Influence

 the shape of leadership

Cohabitation Comes to Church

What to do about unmarried couples living together

Jessica Mumley on November 8, 2021

In my role as a Chi Alpha campus missionary, I get to watch our college students graduate, throw their caps in the air, and embrace the brave new world of adulting with new jobs, new housemates, and new churches. There is nothing like watching them take the baton of faith and run the race as Christ followers.

However, I’ve also noticed a concerning trend. A surprising number of unmarried couples who attend church and profess Christian faith are nevertheless choosing to move in together.

A 2016 Barna Group report found that 41% of practicing Christian adults in the United States viewed cohabitation as a “good idea.” And today’s young adults are more accepting of such living arrangements than older generations.

In a 2020 Gallup Poll, just 29% of U.S. adults under 35 years of age said it is “very important for couples to marry if they plan to spend the rest of their lives together,” compared to 40% of 35- to 54-year-olds and 43% of respondents 55 or older.

Can we stem the tide of unbiblical attitudes toward cohabitation? I believe there are three things every church leader can do.

Seek Understanding

A 2019 report from Pew Research Center explored the reasons why Americans cohabitate. Among unengaged cohabiters who said they would likely marry someday, more than half cited their own finances (56%) or their partner’s finances (53%) as a reason for putting off nuptials.

Other reasons included commitment hesitancy on the part of their partner (47%) or themselves (44%); a desire to get further along in their career before marriage (44%); and uncertainty over whether their partner is the right person for them (39%).

To minister effectively to cohabitating people in our churches and point them to a better way, we should seek to understand their needs and perspectives. This means building personal relationships and trust.

Have them over for dinner, invest in their lives, and ask about their stories. If we take the time to listen to what’s motivating people’s choices, we will likely discover that most cohabitation arrangements aren’t solely about sex or an overt desire to rebel against God. In fact, they often have more to do with practical concerns, such as money, or emotional needs, such as loneliness.

None of that justifies unbiblical behavior, of course, but it does provide valuable insight for ministry.

Lead With “Yes”

Too often, church conversations regarding single adulthood are all about what not to do: “No premarital sex, no cohabitation, no sexual impurity of any kind.”

The problem is, no has never had the transformative power of yes. Our churches must be a space rich with yeses. At its core, Christianity is not about merely refraining from bad behavior. It’s about saying “yes” to Jesus and allowing Him to change us from the inside out, since we can’t save ourselves. It’s about saying “yes” to God’s message, God’s family, and God’s mission in the world.

Are we inviting the single adults in our congregations to say “yes”? Do they feel seen, supported and utilized? Does every Christian have a place to serve?

Do those who have not made a decision for Christ have a place in the community? Are believers walking alongside them — loving them and pointing them to Jesus through their words and examples?

Church culture often emphasizes pairing
to the neglect of singleness.

Let’s lead with yes. For every “no” we issue — and certainly we must teach the commands of God — let’s provide compelling reasons and abundant opportunities to say “yes” to Jesus.

Celebrate Singles

Church culture often emphasizes pairing to the neglect of singleness.

I recently threw my sister-in-law a shower of sorts. She appreciated the gesture — and the humor. She’s neither a bride-to-be nor an expectant mother. She is in her early 30s, single, and happily living on her own. She just started her own business and is making her solo apartment a cozy home. To mark this milestone, we created a registry, and her friends and family showered her with gifts.

Culturally, there are few categories — either inside or outside the church — for marking such milestones for single adults. We are accustomed to honoring marriage and childbearing. It seems those who pair off and have babies get the benefits: the tax credits, the showers, the meal trains, and the small-group church experiences designed to support couples.

I sometimes wonder whether churches are missing important opportunities to recognize, honor, value and support single people.

The Bible regards singleness as highly as it does marriage. Jesus himself was single. Early Church leaders included single people (e.g., Paul), married people (e.g., Peter), and ministry couples (e.g., Aquila and Priscilla).

Churches that fail to acknowledge and include unpaired members may miss out on their gifts and inadvertently communicate there is something wrong with being single and celibate.

Outside of their faith communities, single people face intense pressure from the secular culture, which tells them they need to find a partner and engage in sexual activity to have a fulfilling life. Churches can counter that message with the truth of Scripture that Jesus is enough.

We must teach a clear sexual ethic in our churches, but we also need to make some important cultural shifts in our communities. We need to honor our single adults, celebrate their gifts, and empower them to lead.

This means intentionally inviting them to our decision-making tables. It means going beyond brides and babies and ritualizing the transitions and milestones of single people as well. It means inviting them to join our families for a picnic or a holiday celebration — or better yet, inviting singles to actually live with families from the church — not just because single people need families, but because families also need single people.

Language begets culture, so adjusting our language can go a long way. Churches can emphasize spiritual family trees, encourage spiritual parenting, and tell stories of single people leaving a spiritual legacy for the next generation.

In the programs we promote, the stories we tell, and the application points in our sermons, we can regularly highlight some of the diverse types of living arrangements represented in the family of God. Examples might include a single homeowner, a resident of an apartment community, a single adult with a platonic roommate, a recent college graduate living with parents, or a single caregiver for an elderly family member.

What if churches equally elevated marriage and singleness and abandoned the pressure to pair off? I believe it could broaden the viable, meaningful options single people have for fulfillment and flourishing in the community of faith.

Let’s make our churches attentive, hospitable, and honoring places for single adults so they can discover God’s best for their lives and experience the joy of being a part of His family.

This article appears in the Fall 2021 edition of Influence magazine.

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