This week is Unmarried and Single Americans Week (September 17-23), so it seems appropriate to contemplate the changing landscape of marriage in America and its potential impact on our churches.
According to a recent Pew Research Center study, half of all American adults today are married. This number is down from 59% twenty-five years ago and 72% in 1960. In addition, the median age for first marriage in 2016 was 29.5 for men and 27.4 for women. This age has risen 2 years over the past decade and nearly seven years over the last half century.
Pew Research also reports some interesting data regarding the desire to get married on the part of those who are unmarried:
Among adults who have never been married, 58% say they would like to get married someday and 27% are not sure if they want to get married. Still, 14% say they do not want to get married.
Even those who want to get married offer various reasons why they are not yet married. Pew Research notes:
Among adults who have never been married but say they are open to marrying in the future, about six-in-ten (59%) say that a major reason they are not married is that they haven’t found the right person. . . . About four-in-ten never-married adults (41%) who say they may want to marry in the future say that not being financially stable is a major reason they are not currently married, and 28% point to this as a minor reason. Fewer – but still a substantial share – say that a major (24%) or minor (30%) reason they are not married is that they aren’t ready to settle down.
The growing population of unmarried individuals in the United States has significant implications for the church, and it would behoove us to take note of both the positive and negative impact.
There are several potential positive benefits that unmarried individuals bring to the life of the church. Here I will highlight two of them.
- Unmarried individuals have more time to devote to the work of the Lord. The Apostle Paul gave great encouragement to those who were unmarried in the church at Corinth. He said, “But I want you to be free from concern. One who is unmarried is concerned about the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord;but one who is married is concerned about the things of the world, how he may please his wife, and his interests are divided. The woman who is unmarried, and the virgin, is concerned about the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and spirit; but one who is married is concerned about the things of the world, how she may please her husband. This I say for your own benefit; not to put a restraint upon you, but to promote what is appropriate and to secure undistracted devotion to the Lord” (1 Corinthians 7:32-35). Paul knew that unmarried individuals could focus more time on serving the Kingdom of God because their attention was not (rightfully) drawn to serve a spouse. Churches should not lose sight of this. There is an entire population of unmarried people in the church who can provide a great work of ministry while undistracted by the concerns of marriage.
- Unmarried individuals can move more quickly in fast-paced ministry settings. Both Texas and Florida were recently hit by devastating hurricanes. Calls went out form disaster relief organizations all over the country to provide supplies and volunteers to meet immediate needs. In many cases, unmarried individuals (particularly in my church) were some of the first to volunteer because they are able to act more quickly in these circumstances. Without the obligations of caring for a spouse or children, they can respond and serve when immediate needs arise that demand quick attention. Thus, churches would be well-served to cultivate this ministry mindset among the unmarried believers in their fellowship.
As with the positive impact, there are potentially several negative consequences of a growing unmarried population in the church, but these two demonstrate some of the issues the church must address.
- Cohabitation rates are growing. One reason for a decrease in marriage rates and an increase in the median age of first marriage is that cohabitation rates have increased steadily over the last thirty years. The National Center for Family & Marriage Research (NCFMR) notes, “The percentage of women who have ever cohabited nearly doubled between 1987 and 2013. In 1987, one-third of women (aged 19-44) had ever cohabited, and in 2013, nearly two-thirds (64%) of women had cohabitation experience.” As I noted in a post earlier this year, the church is not immune to the problem of cohabitation. As more people cohabit, churches will be forced to address issues of church membership and discipline in a culture that is more accepting of cohabitation. And it is not simply the young about whom we must be concerned. NCFMR reports that the number of cohabiting older adults tripled between 2000 and 2014. In many cases these cohabiters are widows and widowers who choose to cohabit rather than remarry in order to avoid losing Social Security or pension benefits.
- Out-of-wedlock birth rates are growing. Just because people are waiting longer to get married or not marrying at all does not mean that there are no children being born. The National Center for Health Statistics notes that “the percentage of all births to unmarried women was 40.2% in 2014.” This means that 4 out of every 10 children in the United States are born to unwed mothers. CNN states that a third of women who give birth in a given year are not married. These are the children who will be coming through the children and youth ministries of our churches. In many cases, they will not have a father in their lives. Thus, the church will be called upon to fill in the gap for these children who do not have both mother and father.
There is no reason to fear the growing population of unmarried adults in our midst. But we cannot ignore them either. The church needs to minister to them and allow them to minister as a valuable part of the body of believers.
U.S. Census Bureau, “Facts for Features: Unmarried and Single Americans Week: Sept. 17-23, 2017,” 14 August 2017.
Kim Parker and Renee Stepler, “As U.S. marriage rate hovers at 50%, education gap in marital status widens,” Pew Research Center, 14 September 2017.
U.S. Census Bureau, “Estimated Median Age at First Marriage, by Sex: 1890 to the Present,” November 2016.
P. Hemez and W. D. Manning, “Over twenty-five years of change in cohabitation experience in the U.S., 1987-2013,” Family Profiles, FP-17-02, National Center for Family & Marriage Research (2017).
P. Hemez and S. L. Brown, “Cohabitation in middle and later life,” Family Profiles, FP-16-20, National Center for Family & Marriage Research (2016).
National Center for Health Statistics, “Births: Final Data for 2014,” National Vital Statistics Reports 64 (2015).
Stephanie Coontz, “How unmarried Americans are changing everything,” CNN.com, 21 September 2017.