One by One: Welcoming the Singles in Your Church
Paperback: Baker Books
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Reviewed by Catherine Guiles
As a never-married Christian woman in my mid-30s who’s been a part of fairly mainstream evangelical-ish churches my entire life, I was excited to read Gina Dalfonzo’s One by One: Welcoming the Singles in Your Church. Like a lot of single Christians, I’ve been the recipient of slights, misunderstandings, exclusions and insults from fellow believers, many unintentional, but all hurtful to one degree or another. But thankfully, I’ve also been the recipient of a great deal of love, community and opportunities to serve and lead — the kind of things Dalfonzo argues that churches need to give more of to their single members, whether never-married, divorced or widowed; male or female; or young or old. I wholeheartedly agree and appreciate the way she unpacks the issue and frames it within a larger, holistic context of how Christians should relate to one another and make their churches places where “if one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it” (1 Cor. 12:26).
Dalfonzo, a never-married woman in her early 40s, starts out by noting that even though evangelical Christianity has historically placed a high value on marriage and family, more and more Christians who want those things (including me) don’t attain them, for a variety of reasons that they may not even know (or wind up losing them to divorce or widowhood). When that happens, Dalfonzo says the church tends to respond in one of three ways: treating single people as pariahs, as problems or as projects. She points out what’s wrong with each of those views, weaving in astute insights from a range of voices as well as examples from her friends, and urges married Christians to consider how their words and attitudes hurt their unmarried brothers and sisters and to start treating them as a fourth “P” – people – instead by looking, listening, learning and loving.
Dalfonzo deftly points out the problems with a lot of evangelical teaching on dating and marriage, namely the courtship movement of the 1990s and 2000s, and how it may have contributed to the rise in singleness by imposing a standard that very few people can realistically meet, making men and women afraid to talk to each other and causing them to doubt their own judgment about potential romantic partners, which makes forming – and sustaining — relationships much more difficult. She’s also good at debunking some common misconceptions about single Christians – namely that we’re not (and even worse, can’t be) as holy and mature as married people, that we’re evidence of a broader negative societal trend and therefore must be automatically suspect, and that we’re destined to be selfish and arrogant. Dalfonzo highlights and corrects some bad theology regarding contentment, our mistaken view that we can control our own lives, where we find our identity (hint: it’s supposed to be in Christ) and the ways we approach God. She notes that the church, and evangelical culture in general, unfortunately encourages the view of God as a sort of cosmic vending machine (my term, not hers) who dispenses spouses because people do everything right beforehand. But as she and I both know, God doesn’t work like that.
I appreciate Dalfonzo’s emphasis on healthy friendships between single Christian men and women that are based on equality and mutual respect, rather than the blame, resentment and anger that she says frequently characterizes interactions now, even if I don’t completely agree with her critique of the societal forces, such as feminism, that affect that end. She also makes a strong point that the church has to step up and be the supportive community for single people seeking to be faithful to Christ in all areas of their lives, especially sexuality, when the greater culture is dead-set against them doing so. Even though her book is geared toward church leaders and married Christians, I think single people would benefit from reading it as well and may see themselves in it and recognize how much we need the church, despite its flaws. I also enjoyed her many well-chosen allusions to literature and pop culture and examples from her own family history, which add another angle to her presentation.
Her ideas on what married people and the church can do better could work in a variety of settings. Churches don’t necessarily need a big, flashy singles ministry to serve this demographic – and those ministries aren’t without their own share of problems. Rather, whether in an urban area with lots of single people (where I live now) or a small town without very many (where I lived in my early 20s), all churches can follow her recommendations to be inclusive: encouraging friendships between married couples and single people, providing opportunities for these groups to get to know each other rather than keeping them apart all the time, asking single people what they need and trying to provide it, teaching children to address married adults and single adults the same way, marking milestones in the lives of single people just as they do for weddings and babies and watching the language and images they use in sermons, on church websites and in other means of communication. Even if married people and single people fear they can’t or won’t understand each other, Dalfonzo says that shouldn’t stop them from reaching out, as the benefits of having such friendships outweigh the drawbacks. Although her focus is on evangelical Protestants, I imagine her advice would work for Christians of other traditions as well.
Overall, One by One is a valuable resource at an important moment for the church and its witness. Just as other social institutions such as the workplace and marketplace are considering how to adjust to the rise in the unmarried, the church is tasked with adapting and correcting its past mistakes without compromising its convictions on marriage and family. Dalfonzo has written a thoughtful, practical guide on how that can be done – and more importantly, why it needs to be.
Catherine Guiles is a writer and editor in Arlington, Va. She blogs at CatherineGuiles.com