Being a single parent in the Church can be a challenging experience, says Emily Beater, as she recalls her own journey towards Jesus
I certainly didn’t intend to go to church that day, or any other day for that matter. It was the January of my return to university, and the ground was ice-cold; the trees still rusted with dirt and gold. The year before, an unexpected pregnancy in Freshers’ Week (and the mental health crisis that followed it) had led me to temporarily suspend my degree.
When I returned to the University of Oxford twelve months later, I was living with the father of my child, our three-month-old baby and the firm conviction that I had let everyone down. Now, only the most stellar academic success, combined with perfection as a mother, could redeem me. I adored my daughter, with her grey-green eyes and gurgling mouth, and would weaken with love at the scent of her head. But the stereotypes of failure we attach so instinctively to young mothers had sunk, like rot, into my bones. I was convinced that a faultless performance in every aspect of my life was my only option.
Amid the academic pressure of my first term back, combined with slight nursery hours and zero weekends to study, a friend of mine would not stop inviting me to church. Amaka was a Christian and we had connected loosely in my first term at Oxford, which had seen me squatting in a bathroom stall, clutching a positive pregnancy test in disbelief.
I was brought up going to church, but the gospel had never saturated my heart. In my teens, I showed up only infrequently, lured more by the attraction of meeting boys who (I hoped) might assuage my sense of worthlessness than I was by any concept of God.
I was surprised by Amaka’s persistent invitation. Part of me expected her to write me off, now I was an unmarried mother. My views of Christianity were marked by assumptions of intolerance – I thought faith was about white-knuckling your way to perfection. Once you had made a serious misstep (like having sex outside of marriage), you were surely irredeemable.
I was also surprised by Amaka’s commitment to church, which I assumed was a tick-box activity that most people stuck with out of bored habit. Our academic load was gruelling and I didn’t understand how Amaka had the time or inclination for church when she received no grades for her attendance. Yet there she was every week, surrendering hours of study time.
Finally, I questioned her: “How do you have time for church with all your essays? I just don’t understand why you give up that much of your weekend.”
“It’s the best part of my week,” she replied simply. Something in her voice caught me at the throat. Church? The best part of her week? I didn’t understand but, from deep within me came the nudging conviction that she had something I wanted.
Making it clear
Back then, my view of God was this: I wanted desperately for him to exist, but I couldn’t find enough academic and philosophical certainty to believe. Surely a good God who loves us was a fairytale invention? If he was real, why did he not make it clear? Why did he hide himself in clouds of vagueness, leaving us to work it all out for ourselves? I assumed that belief could only come after I had read every word of the greatest philosophers, exhausted every argument for or against the existence of God, and come to the unavoidable conclusion that he was real. And, if he was, I would, in my own strength, never commit a sin again.
Instead, God came to me as I was: a lost and broken child. He scooped me up and tenderly redeemed me.
About six months later, listening only vaguely while holding my baby daughter during the worship, it occurred to me that I could not believe in God on my own. I was close to despair, my brittle mental health breaking under the pressures of life as a young mum in a difficult relationship. We were both barely out of our teens, living together for the first time, working and caring for a young baby on the scarcest of sleep, while I was studying at one of the most academically demanding universities in the world. As the thread of my perfectionism unravelled before my eyes, revealing a mess of nappies, half-strung essays and a fear of failure, it occurred to me that I was not going to be able to achieve my way out of this one.
I thought faith was about white-knuckling your way to perfection
Why don’t you ask God to help you believe in him? The thought released a sudden and unexpected internal cry: “God, I don’t know if you’re real, but if you are, give me belief! Give me faith! I can’t find it on my own.”
That night, I picked up a Bible. I had been given it for my birthday, shortly after I had first attended church, by a friend who had noticed my growing interest in faith. At the time, I had murmured appreciation and slid it, unopened, onto the shelf. But now, as I read, the words and phrases I had heard my whole life in Sunday school lessons, sermons and Religious Studies exam papers began to make sense. It was as though I had been reading the Bible in a foreign language all my life and now God had translated it in my very being. Every page rang with the truth of the Lord. My soul sang.
Forgiven and set free
I have always been plagued with chronic anxiety and extreme doubts and fears about existence and the nature of the world. Yet, from that moment, I knew with utter, iron-clad certainty that God is real, and the claims of the Bible are true.
But I still didn’t understand the relevance of Jesus, or why God would create a world of people so clearly inclined to mess up. In all my years on the periphery of church as a child and a teenager, I never really understood the point of Jesus dying on the cross. Later that week at a Bible study, the words Jesus spoke to a woman who had been bleeding for twelve long years struck deep in my heart: “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering” (Mark 5:34).
It was as though Jesus was speaking those words directly to me. Although I was still bodily seated in the café with my Bible study group, it felt as though I was gazing up at Jesus as he lifted every sinful thing I had ever done from my shoulders. Warmth and lightness flooded through me. I understood, through what I now know was the Holy Spirit, that Jesus had paid my every debt by pouring out his perfect life and blood in death on the cross. Extravagant, scandalous love.
Sorrow and rejoicing
Seven years later, and I’m the single, unmarried mother of an eight-year-old, clinging to the relentlessness of my life only by the grace of God. Those years of finishing my degree were hard, living with the non-Christian father of my child and trying to fit a newfound faith and the realisations that come with it (like the fact that God designed sex for marriage between a man and a woman) with the set-ups of my life, which did not mirror that of many families I saw in the Church.
But they were also glorious years. The church I attended nurtured me in my faith, leading me to focus on the grace Jesus had for me in my brokenness. Couples reminded me that while Christian marriage was good, it was not a cure for sin and they were as broken and as much in desperate need of Christ as I. Single people reminded me that what we perceive as a painful lack can be a catalyst to see the unmatchable glory of God, unobscured by the face of a human lover who we may be tempted to idolise.
