Rebecca, a single Christian woman in her late 20s, sat opposite me in a local café. Already half an hour over our 45-minute interview, I was once again at a loss for an answer.
“There just aren’t any single Christian men! I’ve read all the books, know that God is in control and all of that, but when there literally aren’t enough men to go round, I really don’t know what else we’re supposed to do?”
In a church culture where marriage to another Christian is seen as the best and often only option, but with a ratio of 60:40 single women to men, the situation for women like Rebecca can be problematic.
But while our solutions have typically been to ignore this conundrum, or to bury ourselves in the latest dating self-help books, we have yet to look at this issue objectively.
While we have pages on what an ideal dating culture should look like, hours of sermons saying what, with God’s help, it will look like, we have no statistical picture of what it currently does look like.
It was for this reason that I started up the research partnership that I now run with a statistician in central London. And it was for this reason that I found myself researching Christian dating culture.
Focusing on a large UK church with over 1,000 members, and collecting 200 surveys from singles aged 18-40, I wanted to learn what this culture looks like from a statistical point of view, and what were the reasons behind these trends.
Having now turned several heads in the café with the typical trigger phrases of “no sex before marriage” and “Jesus told me she would be my wife”, I finished my second latte and headed home to start analysing the data collected.
A lack of dating
Over the subsequent weeks of analysis, the scenarios of single women like Rebecca appeared to be the norm. Over a two-year period, the normal experience of a single Christian woman was to be asked out by two non-Christians, one Christian in general and no Christians from her own congregation. This meant that 63 per cent of single women in the church hadn’t been on a date with another member of their own congregation in the past two years.
“I’ve never been asked out by another church member in my entire life,” wrote one 23-year-old woman. “I go to a small group, I go to services, I really don’t know why it hasn’t happened!” “But outside of the church, it is different,” added another, “in my friendship groups, people have asked me out loads - they are very fine with it.”
The more I read through the open answers, the more the frustration became palpable.
Women were frustrated with the lack of dating occurring, and particularly with the lack of initiation from men. Of particular note were answers to the question: “what would you like to say to the opposite sex regarding dating culture?” Here almost 70 per cent of women (an extraordinarily high consensus in questions of this type) wanted Christian men to “man up” and ask them out.
Treat your female friends well, don’t use them to fill your emotional needs while you’re waiting for a girlfriend
“If you like someone, ask them out – be the man!” said one woman. “Be brave, be masculine! Men are meant to be men! In the real world, men ask women out and pursue them all the time”, while others were a little less tactful: “Grow a pair of balls”.
While the other 30 per cent of women didn’t necessarily disagree with these sentiments, there was likewise a more tempered vocalisation of intentionality. “Be intentional, treat your female friends well, don’t use them to fill your emotional needs while you’re waiting for a girlfriend”, said one woman.
In any case it became apparent that there was frustration from one side of the group! But what about the guy’s perspective? Over the same time period, the normal experience for a Christian man was to go on dates with two to three Christian women, but only one from their own congregation.
“It’s difficult to find a woman that I really click with. It seems that I just haven’t met the right girl yet,” said one guy who had been attending the church for over a year. “I’d much rather just hang out as friends and get to know them that way,” added another.
In the male population, the main frustration wasn’t the lack of dating opportunities – but rather the intense nature of dating in the Christian context/culture.
“The understanding of what dating is, is skewed and too many people take it too seriously expecting marriage at the end of a first date,” said one man. Another coined the term “Christian fishbowl effect” to describe what it felt like to be man in the Christian dating culture, “where everyone likes to know your business, and you feel like everyone is watching you. People making too big a deal out of going on a date.”
Too many people take it too seriously expecting marriage at the end of a first date
There was clearly a lack of dating occurring. Having grown up in the church myself I certainly could understand and identify with many of the comments already made (and yes, I have been on a few dates too). However, I also knew that there was often a lot more going on beneath the surface.
The more I looked into the data, the more it became apparent that the lack of dating wasn’t correlated with a lack of romance. In other words, there appeared to be a very high level of romantic emotional ‘exchange’. For example, 74 per cent of single men agreed that women were meeting their emotional/romantic needs, whereas 57 per cent of women indicated that men were meeting theirs. An interesting statistic in itself – but what did this look like?
During interviews, I discovered that women felt there was in fact a lot of unofficial dating occurring.“Men never go on an ‘official date’ with a girl,” said one woman in her 30s - they in fact “just flirt with her, leading her on.” Another woman added, “men will be seeing several women at the same time - but nothing is defined because he’s not my friend or my boyfriend...I’ve seen a lot of that happen.”
Likewise, in an interview, Emily said that her only experience of dating within the church congregation involved three months one-on-one time with a guy, but without ever making it official. When she finally asked if anything was happening, he replied that they were just friends... “And I didn’t get upset or anything, but that happens a lot in the church, a lot.”
The Christian men are wanting sex
What was particularly interesting was that the more I talked with these women, the more I heard answers in which they contrasted their experiences of dating inside and outside the church.
“The Christian men are wanting sex, and yet when I was dating an atheist, when he found out that I didn’t want sex before marriage, he was fine with that...he was perfectly OK with not having sex before we were married.” Another, in response to some of her main frustrations, wrote, “I've had more lovely/respectful dates on Tinder and Happn in the past six months than in three years at my church. I honestly wish I'd joined them way sooner.”
