Staying single in the youth work world has often been thought of as the default option for those who haven’t yet met ‘the one’. Jill Rowe, however, suggests how a single life can mark a radical alternative in youth ministry and suggests ways in which single people can share in and contribute to communities in the way that Jesus intended.
‘We’re not the marrying sort!’
Prizes all round if you guessed the above quote was from My Fair Lady. Perhaps not the kind of movie that you usually discuss in youth work circles, but given the theme of this article I couldn’t help but mention one of Rex Harrison’s classic quotes. Perhaps it’s a sentiment that many of us who are single have considered; a few of us may have even said it of ourselves because we truly believe that being single is the life we are called to, while others want to announce very clearly that we are the marrying sort but haven’t had the chance to meet ‘the one’ yet!
The single life is littered with unintentionally amusing comments and quips, of course. A personal favourite is the inquisitive ‘How do you manage?’ as if being unmarried throws in to question your ability to do the weekly shop or climb the stairs. Another classic was the suggestion from a friend that by joining a house group I would be sure to find a partner straight away! That’s right, as well as ‘faith-filled’ lonely hearts columns, ‘Christian’ speed dating and spiritual singles balls, we should add ‘house group hook-ups’ as the brand new way of bringing people into the church!
Those of us that are single seem to be stranded in a twilight world - we journey alongside fellow Christians who, more often than not, think that to be fully satisfied and content you must be married. However, we are also part of a broader UK society in which more people than ever before are living as single people and, what’s more, the media portrays the single life as an incredible hedonistic whirlwind, promoting the right to take care of your own needs first, all beautifully wrapped in expensive designer wear, one night stands and disposable relationships. Not a world that satisfies the soul. Which begs the question: What happens when you are a follower of Jesus and you find yourself in the ‘single’ category whether you choose it or not? What can ‘being single’ look like and how can the life you choose to live be all that God intended?
This is where I raise an obvious, but perhaps often overlooked point. Whether married or single, the answer to how we live as followers of Jesus is the same - we are called to live distinctively. Yes - distinctive, different, radical, alternative, counter-cultural – all brilliant, inspirational words, perhaps overused when talking with young people, but sadly not too often associated with singleness. Then again, as I read and reflect on them, considering how I apply them to my life, suddenly singleness becomes an exciting and challenging opportunity to authentically express my following after Jesus. Add to that the privilege I have of working with young people and youth workers, and I find myself in the midst of a heady mix that I am sure keeps you younger than any secret beauty treatment formula!
The first step is to recognise being single as a positive choice. In fact, if we take a careful look at some of the heroes of the Faith, past and present, again and again we bump into incredible men and women who have chosen singleness as the best and most appropriate option. Being single enables us to go the extra mile much more easily, work in places that those who are married would struggle to entertain, we can be light on our feet, less tied to places and freer to answer the call to ‘go’ if only we would choose to. There are some things to look out for though…
Sadly, the attitudes that can hamper how we feel about being single is more often the result of our being a part of a generation afraid of being alone. In my capacity at Oasis UK, I am privileged to work year on year with young people who are part of the Frontline UK gap year programme. These young people are incredible, energetic, willing to learn and be challenged, and, motivated by their Christian faith, long to see whole communities transformed. They are, quite simply, a joy to be around.
But, as with many of us, they often have one weakness – they are afraid of being on their own. In our understanding, to be alone often equates with being lonely. Suggest to young people that they take a fast from their mobile phones and you might as well suggest they take a dip in a bath of ice! Deep down, people are nervous of what it means to be alone, to take time and space from others. We keep busy, and constantly surround ourselves with other people and distractions. And without realising it we make a direct link between singleness and loneliness.
Don’t misunderstand me – I know there are people, both single and
married, who are lonely. But that is the point – loneliness is one of
the symptoms of our age and our society. It does not exist because some
people are unmarried. Being single allows us to rediscover the treasure
of ‘being alone’. And those of us who are single can show and model
this treasure to our world that pursues speed and consumption.
In the twenty years that I’ve been part of the youth work scene I have realised that many of us who work with young people have a tendency to be on the workaholic end of things. We throw ourselves into our work as if it all depended on us and that God had called us to be responsible for the salvation of all young people within a five mile radius. When you are single this way of working can be an even greater temptation. After all, you don’t have anyone to get home to and there is no marriage in jeopardy if you spend another three hours doing detached youth work on the local estate.
