surrounding our churches will, on average, be occupied by an adult who is (at least, functionally) not married. Indeed, it is projected that by 2041 up to 3.5 million Australians will be living alone. This would represent an increase of up to 53% from 2016. 
Of course, this statistic (and other related ones) will look somewhat different depending on the suburb, region, or city in which any given church is located. And yet it is surely incumbent on each of our churches to understand the demographic constitution of its local community as it considers how to best undertake its mission amongst that community.
The location and ministry of my own Anglican church in Sydney is an excellent example. The 2021 census data of the local area surrounding our church reveals that 35.5% of local households are solo occupied (compared to the national average of 26%). There are almost as many solo-occupied households as there are dual-occupied households. Even more significantly, only 20% of local households are usually occupied by three or more people who are part of the same family unit. That is, only one in five households in our local area would fit the bill of housing a typical “nuclear family”. Furthermore, there are more than three times as many never married, divorced, separated or widowed people (over the age of 19) in our local community as there are those in a registered marriage.
While such demographic realities bring great missional opportunities, they also present our church with significant challenges. For instance, the membership of our church community—and especially our morning church congregation, which is significantly constituted by mothers, fathers, children, and youth—is not a proportional reflection of the community surrounding us. Investing heavily in children and youth ministry will continue to be necessary for the discipleship of those who are already members of our Christian family, and some others who are yet to join us. And yet, such a ministry focus is likely to have a more limited proportional missional impact in our local area because of our unique demographic factors at work. Good as they continue to be, the more “traditional ways” of approaching ministry and church growth (e.g., “family services”, mothers’ and toddlers’ groups, child-focused Easter and Christmas events etc.) are, in our context, becoming significantly more niche in terms of their potential missional impacts. Wonderfully, my church leaders are pro-actively committed to helping our wider church family grapple with these (and other!) complex realities. As a result, one of the things we are praying for and working towards is that we would be a church in which ‘being single is honoured and celebrated as a life-path full of opportunities and distinctive goodness’.
Yes, my church is somewhat of a unique geographical and demographic situation. Yes, churches in more suburban settings will be missioning to and amongst quite different communities than ours. Nonetheless, I strongly suspect that if more church leaders were to rigorously analyse the data for their local communities, many would be surprised at how many unmarried people—be they never-married, divorced, or widowed—sit on the other side of their church doors. Faithful single-mindedness should be a critical missional priority for evangelical churches in the early 21st Century.
There is also a strong theological impetus for why the evangelical church (in Australia and beyond) ought to be more intentionally single-minded right here and now. If we are truly honest, we will admit that contemporary evangelicalism doesn’t have so much a theology of singleness as we do a theology of not-singleness. For decades—even centuries—the evangelical church has been rather myopically focused on marriage's theological, pastoral, and societal significance. It is not simply that we have rightly sought to uphold the biblical command that ‘Marriage is to be honoured by everyone’ (Hebrews 13:4, NIV), especially in the face of a seemingly ever intransigent broader culture. Rather, evangelicalism has increasingly held that, as Andreas Köstenberger has put it, ‘for most Western Christians it appears self-evident that marriage is the normal state’.
Where marriage is “normal”, singleness can only be abnormal, perhaps even aberrant. So it is that prominent contemporary US evangelical leaders such as Douglas Wilson insist that ‘singleness is an affliction, not a gift’, while key theological and pastoral figures such as Albert Mohler have repeatedly contended that ‘deliberate singleness on the part of those who know they have not been given the gift of celibacy is, at best, a neglect of Christian responsibility’. For his part, John Macarthur has asserted that ‘the most devastating attack on marriage is coming today from singleness’. While to those ministering within an evangelical Australian context, such American preachers and teachers may appear to be somewhat distant, even enigmatic figures, the reality is that the theological discourse on marriage (and so also singleness) of the last half-century or so has been very heavily influenced by such imported evangelical discourse. This has only become more the case in an ever more globalised, technologically driven and media-saturated society.
And yet such an impoverished depiction of Christian singleness is far from the honourable state spoken about in God’s word. The Bible honours godly singleness as a truly good state for the disciple of Jesus (Mt 19:10-12). It calls us to understand singleness to be a gift from our gracious heavenly father (1 Cor 7:7). It celebrates the unmarried Christian person’s ability to be undivided in their devotion to him (1 Cor 7:31-35). It suggests that the one who remains unmarried not only does “better” but is perhaps also “happier” (1 Cor 7: 38, 40). It reveals to us that we have a saviour who was himself, fully human, truly fulfilled, and wonderfully single. God’s word highly commends singleness within the Christian life and community.
