If you are married, do you feel like you are in the minority? I am guessing not.
When I grew up I felt like everybody was supposed to get married. It was as if there was a pre-ordained plan to life: high school, college and higher education, marriage, and then children. Eventually retirement and traveling was supposed to be in the picture, but that was still a mirage somewhere way off into the future.
But as far as I was concerned everybody got married or wanted to get married. If you were single it was because the gods hadn’t smiled on you yet. No one chose singleness in my mind.
Which is why the following statistic may be a surprise to you. I know it was for me when I first started leading mission studies with congregations and introducing them to the demographics of their communities. Are you aware that married people are actually in the minority in Oregon? It is true. 49.4% of Oregonian adults are married and 50.6% are unmarried.
The unmarried majority are actually broken down into four subgroups:
- Single and never married: 31%
- Divorced: 12%
- Separated: 2%
- Widowed: 6%
I want to make sure that you hear this language—the UNMARRIED MAJORITY! I make a point of this because my experience has been that many of us still assume that marriage is the norm and the ideal. Increasingly it is neither the norm nor the ideal.
Until 2011 our Book of Order held the standard that ordained persons had to be either in a heterosexual marriages or “celibate in singleness.” While the language was restricted to ordained persons it still sent a clear message to the UNMARRIED MAJORITY of our region—“If you are not married we expect you to either be celibate or to keep your romantic relationships to yourself.” It was as if we were saying to our congregations, “Talk about what you and your married spouse did this last weekend all you want, but keep your unmarried relationships and liaisons to yourself. We have to set an example for the children!”
Unfortunately, the example we have often set has communicated to our members that if they do not fit the “norm” they probably don’t fit at all. The irony, of course, is that the unmarried are now more the norm than the married.
So, here are some questions that may help you discern how receptive your congregation is to the UNMARRIED MAJORITY of our communities:
- Would it be okay for a single person to show up with different dates over a long stretch of successive Sundays? Would they be welcomed or avoided?
- At fellowship hour, how comfortable would you be if a single/divorced/widowed person shared that they were going to the coast to a cabin with their romantic partner during the same conversation that you were talking about the plans you and your spouse had?
- The language “celibate in singleness” has been dropped from our Book of Order. Do you have updated education for people in relationships that guides them to a Christian sexual ethic that respects the changing reality of relationships and sexual intimacy in our time?
- What programs and ministries have you established to be attractive to the 69% of young adults aged 20-34 who aren’t married?
I will lay my cards on the table. I write this because I think there is still a subtle assumption that we are trying to figure out how to invite people into our culture of marriage and family. I think we may have it reversed. More and more I have come to believe that we need to adapt our Christian ethics to reflect the changing patterns of relationships and sexual intimacy in our time. Saying nothing is sort of like endorsing an “anything goes” mentality. Saying something moves us toward relevance.
You don’t have to go looking too far to find examples of that UNMARRIED MAJORITY. I belong to that group.
Get to know me and you get to know your community.
By Rev. Brian Heron, Presbyter for Vision and Mission, Presbytery of the Cascades