She says

I have developed a nervous tic. In this, my 25th year of being single, I have started to check men’s wedding ring fingers. This is not confined to men I fancy, either. Oh no. I do it indiscriminately. I do it to men I’m talking to, men who pass me in the street, men sitting next to me on the Tube...

Of course, in a Christian setting, the possibility of the finger in question being naked is highly unlikely. Over the age of 22 they’re almost certainly hitched. For this reason, among others, I have never gone out with a Christian. It’s not so much that I wouldn’t like to, it’s more that I’m trying to be realistic.

Someone asked me the other day, Bridget Jones-style, ‘Why are there so many wonderful, kind, gifted, beautiful, single Christian women?’ It’s hardly the riddle of the sphinx. If women outnumber men in most churches (which they certainly do), and lots of them want to wait for a Christian man to marry (which they certainly do), then...well. They’ll probably be waiting a long time. I’ve never had any desire to fight over the available guys at church, constantly surrounded as they are by a flock of adoring women.

At least, this was my view until recently. Lately I’ve sort of been having some thoughts. Thoughts such as, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to be with someone who had the same ideas and ideals as me?’ Thoughts such as, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to go out with someone who respected and shared my faith, rather than ignored it or dismissed it as “cute”?’

The thing is, if, like me, you didn’t take the ‘approved’ route to Christianity – Sunday school, youth group, Christian Union, with no wobbles or crises of faith along the way – there is a feeling of having missed the boat somewhat. Some of my friends were fully paid-up evangelicals by the time they went to university; they joined the CU, mingled with other clean-cut, attractive Christians, didn’t drink too much, got defensive about the Bible and made sure they had picked out a suitable mate by Christmas. The wedding invitations started to arrive the year after we graduated, and they haven’t stopped since. This is not a criticism of those people by any means, but I can’t help thinking: ‘What about the rest of us? What about those of us who didn’t have it all sewn up, who skirted around the periphery, who only came to Christianity later on?’

Help is out there, apparently, in the form of Christian dating books. Do they hold the key?

Courtship vs Dating

First lesson I’ve learned? On dating, we are consistently inconsistent. 20 First Dates (Authentic) by Rebecca K Maddox encourages you to date anyone and everyone on the basis that God can’t do all the legwork for you, while Boy Meets Girl (Multnomah Press) (the follow-up to Josh Harris’ best-selling I Kissed Dating Goodbye) says you should shun dating and wait on romance until you’re ready for marriage. Maddox’s premise is that by dating 20 different men she meets in 20 different ways, she will have a better shot at finding ‘Mr Right’. Stating the obvious maybe, but nonetheless I attempted a few of her suggestions.

  1. Look in my own church. This is a slightly unnecessary tip, because if you’ve got to the point where you are reading 20 First Dates for inspiration, you have probably considered (or dated) and dismissed every single man at your church. Even so, I went so far as to purchase a date with the only eligible bachelor at our church. We had a charity auction of promises, and the guy offered Italian lessons. I ended up bidding my entire month’s food budget, but I won. ‘Maybe we’ll get married in Italy!’ I thought…but our second lesson brought me down to earth with a crash when he brought along the (non-Christian) girl he was dating. Cancel the imaginary Italian chapel, return the imaginary wedding dress, get back the deposit for the imaginary caterers etc.
  2. Friend’s recommendation. Yes, I went on a blind date. Well, for me it was blind – he had the advantage of picking me from the line-up of single girls my friend showed him on Facebook. He was perfectly nice (as any friend of my friend was bound to be), but there was no spark. Or so I thought...Apparently for him there were sparks aplenty; he couldn’t understand how I didn’t feel ‘it’ too. There was an awkward conversation, my friend was put in an awkward position; awkwardness really was the watchword of the whole encounter.
  3. Internet dating. This has had a makeover in recent years and is no longer considered the haunt of people who don’t have good enough social skills to meet people ‘normally’. I dipped a toe in the water, going through the cringe-making process of writing a profile, uploading photos and waiting for someone who didn’t come across as an axe murderer to drop me a line. I went on quite a few dates, and met quite a few nice people. The only problem I found was that dating this way is like interviewing for a job you’re not even sure you want – the position of future girlfriend/wife – and it takes all spontaneity and romance out of the proceedings. And, as with everything Christian, the girls outnumber the boys. The girls are gorgeous, there are hundreds of them. The boys are mostly, well, a bit dorky. You get the distinct impression that the halfway decent men are absolutely inundated with requests from women trying to appear casual, and any of the women that don’t look like supermodels get ignored.