So it is absolutely vital that we learn to have strong boundaries. In
Mark’s Gospel, chapter one, we read about Jesus in the midst of a
number of activities with huge demands on his time and attention by
those who knew him well and those who knew of him. Yet, what we
discover is that Jesus took time alone, chose when and where he
ministered, told his disciples what he would and would not do and, even
when faced with whole villages wanting a piece of him, simply replied
that he must go to on to other places. I wonder how good we are at
making these types of decisions and choices when it comes to our work
schedules. A little motto I have is this: ‘When you know whose you are,
you will know who you are and then you will know what it is you should
be doing.’ So we too must be sure of our identity, and keep it safe and
secure with strong boundaries.
We are told to ‘Keep the Sabbath holy’. Sabbath needs to be a rhythm that we keep and as we do, we will maintain some kind of work – life balance. As a single person, that means finding a pattern to follow which is different to the way you live the rest of the week. That means not doing youth work. I have developed a Sabbath day that enables me to rest, relax and recharge. Sabbath practices might include reading, journaling, a bit of exercise and spending some time alone in conversation with God, well away from the demands and pressures of work, including emails. And choosing to spend time with friends who have nothing to do with work and, in particular, those friends who have children, is a great Sabbath activity. Why? Because children remind you that the pressures of your world diminish when you are busy building a Lego castle for an imaginary knight or holding a conversation with a two year-old even if you only understand 10% of the words being used, or playing football with a budding premiership wannabe!
I’m not sure if you have ever taken a bunch of young people on a long walk in the countryside in the hope of instilling a sense of awe and wonder at the beauty of creation. It all goes swimmingly until you realise you are lost, it is getting dark and someone has forgotten to pack a torch in the ‘In case of Emergencies’ kit. But you do have a compass – and actually it’s all you need. It has the capability of bringing you home safely by virtue of the fact that it has ‘magnetic north’. It is a kind of homing beam around which you base your decisions and choices about what you should do and where you should go.
When we read the story of Daniel in the Old Testament we come across a man who found himself living in an alien culture, Babylon. This was a place where the values, traditions and faith that were at the centre of his life appeared very ‘way-off centre’ in this distant land. Faced with all sorts of pressure to conform, bow, give in and fall into line, Daniel and his closest friends refused. Why? Because Daniel’s magnetic north was God and it was this that determined all his choices.
For those of us that are single we are at times in danger of not having God as our true north. Instead, we have our ‘singleness’ or our ‘longing for a partner’ or the idea of marriage or, dare I say it, even our role as a youth worker. And, by a process of stealth, before we know it, the decisions and choices we make are not based on our belief in God. Those of us that are single need to constantly check that God is and remains our ‘true north’.
An interdependent community
Many single youth workers’ lives are focussed 110% on their work. They throw themselves into the lives of young people, doing way beyond their hours and end up feeling washed up and burnt out. As a result of this pattern, they end up not investing in their own lives and relationships, and can end up sitting at home on an all too rare day-off only to discover that they don’t know anyone as friend anymore and worse than that no-one knows them. They have become the isolated individual that they dreaded.
Determined that this will not be my story, I deliberately, intentionally and willingly make myself a part of other people’s lives. It is something that my friends welcome and cherish. Becoming the extra aunt to their children, honorary godparent, a trusting adult, a friend to escape with, a shoulder to cry on and someone to joke with, is the stuff of life. And I count it an absolute privilege to be allowed to share in families’ beyond my own.
How is it possible? Quite simply, by surrounding yourself with people who believe in the family of God. And it is within the context of this interdependent community that you discover you have a sure place within it where you are loved and cherished. It takes time, energy, and means a lot of birthdays to remember.
Jesus linked people to each other. He introduced new concepts of kinship that included people way beyond any rather ineffective concept of the western nuclear family that we might have. And to live in the light of this bigger, broader, and in my opinion better, concept of kinship is an incredible alternative to model in today’s world.
So being single and being a youth worker need not be about ‘how do we survive?’ Rather, it is ‘how do we flourish?’ and ‘how do we contribute as much as we can to those we share life with?’ Working with young people is a part of that journey and challenge. Together we must learn to live distinctively and deliberately, following Christ and modelling Christ to the world.
Jill Rowe is the Oasis Community and Church Development Director. This article was first published in Youthwork magazine and is reproduced here with permission.