Book Review: Singled Out: Why Celibacy Must be Reinvented in Today's Church

Singled Out: Why Celibacy Must Be Reinvented in Today's Church by Christine Colon and Bonnie Field (Brazos Press: 2009).

Who should read it: Thoughtful single evangelicals and anyone interested in ministry in a society that is rapidly approaching population parity between married and single adults.

(Edit: a reliable source just told me that we have passed the parity point in the U.S.: there are now more single adults than married.)

The word "Why" is in the subtitle for a reason. This book does not, nor does it claim to, offer a Reinvention of Celibacy for Today's Church. It offers a plea for such reinvention, together with some preliminary suggestions of what that might look like. The book is not a definitive resource, but an invitation to a conversation that is essential for the future of the evangelical church's mission in modern culture.

In this respect, the book reminds me most of Mark Noll's now-classic (if I can say that of a book written in my lifetime) The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. The stance of the authors is as follows: "I am a committed evangelical. And I am also [an intellectual; a single adult]. The evangelical subculture makes it very hard to be both. This is not only difficult for me personally, but possibly tragic for our collective calling, and needs to be addressed." The authors then spend the bulk of their books analyzing the problem, and make gestures in the direction of a solution in the closing chapters.

This can be frustrating to readers, since the person most likely to pick up either book in the first place is probably already on board with the author's project. We don't need to be convinced that this is an issue; we want to know what to do about it. But of course, understanding the problem is a critical first step to finding a way forward. Colon and Field offer a thoughtful analysis of attitudes about singleness in evangelical and secular culture, as well as an exploration of the resources in scripture and the Christian tradition for a vision of celibacy for the contemporary church.

The primary population addressed in this book is the one in which the authors find themselves: 30+ straight, never-married adults -- a group often overlooked by the evangelical church, which, when it does address singles at all, tends to assume that they are either young 20somethings who will soon be married or single again due to divorce or widowhood. While they acknowledge that this is only one of many states of life in which singleness is experienced in our culture and churches, they rightly point out that a positive vision of the state of life of a life-long single adult can provide the church with a healthy foundation for addressing the pastoral needs of other subsets of single adults.

Perhaps I am projecting, but I imagine that the authors found it cathartic to commit to print their critiques of some of the resources available within evangelicaldom, particularly Debbie Maken's atrocious book Getting Serious About Getting Married. Single Christian readers who have been frustrated by even some of the better materials available to them will find encouragement in the clear-headed analysis. Yet the book is anything but an extended gripe session -- the authors are honest about the challenges of being single in the church without being whiny, and spend considerably more effort mining evangelicalism, secular culture, and the broad Christian tradition for a positive understanding of the single life and its place in the church. (The exploration of positive images of celibacy from secular culture is a bit of a stretch, but an interesting project nonetheless.)

The key call of this book is for evangelicalism to embrace and offer a positive vision of celibacy that applies to all singles. Rather than reserving the label of celibacy for the super-spiritual and/or asexual minority who are able and willing to accept a vowed state of non-marriage for life, the dignity of celibacy should be afforded to and expected of the growing population within the church who continue to hope for marriage over years or decades of single adult life, but are unwilling to make the pursuit of a spouse the entire focus of their lives. By honoring the discipleship of such individuals within our churches and including them wholly in our common life, the church can nurture not only them, but the next generation of young people growing up in a world utterly confused about sex and relationships, as well as any outsiders who (we can only pray) might look to us for an alternative vision of human flourishing.

ETA: I wonder how this book might have been different with a male co-author. Unlike many books for/about Christian singles, this book is not addressed exclusively or primarily to women, and I don't detect any obvious gender bias. Still, I would be interested to hear from single men which parts of the book rang true or false to them and what their experiences might add to the discussion.


SnakeWoman said...

As I understand it, the book not only asks how celibacy can be reinvented, but how people living the celibate life (for long or short periods of time) can be welcomed and can participate fully in Christian community.

The discussion takes on a whole new flavor these days, when many people are questioning what the nature and purpose of Christian community should be. Do the authors address that kind of question? In other words, do they take certain churchgoing patterns for granted--worship service Sunday morning and small group of Wednesday evening, for example--and ask how to rope single folks more securely into it? Or do they begin from the ground up, with questions of why and how believers gather together, and what rhythms of community life might serve God's purposes best?

It's not just single adults who often feel disconnected. I've heard forty-something parents of teenagers say that connection in church was natural when the kids were young, but that they have trouble finding those connections now.

I was single until the age of 37, and in all those years, I often felt isolated at church. I felt connected if I volunteered for things and got on leadership teams, but those connections vanished once I moved on to other activities. Now that I'm married, I have somebody to sit with at church, but that hasn't affected my feeling of being only loosely connected with the church body. The only deep connections I have are with my small group--a community I value highly.

Christian community is vitally important for believers, yet in our efforts to find a place in that community, many of us wind up simply adding more activities to our schedules. For people like me, who have low energy levels and jobs that are rewarding but draining, it's not a good option to volunteer more in order to have Christian community.

I wish I had answers, or even suggestions! I'd love to hear others' ideas on this topic.

Anonymous said...

Great topic! Thanks for bringing it up. I wonder if the lack of a place of dignity and community for singles is part of the reason for the growth of New Monasticism (which I've been writing abt at my other blog ). Thanks for the review.

Steve Lansingh said...

SnakeWoman brings up a good point, which is that maybe _all_ of us feel disconnected at church in some way. As the parent of a two-year-old I feel quite disconnected because we are expected to toss our kid down in the nursery, disconnect from him when we approach God, and then he's taught watered-down happy ideas about Christianity without our input.

Our small group, as with SnakeWoman, is our true Christian community, where our son tags along. (We lead the group, so that makes it easier to set our own rules about the acceptability of two-year-olds running around.)

It kind of reminds me of college, where I had friends and groups of people who I connected with and grew with, but at the same time I chafed under the administration's ideas of what our should appear to be to the outside world, which hushed up or negated my experience. Is the problem with our Christian communities the top-down agenda setting then, and the true community taking place in little pockets free from oversight?

I don't know -- just some thoughts.

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