How Some Churches Leave Singles Behind

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Social distancing at church has been especially hard on single Christians. From Tanzania to the U.K., Christians impute to marriage and children a sense of maturity and worth. This often makes singles feel like what the Chinese call “bare branches.” Intentionally or not, churches regularly reinforce this attitude through marriage-centric sermons or religious classes for singles that focus on marriage as a goal, overlooking many older or celibate worshippers.

Before Covid-19, touch served as one of the few equalizers in church. Hugs or handshakes didn’t discriminate between single and married people. We all sat closer together. But for churches that follow government recommendations to sit apart from those outside your household, worship now painfully underscores how alone singles are.

“If you’re single, you sit there, by yourself . . . looking at the families that get to walk in together,” the Rev. Dani Treweek, 42, told me. In Sydney, where she directs the ministry Single Minded, the state only recently relaxed social-distancing requirements.

The loss of physical proximity carries more weight for Christian singles who feel called to reserve sex for marriage. Abstinent Christians have fewer ways to connect physically with God and others. In a survey I conducted on Covid-19 and daily life, 73% of Christian singles said nonsexual touch had changed due to the virus, compared with 58% of married Christian respondents.

For churches that worship in person, greeting times look different now.

Connie Lin,

a 36-year-old widow in California, explained that her Protestant congregation has traded its “passing of the peace” handshakes and hugs for greetings through text message. As a physician, Dr. Lin has strongly limited her interactions with relatives to protect them from exposure to the virus, though she doesn’t work in an emergency room. “I would love to be touched in whatever way that means,” she said. “I would love to be hugged.”

In South Africa—one of the African countries worst hit by the pandemic—Catholic priest

David Ndakana,

30, said the government permits touching elbows instead of hugs or handshakes. Father Ndakana’s small church, the only one in a fairly remote community, still meets in person. No more than 100 people can attend, and everyone wears a mask. But social distancing is more difficult: One sign of peace quickly moved from elbows to hugs. Much as it pained him to do so, he stopped it.

For Orthodox Christians, churchwide greetings may include the kiss of peace mentioned in several New Testament letters. For 55-year-old

Alexis Kaiser,

newly widowed by Covid-19, that kiss was a big part of how she felt welcomed into her Greek Orthodox church in Oklahoma. Now it’s discouraged. Ms. Kaiser lamented that the loss of her husband’s physical proximity at church and home is “a real hardship.”

Touch played a significant role in

Jesus

’ ministry too. That he let a woman kiss his feet shocked the Pharisees, but he defended her actions as an appropriate response to forgiveness. Later, Jesus even invited Thomas to touch his wounds. Jesus’ example shows that our bodies are part of how we’re meant to commune with God and each other. How then do Christians balance love’s call to extend safety and welcome?

At Christ Church East Bay in Berkeley, Calif., the

Rev. Jonathan St. Clair

told me in an email that they encourage vaccinated singles to sit with families or other solo attendees. Ms. Kaiser hopes to do something similar with some of the other widows at her church. Reality SF, a church in San Francisco, took this one step further: Leading up to Easter, it urged the majority-single congregation to form Holy Week pods.

Longer-term use of pods could help singles feel more included in their churches. For most Christian singles I have interviewed, commitment in relationships proved elusive outside marriage; only Catholic priests consistently reported a sense of commitment within a community. Why should so few Christian singles find that?

Singles have the same needs as married people; we simply have different ways to meet them. By giving singles a committed group with which to sit, hug and maybe even eat, pods could help us participate more equally in God’s family.

Ms. Broadway is author of “Sexless in the City: A Memoir of Reluctant Chastity” (WaterBrook, 2008).

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