It’s often called 'The Dating Game', but the search for an eligible and compatible life-long partner can be a far cry in reality from the triviality of TV game shows such as Blind Date. For many single women in the church, particularly those in their 30’s and over, there’s very little in their experience which relates to fun or enjoyment. Figures show there are more than double the number of single women to men, making the likelihood of finding a like-minded partner somewhat remote. That’s why Christian and secular dating agencies are keen to break down the walls of stigma which surround their role in the match-making process. According to a Senior Director at secular agency Sirius, the question in 10 years’ time won’t be so much about whether to use a dating agency, but which one. If single women are to avoid going down the road of church hopping, or the ultimate scenario of a Christian to non-Christian marriage, introduction agencies believe their work is going to have to be seen as a primary aid, rather than a last-ditch move.

Jennifer is 39. She works in London as a prison missionary. Before she became a Christian 20 years ago she enjoyed a series of relationships, and believed marriage was just around the corner. But since her conversion, she has been out with just four men. The reasons she gives for her unexpected singleness are quite startling. “I’ve not had a boyfriend for several years now and it’s difficult as you get older to find normal, heterosexual men in the church. Over the last two years I’ve known of four Christian women whose husbands have left them for another man." “Sometimes Christian men can appear to be wimps, and as women we can put that down to shyness, but I think if these men don’t pursue women, then it’s fair to assume that they are gay.” She also believes the problem lies with men’s reluctance to tie themselves down to one woman. “They have the choice of a lot of women and so they flirt, and then move on. They have no reason to commit themselves to a relationship when they can have fun doing the rounds. I think so few men are actively involved in evangelism because they don’t want the competition.” Jennifer knows that her bubbly, outgoing and confident nature can be a turn-off . “But why should I change in order to accommodate a partner? I’m happy with myself. For me, the answer has been to join a social network so I can get out and meet other single people." “I find it difficult to talk to married women in the church because they consider me as a threat, and don’t want me near their husbands. Being part of an organisation gives me a social life and also puts me in a situation where I might meet a potential partner. I’m not desperate to find a husband and I can accept that I may be single all my life. But that doesn’t mean I’ve given up, and I will continue to pray that God will bring a lovely man into my life. I’m not looking for fireworks, I just want a man who will treat me decently.”

Laura, a pastoral assistant for a church in Chard, Somerset, can identify with much of Jennifer’s lament. She was rarely without a boyfriend during her teens. At the time of committing her life to Jesus, she was involved in three relationships. That was 12 years ago. Since then she has had one boyfriend - for just a week during her time at Moorlands College in Dorset. So why the big difference? “Before I became a Christian, the relationships I had with men were very casual, and people don’t think of casual relationships as a viable option within the church,” said Laura. “Then there’s the problem that there’s very few blokes around. I’ve seen a lot of women go out with men they wouldn’t give a second glance to normally, simply out of desperation. “It can gall you how family oriented the church is. Marriage is sold as the great utopia, the goal that everyone should aspire towards. It’s fair to say that I expected to be married by now, but through the years I’ve learnt to accept that that hasn’t happened. “Singleness is not something I am desperate to get rid of anymore.” Unlike Jennifer, she is not interested in using a dating agency. “I think if I were to have gone down that route, it would have been a few years ago. Now I wouldn’t want to fork out the money that’s involved in registering. “But that doesn’t mean that I expect to stay single for the rest of my life either. People who say that you are ‘called to singleness’ are basically putting you on the shelf. “I think very few people are called to being single. Human beings are designed to procreate. The need for a relationship is a natural, primary impulse.”

According to the most recent figures available from Christian Research, there are on average 70 women for every 30 men in the church. New Day agency founder Sue Saxon says that by the time women reach the age of 40, the ratio has extended to four to one; by 50 it’s a staggering six to one.

Within that limited number, Sue admits the older, available man isn’t always the most attractive proposition. “Some of the men in the church can be drippy if they get to 40 and have stayed at home and never travelled or been away to university. Single women of that age tend to be more ambitious and are more likely to have done things with their life and have widespread experiences.” The result of the numerical imbalance is that many women face a very real prospect of winding up alone and unmarried. Dating agencies are naturally keen to encourage women to beat the odds by casting their net wider than the immediate church setting. One of Sue’s missions is to remove the stigma by addressing the often-quoted remark to the relationship-seeking woman: “You should wait on God and trust that he will bring the right man into your life at the right time.” She equates the situation to that of selling a home. “People who get married when they’re 19 or 20 don’t realise how difficult finding a husband can be. What do you do if you want to sell a house? You don’t just sit around praying and waiting for someone to turn up. Most people would pray about it and then they would put it on the market with the best estate agency. No-one criticises them for doing that. “If we don’t encourage people who are led to the Lord to meet other Christian friends of the opposite sex, the natural thing is that they will meet a non-Christian through work and get married to them.”

