Written By: Rodney Anderson
My oldest son is in first grade. The other day he came home from school and said, “Dad, can I have an Apple watch?”
I was dumbfounded. I don’t even own an Apple watch. But apparently, two of his friends in his class already do. IN FIRST GRADE. Obviously, I’m not spending $600 to buy my eight-year-old a smartwatch, but I also didn’t want to spoil his dreams completely, so I told him I’d be happy to buy him a flip phone when he turns 14. Needless to say, it wasn’t the answer he was looking for.
Now, I’m not sure what this next generation after millennials will be officially called, iGen, Gen Tech, Linksters, Generation Z are all on the table, but I know they will be the first generation to have no memory of life without being completely linked to the internet at all times. Millennials grew up with the Internet, but they didn’t grow up with it literally in their hands 24-7 like this next generation. And the data is still out on what growing up constantly connected is going to mean for this generation, but there are definitely trends. Some are good. Some are not. This next generation seems to be safer, less rebellious, and, believe it or not, less promiscuous. Those seem to be good things. But they are simultaneously less independent, more depressed, and far lonelier than any previous generation. Those definitely are not.
Loneliness, in fact, is becoming a national, if not a global epidemic. Earlier this year, Theresa May in the UK appointed their first Minister of Loneliness to deal with the escalating problem. Doctors will now tell you loneliness is worse for your health than smoking or obesity. It seems the generation that is growing up with constant connection feels more disconnected and isolated than ever. In fact, studies are showing they are even losing their ability to know how to connect and empathize with other people in real life.
But in all the descriptions and identifiers of what next generations will be, there is one that I feel is always missing…single. I don’t know if it’s the direct result of the constant connection the internet provides, and its inability to teach people how to connect with one another in real life, but the rising generations will be single longer than any previous generation. In August 2014, for the first time, single adults began to outnumber married adults in the United States. According to U.S. Census numbers, 51.2% of the population is single, which is up almost 40% from 1976. Singles also make up more than half the population in 46 of the 51 largest U.S. metropolitan areas.
And when you take into account the current divorce rate and couple it with the rise in the age that people first marry, this trend will only continue. In recent polling, only 30% of millennials say that having a successful marriage is important. And in 2010, Pew Research found that 4 in 10 Americans thought marriage was becoming obsolete. Now, I’m not making any kind of cultural statement, I just want to make the case that the trend toward rising numbers of single adults is going to continue. We are no longer a nation that graduates college students who then go on to get married and start families in a short amount of time. Those days are behind us. We have a massive population of single adults with many more to come in the years ahead. Unfortunately, because of growing up constantly connected, many of these single adults will need a lot of help finding places they can build real, authentic, community. They will need a place where they have the opportunity to take their eyes off the screen world and look up to the real world around them.
Let me be clear, I don’t think singleness is a problem to solve. There is nothing wrong with being single. In fact, as we all know, the Apostle Paul celebrates it. The problem is, never have this many single people existed before while simultaneously experiencing little or no community. This is where the church has an opportunity to step in. As the body of Christ, we have the privilege of partnering with the Holy Spirit to see the needs in the world around us and then to offer and provide hope and healing for those needs. We know where the trend is headed, and if we start preparing the way now to minister and provide an authentic community to this massive single population, we could help heal a need that no one in culture is currently meeting.
Right now, most churches are doing very little for singles and I completely understand why. Compared to children’s ministry, student ministry, small groups/Sunday school, and missions, singles ministry is just a lower priority. Plus, let’s be honest, providing a quality environment for singles is just hard. At best, many singles ministries can end up simply feeling like an adult youth group. And, at worst, they feel like an awkward meat market. Neither is very appealing. But I think we can do better. The trends tell us we have to do better.
What if we really started rethinking how we connect single people? What if churches spent time really thinking of the best environments to build real social connections? What if we created ongoing opportunities for single people to meet, have fun, and do life with other like-minded people? What if we helped them discover the joy of being offline and present with real people? What if we provided them the cure for their growing sense of loneliness? What if the examples in our preaching began to reflect the reality of the demographic in our congregations? What if we thought through the lens of how our content will land for a single person? If we started doing that, I don’t think we could keep people away from our churches. We’d be solving a huge problem that meets a huge felt need, for a huge population, that currently, no one in culture is solving. I think one of the biggest evangelistic opportunities the church has ever had is before us. Providing and demonstrating real community for this disconnected and lonely generation will provide the avenue by which many of them will first step foot in church. And I believe it will be the avenue by which many will step into a relationship with Jesus Christ.
The need for community has always been a part of the human experience. Our Creator wove our need for community into our hearts. Community is a felt need that will never be cast out of the human soul. And this generation will be one who needs the church to show them how to find it. No one in culture is doing a very good job of creating meaningful connections for single people. But the felt need for friendship is as strong as ever. Imagine what it would look like if we got out on the forefront of this? Imagine if we started working now to prepare ourselves for the needs of the next generation? There is no telling the impact the church could have on this disconnected generation.