So what about getting with someone by not dating? This is based on the idea that you should not be in a relationship with anyone unless you are seriously considering marrying them. Therefore instead of dating, you begin courting someone on a path that very clearly leads to the altar. The problem for me is that I don’t think I could start thinking about marriage before I started going out with someone. Nor do I think it’s sinful or a waste of time to have a relationship when marriage is not the intended goal from the outset. But the idea of embarking on something with the distinct aim of not playing games with each other is refreshing. In fact, it sounds amazing – not wondering if you’ll ever hear from someone again, not having to pretend you’re not that fussed when you can’t stop thinking about them. Impossible to do, though, unless the man in question is also a card-carrying member of the ‘courting, not dating’ school of thought. And how do you establish that before you’ve even been for a drink? You can’t.

Young Love vs Been Around the Block

Onto the next contenders, Ted Cunningham’s controversial Young and in Love which advocates early marriage, up against Vicky Walker’s Do I Have To Be Good All The Time? (David C Cook), a collection of reminiscences and life lessons from an established Christian single who believes in waiting for the right person.

Cunningham makes some interesting points, including encouraging men to ask women out (no bad thing), advocating a competitive dating scene, advising you to consider that ‘I Do’ might sometimes be a better option than ‘Just Don’t’. The trouble is, with your first love you’re bound to think you’ll be together forever, because you’ve never experienced anything like these feelings for someone before – you’re blinded to all the ways they might not be a suitable choice for a lifelong partner.

I was madly in love with my first beau, and if I had followed my heart, I would have married him after six months. Six years on, I’m fairly certain I would be crying myself to sleep each night, wondering why on earth I tied myself to this person before I knew anything about life. The theory is all well and good, but most people just aren’t capable of picking apart passionate feelings from a more logical analysis of whether you’re well-suited for one another at that age.

Moving onto an exploration of the waiting game. Do I Have To Be Good All The Time? is a book about being single in Church, and the pitfalls Christians can fall prey to when it comes to relationships. It is refreshing to read someone writing openly and honestly about the problems of singles in Church, while not advocating that you skip down the aisle with the first fellow who asks you out. It also looks at temptation in this area – which many Christians I’ve come across seem to pretend they don’t experience. Well, I certainly do. It’s so rare that I feel a connection with someone that I have a tendency to simply turn a blind eye to all the ways they will probably be bad for me, including spiritually. Walker talks about being tempted by non- Christians, pursuing relationships which are doomed from the outset in her eyes, and it occurs to me that this is what I’ve been doing all my life: convincing myself that God wouldn’t make me fancy someone if he didn’t want me to be with them. Which, let’s be honest, is merely a way of justifying doing something I want to do, regardless of the consequences.

Whose Line is it Anyway?

Perhaps the one problem I’ve been experiencing all along has been an inability to distinguish between God’s desires for me, and my desires for myself.
How can you tell the difference? In Eric and Leslie Ludy’s famous guide,When God Writes Your Love Story, (Multnomah Books) it instructs you to give God the pen. But I’m never completely certain if it’s me or God doing the writing, or a bit of both. I was convinced that, during a rocky patch during my last serious dalliance, God spoke to me, telling me to stick it out. Nine months later I had my heart broken, and wondered whether it was actually God or me who had made that decision.

I’m still not sure what I should be doing, even less so having researched what Christians have to say on the subject. I’ve been told to actively pursue, to hold back and wait, to get swept away by love, to only date if I’m intending marriage, to be proactive, to be patient. And that’s in the space of just a few books. There’s no clear, consistent message of how to handle singleness (a lot of it is smug, patronising or unrealistic). I found it hard to connect with a lot of it, but perhaps that just confirmed what I already knew – being a young(ish) single girl is not something that the Church finds that easy to address, but it may be unfair of me to expect it to.