That’s exactly what happened in the case of Alison, a 34-year-old secretary in Essex. Fed up with eight years of singleness, and unimpressed with the choice of Christian men, she chose to look outside of the church and pray for a conversion. “I felt I was seen as an oddity by people in the church for still being single in my 30’s. Married women my own age seemed uncomfortable at having a single woman around. Social events were either teenage-type things of running around and doing lots of loud things and getting rid of energy, or going out for meals and being surrounded by lots of couples. “I felt my options for finding a decent man were limited. Either I had to keep my standards high and accept that I might not marry, or get so desperate that I would lower my standards. The other option was to wait for someone who was either widowed or divorced. “After many painful years as a single Christian woman I decided that I simply did not want to continue with my ‘I won’t date him if he’s not a practicing Christian’ stance. “I’d like to be a goody two shoes and spout something like ‘trust in the Lord, there’s someone out there for you’, but that wasn’t my experience.” Sue is only too aware that there are many Christian women who make the same choices as Alison. But she also knows that her work is not in vain, and that many do find a Christian husband in the end. Indeed, since New Day was established in 1989, the agency has been directly responsible for over 200 marriages - and naturally it’s not the only agency to boast successful outcomes.

Personnel manager Debbie, 36, married her husband three years ago after meeting through Network, a London-based agency which concentrates on organising social gatherings for single people. Debbie says taking control of her quest for a relationship was a big step, and definitely the right move for her. “One of the hardest things I found as a single woman was the social side of my life. “I didn’t have anyone to go away with for week-end breaks or holidays. For years I believed that God would bring the right man into the church and that I didn’t have to do anything. But over time I realised that if I wanted to spend time with interesting Christians then I was going to have to go out and find them. “I think one of the best things about joining a Christian agency was that I suddenly met lots of single people who made me realise I wasn’t alone. I’d always felt ungrateful and guilty that I felt unfulfilled as a single person, and that God must be so cross with me for feeling that way when he had given me so much. Meeting others who struggled with the same emotions helped me enormously.”

But with many different agencies having different approaches to the issue, how do you choose the right one? A straw poll of five secular and Christian agencies revealed a wide range of membership fees from £40 per year to £700 plus VAT. Naturally, the price reflects huge variations in the type of service. While some offer mailing lists and web site connections, others provide one-to-one interviews and selections and a guaranteed number of introductions within 12 months. At the cheaper end of the scale is 31-year-old Lola Aluko’s business. Married for seven years with two young children, Lola set up Divine Appointments 18 months ago , and offers introductions for a £40 annual fee. “A lot of people say to me that whether they’re in a large or small church, they find it difficult to meet people on a one-to-one basis. Lots of women have told me that Christian men are not chatty, they’re not bold enough to come and talk to them. Single men need a spirit of boldness.” Catering mainly for women aged between late thirties and 50, Lola has a burden for the single person, struggling to fit in with a family-oriented church. Often churches addresses family issues to the exclusion of single people. That was also my experience before I got married.” While Lola puts few limitations on her match making work, other agencies adopt a more strategic approach, focusing on professional, career-minded clientele.

Ian Gregory, author of No Sex Please We’re Single has just launched introduction agency ‘Choices’ as a branch of his black-tie social events company ‘Simple Ideas’. With a full-time staff of three and offices in Mayfair, Choices is described by Ian as “ the Rolls Royce of Christian agencies”, the “antidote” to all others in the field. He is confident that with the right matching technique, successful Christian relationships can be established. “In church everyone’s watching you. It’s like being in a goldfish bowl. Creating the right environment for one-to-one meetings is very important. Many of the Christian agencies that have operated in the last 15 to 20 years have been utterly cringe worthy. “They have become nerd or anorak magnets. You don’t want to be introduced to people who are social misfits. You want to go out with Christians of similar intellect , geographical location and backgrounds. Then you give a relationship a chance.” With a £245 yearly membership fee, Choices is primarily aimed at London and Home Counties professionals aged between 25 and 45. Already on the books since its launch in October are two millionaires, a judge and a Paris-based businessman. “These are together guys,” Ian boasts. “They are simply busy professionals who haven’t had time to start a relationship. We don’t send them people that they won’t be interested in meeting. “In the same way, we don’t offer a woman with a PhD a mechanic. We believe strongly that incompatible Christians form unequally yoked marriages, in just the same way as a Christian and a non-Christian getting together.” Within the companies’ different policies, a common strand emerges of a clear need for open-mindedness in that search for Mr Right.

Kate Corbitt, senior director of nationwide secular agency Sirius, thinks preconceived attitudes have to be challenged. “The two questions most commonly asked are, why haven’t I met someone in the normal way, and are all the guys going to be three feet tall with green hair. “The fact is that working life has changed. People are working longer hours, and moving all over the country with their jobs. If you work for a multi national, you can often be seconded to another office for a few months at a time. There is no normal way to meet someone any more. “But people’s values are the same and they still want to meet a life-long partner. In the next 10 years, we are going to have to more open to using dating agencies, and I believe it will become as common place as joining the gym.”