It also imbues the life of one who is not married with unique eschatological dignity. Isaiah calls the barren woman to anticipate the day when she will ‘burst into song, shout for joy […] because more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband’ (Isaiah 54:1). He announces that to the eunuch, the Lord will give ‘a name better than sons and daughters’ (Is 56:4). Jesus himself asserts that the new creation will be one in which none of us will be married to another (Mt 22:30). In Revelation it is the 144,000 virgins who, having the Lamb’s ‘name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads […sing] a new song before the Throne […and] follow the Lamb wherever he goes’ (Revelation 14:1-4).
Given the high significance, value and dignity with which Scripture regards the single Christian life, surely we 21st Century evangelical Christians should no longer be satisfied with a quasi-theology of singleness constructed by way of lacuna? And yet it will not be sufficient for us to pay lip service to such dignified singleness. We must understand anew why the unmarried life is theologically significant. We must grapple afresh with the purpose of singleness in this creation, as that which also foreshadows the next. We must seek to understand God’s purposes for singleness in the lives of our unmarried brothers and sisters and his purpose for them in our life together as the body of Christ. It is for both the unmarried and married Christian’s sake, that the time is indeed ripe for us to become theologically single-minded
In May 2022, I moved a motion at the 18th session of the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Australia that it affirm that “singleness is, like marriage, an honourable state for God’s people, in which the fullness of God’s blessings may be enjoyed”. It was eventually passed, though not without some objection (primarily to do with other elements of the motion which spoke about the godliness of chastity in singleness). In preparation for my moving the motion, I asked a range of never-married, divorced and widowed Anglican men and women why they thought it was so crucial that their national church affirmed singleness as a genuinely honourable state for God’s people. Here are just some short comments from the replies I received.
“I just want to be seen as whole. As complete just as I am.”
“I just want to be considered a person of value in the church.”
“I just want to feel normal.”
Our slowness in fostering pastoral communities in which single Christians not only feel like they are “normal” but where they also feel like they truly belong is the outworking of a long-standing, underlying and often unspoken suspicion that singleness is an undesirable and even unliveable state.
When the goal of the Christian life is seemingly presented to be marriage and parenthood; when our services are frequently denoted to be either “family services” or “youth services”; when our ministry programs (and the frequent calls to fill rosters for said programs) are persistently dominated by children’s, youth and parenting activities; when it is usual for our sermons to be populated with illustrations of marriage and family life; when we speak of sex as being at the heart of authentic human experience, and sexual temptation as being all but irresistible; when we idealise romantic love as the ultimate form of intimacy, while leaving little significance for the role of friendship; when the only life events we regularly celebrate from the front of church are engagements, marriages and births; when ministry to singles so expediently becomes matchmaking ministry; when unmarried Christians are rarely encouraged into positions of leadership; when week after week families sit together in church instead of looking out for those sitting alone; when we regularly run pre-marriage and post-marriage equipping courses, but have nothing similar for those who are never-married, divorced or widowed; when we consistently have many more married people in our churches than in the population around us, and many less unmarried people in our churches than in the population around us; when only 4% of all senior leaders of Australian Protestant churches have never been married;  when all—or even just some—of these things consistently characterise our church life, what else is the single Christian left to think other than that their life situation is undesirable, unliveable, and unwelcome?
Of course, some of these things are not bad in and of themselves. However, their cumulative result—particularly when not offset by positive, proactive, and participatory alternatives for single Christians—leaves the never-married, divorced and widowed members of our congregations feeling like they are merely tolerated (and typically, “quirky”) guests, rather than equally legitimate members of the one family. Such an outcome is rarely, if ever, intentional. And yet, many single Christians will tell you that it is usually inescapable for them. Even for the most optimistic and resilient amongst them, there usually comes the point at which they struggle to any longer convince themselves that this community really is theirs, just as much as it is their married siblings in Christ.
Of course, the most devastating outcome of such an impoverished pastoral approach to singleness is not ultimately its impact on the single Christian themselves—though this is indeed a matter of grave concern. Most significant are its implications for how we understand ourselves to be a body, made up of many members, each diverse, each unique and each indispensable. That is to say, the single Christian doesn’t simply need the Body of Christ. The Body of Christ needs the single Christian. Pastoral single-mindedness is crucial for the church’s understanding of its own identity, life and future.
How to become more Single-Minded?
It is all well and good to recognise the importance of being single-minded. But how will we do that—or perhaps more pertinently, how will we become that? There is no simple, easy or straightforward answer to such a question. However, this should neither surprise nor alarm us. Given that our present single-mindlessness has been decades—even centuries—in the making, we should not expect or desire a quick-fix solution.