He says...

Being a young, single, erudite Christian bloke is easy. There are far more Christian girls than guys, there’s no need to put any effort in at all. Just turn up to church on a Sunday, and you’re instantly the most sought-after prize on offer. Such is the dearth of men in our churches that what I consider my selling points (dress sense, hilarious sense of humour and rugged facial hair) are surplus to requirements. The combination of my faith and Y chromosome should be enough to get me married in no time.

Or not.

In reality, I’ve no idea what to do when it comes to women. Especially when I like someone. I make inappropriate comments, chuck in too many oblique cultural references in order to appear worldly wise and compensate for an absence of natural charm with clumsily delivered ‘ironic’ compliments.

Somehow, more through trial and error than anything else, I’ve ended up attached. She’s brilliant, I’m happy, but we seem to be regarded with a degree of consternation by those around us. This may come as a shock, but I’ve no desire to get hitched any time soon. I’m actually happily unmarried, content without offspring and don’t feel incomplete sleeping alone. My relationship is great, but I’m 23 years old.

So that leaves me in a kind of No Man’s Land, striving for a degree of integrity in a world where the Church is often silent or reactionary. Books aimed at Christian blokes in this area tend to say two things: ‘put a ring on it’ or ‘stop looking at her like that’. Meanwhile the rest of the world is telling me to have lots of fun (and sex) now, and worry about commitment sometime in the next 15 years.

It’s early days for my girlfriend and I, but at some point there are going to be issues we’ll have to deal with, from the trivial to the potentially relationship-ending – differences of opinion over how we spend our time, whose parents we go to for Christmas, views of ‘male headship’ in relationships, who would win in a fight between Batman and Superman. How well is the Church supporting couples like us as we work through stuff like this?

Learning from Marriage

In the absence of many relationship books (aside from the ‘don’t have sex’ variety), I turned to a few marriage books to see if there were any principles I could apply.

Mark and Grace Driscoll’s Real Marriage (Thomas Nelson) is a book which catalogues various sexual activities and lets you know whether they should be permitted or not (all within marriage, obviously). While this is a good guide, and a starting point, it seems somewhat odd to take one couple’s view of sexual norms and stick rigidly to it.

Rather than narrowing down our sexuality to what we should and shouldn’t do, Rob Bell’s Sex God (Zondervan) examines the overlap between the spiritual and sexual. He looks at how we are all innately sexual beings and how the angst that surrounds our approach to relationships mirrors our heavenly relationship with God. His image of God’s risky love for us being like a guy asking a girl to dance is poignant. But here’s the problem: while this is all well and good, it doesn’t offer any honest advice on how this works in the real world. The ideas inside are transformative, but in reality the work is left for the reader to decide what this looks like to them.

Somewhere between the two is Tim Keller’s The Meaning of Marriage(Hodder & Stoughton) which talks about the spirituality of marriage, offers some honest, practical advice but does so while talking openly about sex, eroticism and, perhaps most importantly, singleness. While Bell’s book leaves all the work to you, and Driscoll tells you exactly how to live, Keller finds the middle ground while eloquently exploring the spiritual nature of our existence as sexual beings.

So was this a good tactic? It’s going to sound obvious, but the problem with looking to marriage books is they assume a level of commitment and finality in our relationship which just doesn’t apply to us at the moment. The search goes on.

Pursuit of Purity

We have to talk about sex. It’s a massive issue for unmarried Christian couples, even more so these days as it’s expected by the rest of the world that you’ll have sex. A friend of mine went with his girlfriend to stay with her non-Christian parents, who were appalled and confused that they asked for separate bedrooms. It’s bizarre, anomalous and countercultural not to do it. Even if you’re absolutely resolved on this issue, many have to fight the nagging suspicion that they’re missing out, or that the relationship is somehow incomplete because of the absence of sex. And there are still the heat-of-the-moment temptations and frustrations of sticking to the decision.