Our pastor, who had chosen a life of celibacy, had such a Jesus-centred empathy for those wrestling through painful and difficult life situations. As I fought with deep, spiritual questions over sexual purity, and grieved over many aspects of my life, he reminded me that Paul describes Christians as “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10).
Only in the Christian life – in which we should not be surprised by trouble and affliction, for it was the path of Jesus – does the co-existence of suffering and rejoicing make sense. We may suffer, but the battle is won. My church in Oxford wasn’t perfect (what, this side of heaven, could be?) but the mixture of families, single people, friends of all ages, backgrounds and life experiences, working to love each other, learn about Jesus and glorify God, gave me a glimpse of what it means to be part of the bride of Christ.
A floundering faith
I finished my degree during the pandemic, scribbling the last words of my Finals papers as the virus raged, locking us into isolation. My relationship with my daughter’s father had finally collapsed and I had moved home to my mum’s house. As I came to terms with my life as a newly single parent, in an area I hadn’t lived in since I was a teenager and unattached to a local church (which, in any case, were all still gathering online, giving little opportunity to meet new people), my faith floundered.
Coming out of lockdown and easing into new routines of work, single parenthood and the loneliness of life as an unmarried mother in a new church full of families, I felt deeply out of place. As I sat with my daughter, pacifying her with snacks throughout the service, I would stare past the shoulders of married couples and families, transposing assumptions of happiness and fulfilment over their frames. I’d feel a flicker of pain every time I saw a wife lean into her husband or a husband stroke his wife’s shoulder. Over time, the devil took that pain and poisoned it, driving it deep into my skin until it shattered into a gaping, suppurating sore.
Only in the Christian life does the co-existence of suffering and rejoicing make sense
At the beginning of my faith, I had been overwhelmed by the fullness of joy in Christ. I had understood what Paul said about counting everything else as “rubbish” (Philippians 3:8, ESV) compared to knowing Christ. Now, resentment calcified around my wound and my every interaction with the Lord was infected by a sense of lack. Like so many things that we long for, a good desire (in my case, for a Christian marriage) became corrupted with the idolatrous belief that without it, I could not live a fulfilled life.
The devil would love to see us fall away from the Church because we feel that God is unfairly withholding something from us. (How often we fall prey to that first manipulation of Eve, standing by the fruit tree as the snake twisted doubts into her ears: “If God really loved you, he’d let you have this…”) But while I recognise my own responsibility to engage in a spiritual battle against the powers of darkness, I also long for a better theology of singleness in our churches – especially of single parenthood.
5 ways to welcome single people this Christmas
Christmas can be a difficult time of year for many single people, of all ages. A season that should be about warmth and welcome can become isolating when churches shut down for the holidays and families focus inwards on spending time together. According to a survey by Single Friendly Church Network, 70 per cent of single people said they struggled with at least some aspects of Christmas.
Here are five ways to make Christmas a joyful and inclusive experience for everyone:
1. Find out who might be on their own
Many people don’t have someone to spend Christmas with. Ask around and you may be surprised – younger people far from home or single parents spending the day without their children often get missed.
2. Welcome others in
Many single people feel that ‘church family’ doesn’t seem to apply at Christmas. Could you invite someone to join you over the festive season? Some churches host a community lunch or connect people officially. Invitations don’t have to be for Christmas Day itself – you could invite someone for evening drinks or a Boxing Day walk too.
3. Be inclusive in your services
Christmas can be painful for many. Some single people find the focus on families and children difficult, or feel alone when others are sat with their extended families in church. It is important to acknowledge the pain of Christmas in the prayers and sermon. Look out for those attending services on their own and make an effort to welcome and include them.
4. Encourage social activities
Often people will have plans for Christmas Day, but the week between Christmas and New Year can also be a very lonely time. Empower people to be part of their own solution – encourage meet-ups like a walk, games night or coffee morning with mince pies. Phone someone you know who may be feeling isolated at this time – it could mean so much.
5. Remember the true meaning of Christmas
Secular Christmas celebrations often focus on families – but that shouldn’t be what churches do. Jesus was born for everyone, including the stranger, the lonely and the hurting. A simple focus on the good news of what Christmas actually means can have a profound impact for all.
For more ideas and resources for churches at Christmas and all-year round, visit singlefriendlychurch.com
Completeness in Christ
The majority of people in the churches I have attended have been kind, loving, welcoming and generous. But if the unhelpful, casual comments over church coffee preparation about how hard it must be for my daughter not to have parents who are together or united in the faith (see me, open-mouthed, still drying a teapot) could make way for Paul’s teaching on the dignity of singleness, the Church would be a better place still.
There is a particular strangeness to being a single parent in the Church at times. One of the ‘benefits’ of being unmarried is often cited as “time to yourself” (read: you don’t have children, so you get to have a lie-in). Not only must this be incredibly painful for married couples who long to conceive, but it’s laughable when I think of myself, knee-deep in the exhausting routine of my life, pushing whole working days into narrow school hours, trying to keep a roof over our heads on a single salary and falling asleep at my daughter’s bedside without brushing my teeth.
Single Christian parents need something better to hope for. And we have it. The person on whom all the hopes of our existence are built was never married – and no one was ever a more complete human being than Jesus. In Christ, we are promised fullness of life (John 10:10), no matter our marital status. There’s no secret caveat somewhere, no verse that says ‘Jesus plus marriage’ is a better formula than Jesus alone. To suggest so would be the worst heresy. The God who promises eternal hope in his Son does not lie.