Instead, a renewed commitment to missional, theological, and pastoral single-mindedness will require us to be consistent, proactive, and intentional over the long term. It will need to be enacted through incremental but fundamental change in how we think, speak, teach, and approach singleness in the Christian life and community. It will need to be demonstrated by a willingness to return again and again to Scripture and allow its view of singleness to slowly but surely challenge and reform our own. It will need to be evidenced by gradual but inexorable changing of pastoral attitudes towards the unmarried members of our congregations. It will need to involve us holding more loosely to our tried-and-true ministry structures and initiatives as we seek to share the gospel with the members of our surrounding communities where they are, rather than where it is more convenient for us to imagine them at.
Such a slow, consistent, long-term, and gradual endeavour will require all members of Christ’s body—single and married alike—to exercise charity and patience in their expectations of each other. It will require them to be ready with generous forgiveness when those expectations go unmet. And yet, we can and should have boundless confidence in our ability, together, to become more single-minded. After all, the ultimate single-mindedness we seek is one we are called to undertake with a together-mindedness. It is concerned with an ever-increasing, ever-mature and ever-joyful focus on the one who has saved the single and married person into the same salvation, the same family of God and the same living hope. In the end, all of our single-mindedness lies squarely in him.
The Rev Dr Danielle Treweek is the founding director of the Single Minded Ministry and an adjunct teacher at Moore Theological College, Sydney. She also serves as both the Diocesan Research Officer and a member of the Archbishop's Doctrine Commission within the Anglican Diocese of Sydney, Australia
Australian Bureau of Statistics. "2021 Census Community Profiles." Accessed July 9, 2022. www.abs.gov.au/census/find-census-data/community-profiles/2021/POA2042.
———. "Household and Family Projections." (2019). Accessed July 9, 2022. https://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/Lookup/3236.0Main+Features12001%20to%202026?
———. "Marriage and Divorces, Australia (2009)." Accessed July 9, 2022. https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Previousproducts/1D63A0059ECDFDCFCA2577ED00146123?
———. "Marriages and Divorces, Australia (2019)." Accessed July 9, 2022. www.abs.gov.au/statistics/people/people-and-communities/marriages-and-divorces-australia/2019.
Froide, Amy M. Never Married: Singlewomen in Early Modern England. Oxford University Press, 2005.
Köstenberger, Andreas J, and David Wayne Jones. God, Marriage, and Family. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2004.
MacArthur, John. Children in the Shade, CBMW Pre-Conference. Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, 2016. Video.
McCrindle Research. "Australia Street Infographic." (2020). Accessed July 9, 2022. www.mccrindle.com.au/australia-street-infographic/.
Mohler, Albert. The Mystery of Marriage - Part 2, New Attitude Conference. 2004. Audio.
Powell, Ruth, Sam Sterland, and Miriam Pepper. "Demographics Paint a Picture of Local Church Leaders." National Church Life Survey. (August 2018). www.ncls.org.au/news/demographics-of-senior-church-leaders.
Wilson, Douglas. "Singleness as Affliction." Blog & Mablog. (November 25 2020). www.dougwils.com/books-and-culture/s7-engaging-the-culture/singleness-as-affliction.html.
 For example, unmarried women formed 27% of the English population between 1575-1700. Amy M Froide, Never Married: Singlewomen in Early Modern England (Oxford University Press, 2005), 2.
 Australian Bureau of Statistics, "Marriages and Divorces, Australia (2019)." www.abs.gov.au/statistics/people/people-and-communities/marriages-and-divorces-australia/2019.
 Australian Bureau of Statistics, "Marriage and Divorces, Australia (2009)."
 Australian Bureau of Statistics, "Marriages and Divorces, Australia (2019)."
 McCrindle Research, "Australia Street Infographic," (2020). www.mccrindle.com.au/australia-street-infographic/.
 Australian Bureau of Statistics, "2021 Census Community Profiles." www.abs.gov.au/census/find-census-data/community-profiles/2021/POA2042.
 Andreas J Köstenberger and David Wayne Jones, God, Marriage, and Family (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2004), 173. Emphasis original
 Douglas Wilson, "Singleness as Affliction," Blog & Mablog (November 25 2020). www.dougwils.com/books-and-culture/s7-engaging-the-culture/singleness-as-affliction.html.
 Albert Mohler, The Mystery of Marriage - Part 2, New Attitude Conference (2004), Audio.
 John MacArthur, Children in the Shade, CBMW Pre-Conference (Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, 2016), Video. 1.54mins, 2.30mins
 Ruth Powell, Sam Sterland, and Miriam Pepper, "Demographics Paint a Picture of Local Church Leaders," National Church Life Survey (August 2018). www.ncls.org.au/news/demographics-of-senior-church-leaders.