Then there’s the whole other can of worms of how far you can go, and where the appropriate boundaries are, which no one seems to be clear on. I definitely believe sex is for marriage. But how much grace and wisdom is afforded to people who believe that, but struggle to live it out? Or who think sex is ok in unmarried relationships? The answer is, not much. It’s very difficult to find anything which talks about sex without being hysterical.

Hayley DiMarco’s Technical Virgin (Revell) is one example of this. It’s written for teenage girls, and paints blokes in the most extraordinary light – as wild sexual predators, only after one thing. DiMarco seems to suggest that any situation in which it could be assumed that you are having sex is tantamount to intercourse; this goes from falling asleep on the sofa (even hugging on the sofa), through to holding hands while walking down the street. Now call me a sex-obsessed heathen, but this seems a tad extreme. It all seems to boil down to the idea that any kind of physical contact will inevitably lead to sex (sample quote: ‘Once you start groping, oral sex is just a zipper pull away.’)

In essence, too much of the writing in this area tried to scare unmarried Christians into celibacy by threat of STIs, pregnancy or God’s condemnation rather than giving them any positive reasons to abstain.

Dating and Marriage

There’s some plain odd dating advice out there, from bizarre suggestions for a first date (taking a girl fishing – really?), to heaping unnecessary pressure on a guy during the date (sample quote: ‘Your mission this Date Night is to teach the girl about how to find God in everything.’) I find it hard enough to pick a nice place to eat. Part of the joy of a date is getting to know the other person better. I absolutely want God to be involved, but surely there is a middle ground between first-date sex and an opening encounter sermon?

More serious than this is the ‘all dates should lead to marriage’ narrative which pervades so much of the dating literature. Often churches seem to divide people into two categories, ‘married’ and ‘single,’ and if there’s any acknowledgement of those somewhere in between, there’s an unspoken understanding that marriage is where it’s headed. It doesn’t place any value on the enjoyment you get from dating for dating’s sake.

The overarching messages of ‘find the right person’ and ‘don’t do anything inappropriate’ miss the joy of going out with someone, when in fact searching for the ‘one’, as stressful and difficult as it is, can be cherished, rather than rushed.

The linked question here is the unwritten rule about how quickly Christian couples rush down the aisle (watch me try not to write in capitals ‘IT’S BECAUSE THEY WANT TO HAVE SEX’ in this paragraph). But in reality, the pressure of sex, coupled with the importance put on marriage in Christian circles, means that a short gap between first date and nuptials is inevitable. Ted Cunningham’s Young and in Love (which Helen mentioned earlier) doesn’t see this as an issue; in fact, he encourages couples to get married sooner rather than later. He aims to combat many of the things that might get in the way of a quick marriage and, as with many Christians, ignores the joy that single life, or dating, can provide. Unnecessary pressure to get married can cause issues and far more heartache further down the line.

The Problem of Silence

There are countless other issues in which we fail to adequately speak to this emerging generation. For one, how do we prepare young Christian couples for sex? You know, the physical act. Not the airy-fairy concept that everything is sexual, I mean the nitty-gritty.

Another is breaking up. Perhaps the reason it’s never mentioned is that in the sometimes fairytale Christian narrative of saving yourself and finding ‘the one’, it’s not meant to happen. In reality, life isn’t that simple and there may come a point where the relationship needs to end. I’ve never come across a sermon advising me how to go about such a delicate act, and only one book The Dirt on Breaking Up (though that seemed more aimed at teenagers).

I’m not sure I’ve ever been told that it is acceptable to break up with someone, let alone how to do it in a way that minimises hurt on both sides and honours God.

Well, what have I learned? Christian books on the subject seem to advise on finding a partner and not getting them pregnant before you get married, but the rest is up to me.

Perhaps the most worrying aspect of this is that it may indicate a wider gap in our teaching: how well are we ministering to this generation that we appear to be losing? Are we so ignorant of wider culture that we are unable to properly speak into the emerging generation’s lives without shouting

‘DON’T DO THAT’? I hope that’s not the case, but I fear it is.