Why was this happening?
Why did women feel that men inside the church were leading them on without ever committing to a relationship? Why was there a high level of emotional intimacy but a lack of official dating? And why were some women feeling as though Christian men were more keen for sex before marriage than non-Christian men?
In 1983, two sociologists, Marcia Guttentag and Paul Secord, had noticed a similar pattern among other groups with gender ratio imbalances. Whether it was African Americans (where 1/7 men are in prison), or within college campuses where there is a ratio of 60:40 women to men, the same patterns of behaviour were occurring. Here, as we were finding in the church, there was a very low level of commitment, a low level of official dating, but a very high level of emotional and physical intimacy.
The reason proposed was simple if you understood relationships as an exchange of resources. The individual looking to date someone else has to put in time, energy, effort and commitment in order to receive emotional and physical intimacy in exchange. Likewise, the person they are dating has to the do the same. In effect there is a ‘price’ for physical and emotional intimacy.
I've had more respectful dates on Tinder in the past six months than in three years at my church
In a balanced market, of course, there is usually an even exchange of these resources. But, in an imbalanced market, when the supply of one group outweighs the demand of the other, as you would expect in any market, the value drops subconsciously. And so subconsciously, the theory went, Christian men do not feel they need to put in as much effort and commitment, in order to receive emotional and physical intimacy in return. And, likewise, the women who dated outside of the church were feeling more valued by non-Christians than by Christians.
As one church member paraphrased: “Men in the church are getting a lot of emotional intimacy with a lot of women, but they don’t have to put anything in it. No commitment.”
The second impact created by this imbalance of resources was the level of satisfaction experienced in relationships. In this instance, the gender that was in shorter supply – men – were predisposed to feel less satisfied subconsciously with their partners than they would in a balanced market.
As Guttentag and Secord stated in their research Too many women? The sex ratio question: “When there are many unattached women to whom a man can relate, his level of expectation in the best alternative relationship is apt to be considerably higher than it would be when the sex ratio were equally balanced and his choices limited." In other words, if Christian men perceive they can achieve a particular standard, all standards below this perception will be subconsciously no longer as attractive.
While these ideas are just theories, and there is no doubt a host of other influencers within the idiosyncratic world of Christian dating, I believe they are a good initial explanation as to some of the behaviours noticed/observed in our study.
What are the solutions?
It was over three months since that initial coffee interview with Rebecca. And while I had completed the data collection and analysis, the question that everyone was asking was – what are the solutions?
My initial reaction to this was being wary of a one-size-fits-all answer. Indeed, aside from the more than controversial idea of polygamy(!) there is no easy answer. But there are four things we can do that will alleviate some of the problems.
1. Awareness - The first way is simply to be aware that these social forces may be subconsciously influencing us. Men need to be aware that the plurality of options available to them could be subconsciously causing them to not feel as if they need to put in as much effort, as well as to be less satisfied with a potential/current relationship.
Likewise, women should be aware that social forces may subconsciously be predisposing them to feel as if they need to compromise and to risk devaluing who they are. They should be aware that, in this culture, there is a danger that in order to keep a guy interested, they may feel they should give more of themselves emotionally and physically than they want to.
2. Date outside of church - In the long run, the most obvious pathway that women can take is to date outside of the church. Although a taboo in many Christian circles, over 45 per cent of women and 42 per cent of men in our study said they would consider dating a non-Christian. In particular, 9 per cent of women said they might, because they “do not want to remain single and where they are there aren’t many Christians available”.
3. Try online dating - A third solution is to move from the immediate context of the congregation to the online world of UK Christians in general. The advantages of this approach are two-fold. Firstly, in a church culture where women are often discouraged from making the first move (see our review on Christian dating literature) an an online platform allows women to take more initiative and to have more agency. Secondly, by stepping outside of the confines of one’s own congregation and denomination, the 3:1 ratio in many churches is dramatically improved. Indeed, within the Catholic church, the gender ratio is closer to a 50:50 split. Online engagement allows this to happen with far more ease.
4. Do not date - The fourth option is of course not to date anyone. Again, this may be seen as taboo in many Christian groups. However, we found that for many of the women interviewed, this was a choice that can be celebrated. “Essentially, what I’ve noticed about myself is that I am typically very happy on my own” said Lizzie. “It’s honestly easier for me to be single,” agreed Emily, who had completely stopped going on dates, “Yes OK we have that desire, to build those things like companionship, but at the end of the day God has given us a purpose and calling individually.”
While each of these solutions come with arguments for and against, and while many women may dislike them altogether, it is important to note that for those in the church who do use them – it benefits everyone. The key in this sense is to create space for women who want to follow alternative paths of action. The result will be a significant easing of the problematic dynamics highlighted in our study.
In any case, simply being more aware and more critical of our own perceptions and behaviours is a good first step. In a Western culture that right now is going through a huge wave of female empowerment, maybe it is about time to focus on the gendered power dynamics that we have in the church regarding dating and marriage.
Samuel Verbi is the Director for Monitoring and Evaluation at Eido Research (eidoresearch.com), with experience researching major UK and US ministries. He loves to authentically tell the stories that matter – changing the way people see and understand themselves and others