Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Odd Wo/man Out: The Systematic Marginalization of Mennonite Singles by the Church's Focus on Family

Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Odd Wo/man Out: The Systematic Marginalization of Mennonite Singles by the Church's Focus on Family

Article excerpt

Abstract: This study examines the experiences of never-married singles in the Mennonite church. The results, which are based on an analysis of in-depth interviews with 15 individuals who are active participants in Mennonite Church and General Conference Mennonite Church congregations in urban and rural settings, indicate that singles often feel like outsiders in the church. This is true in part because the presumption of family--the assumption that the traditional nuclear family is preferable to any alternatives--creates an insider/outsider duality within the church that can marginalize singles. This study identifies specific structures and practices that construct this insider/outsider dichotomy and examines steps individual congregations have taken and could take to integrate singles more effectively into the church.

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In recent years, the Mennonite church has given increasing attention tO meeting the needs of singles. Some pastors such as Shirley Yoder Brubaker (1) and Sheron Patterson (2) have sought to develop a "theology of singleness" that "embraces all singles [and] informs them that God loves them just as they are," (3) while other church leaders are attempting to identify strategies for ministering to singles. (4) Amidst these efforts are the voices of singles themselves, describing their own experiences in an attempt to foster greater understanding of what it means to be single within a tradition that strongly encourages marriage. (5) Nonetheless, in spite of the increased attention to issues related to singleness and church life, singles continue to be less satisfied with, and less involved in, the church than their married counterparts. Dean Merrill, vice president of the International Bible Society, reports that while 80% of married people sampled in a national survey agree that the Christian churches in their area are relevant to the way they live their life today, only 61% of singles agree with that statement. 50% of marrieds report that they attend church at least three times per month compared to only 31% of singles. (6)

Why are singles less likely to find church relevant to their lives than individuals who are married? While people undoubtedly experience church negatively for a variety of reasons, part of the church's apparent difficulty in meeting the needs of singles is the emphasis it places on marriage and family, a focus that can be alienating to individuals who may not fit traditional models of family. Within American culture at large and within the Mennonite church in particular, the family is a primary normative, meaning-making framework. (7) One need only look at the popularity of movements such as the Million Men March, Promise Keepers and Focus on the Family in the decade of the 1990s to see the importance placed on the traditional nuclear family within American churches. Even those voices in the debate about family and the church that recognize the dangers of idealizing the family in the name of Christianity and that seek to reconstruct the family for "postindustrial postmodern times" are often unable to . step outside of traditional models of family. For example, while the approach to the family debate carded forward in essays gathered in From Culture Wars to Common Ground." Religion and the American Family Debate, (8) seems truly innovative on the surface, a closer analysis of the collective argument reveals that their "creation of a new family ethic"--an "egalitarian family in which husband and wife participate relatively equally in paid work as well as childcare and other domestic responsibilities" (9)--simply reinstitutionalizes traditional family structures, merely outfitting "Ozzie and Harriet" for the new millennium.

Although there is nothing inherently wrong with traditional notions of family, presenting the nuclear model of family as paradigmatic is potentially problematic on two levels. First, this focus on the traditional family inevitably creates an "in-group/out-group" duality within many congregations, in which those individuals who are not part of traditional family units are subtly, and often not so subtly, identified as outsiders. …

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