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
Thank you, Brian, this blog really strikes me. This is not a bias that I personally have, so is a complete eye opener to me. As I read this I can totally see where this happens and the message that is sent as a community’. I am having a complete wow moment. Now I am thinking about what do we do to change this? I think that this is a very generational bias. Another piece of the wicked problem of people moving away from church communities. Our unconscious biases influence so many things.
Your “complete wow” moment is what I was going for. I have had this realization that while the statistics steadily changed our perception of relationships remained rooted in past assumptions. I wanted to get the two matched up so that any decisions we make are based on our actual reality rather than our perceived reality. Brian
Once again you have captured my interest. As a retired CPA and former economic development officer and commercial loan officer I have spent my career evaluating data. And, as a person who has been dating the same person for 58 years and first joined Westminster Presbyterian Church in Sacramento in the early 1970s primarily because of the strong Mariners’ program I now have much to ponder.
Thank you again and have a great week
Bill Griffith, Jr.
Thanks for this, Brian. Same as Deanna, it’s an “Aha moment” for me, too. We’ve been trying to figure out why “people are moving away from church communities” and it’s been right in front of our faces the whole time. We sometimes “cannot see the forest for the trees.”
I worked in the corporate world for over 30 years and in the last two or three years I was there, the term “unconscious bias” was coming up in conversations, especially where related to race and gender. Applying it to our church community is another facet; great insight, Deanna.