"I think I may have raised my daughter to be lonely." That's what a friend of mine said during our conversation about the seeming famine of eligible Christian men. We were seated around a huge oak dining table, eating dinner with six single women and talking about the challenges they face in our culture.
Included in the conversation — seated directly opposite my friend — was her daughter. I tried to gauge her expression following her mom's pronouncement. How does she maintain faith in the face of such doubt? I wondered. She's a beautiful 22-year-old with long dark hair and blue eyes. Surely the other gals around the table felt in her shadow, If she's not likely to marry, what hope is there for me?
Why would a mom think her lovely, smart, talented eligible young daughter is doomed to a life of unwanted singleness?
Maybe it has something to do with our perception of single men — specifically, the lack of them. Popular singles writers have cited a Barna finding about Christian women outnumbering Christian men. And in this case, it's no small gap. The number I've heard and seen is that there are between 11-13 million MORE Christian women than there are single Christian men. Shocking.
A few weeks after the dinner I was talking to another friend who was writing an article about the challenges single women face. She was trying to respond to the charge that because there are so many more Christian women than men, "I've heard between 11-13 million more!" (there's that Barna number again), maybe we should set aside the prohibition against marrying nonbelievers in favor of the Genesis creation mandate to marry and be fruitful and multiply. "Given the lack of men," she asked, "should we be encouraging single women to simply find a nice, moral, but unsaved man to marry?"
Finally, this week I received an email from a Boundless reader with the same question. She too cited the figure from pollster George Barna that my writer friend had been given.
That number kind of reminds me of the stat about how many wives and girlfriends purportedly get hit by their abusive husbands and boyfriends on Super Bowl Sunday. Those stories sent feminists through the roof. And I suspect they went a long way toward raising money for battered women's organizations. After all, how could people not be mobilized to act knowing so many women are being abused? Trouble is, the stat wasn't true.
People acted on the shock value alone. I guess they were too stunned by how horrible it sounded to take the time to check on its veracity.
The shock value of the purported Barna stat is enough to send me to snopes.com. Before the number takes on mythic proportions — and one more single woman uses it to justify her despair — I have to set the record straight.
Barna on Barna
So what does Barna himself say about single men and women? According to his website, as of the year 2000:
The survey data show that nearly half of the nation's women have beliefs which classify them as born again (46%), compared to just about one-third of men (36%). In other words, there are between 11 million and 13 million more born again women than there are born again men in the country.
The first thing I noticed is that Barna is talking about ALL Christian men and women — not just singles. The second is that the stat is outdated. It was published in 2000 and Barna's 2006 numbers show the gap is narrowing. Even though the percentage of born-again women has swelled to 49 percent, the percentage of men has grown too: up 5 points to 41 percent of men who describe themselves as born again. That change alone shrinks the deficit between Christian men and women to something like 10 million.
So, who are those 10 million women? Are they the young never-married women who feel outnumbered at church? The ones citing these depressing stats? When you look more closely at the numbers, you find that almost all of the gap between the number of Christian men and women is simply due to healthy women outliving their husbands. That great gap is primarily made up of widows. In fact, Christian widows outnumber Christian widowers 4 to 1.
Another category in which Christian women outnumber Christian men is the divorced — but even that gap is much more modest. See the following chart:
So what about Christians who have never married? The surprising reality is that there are more men than women — a lot more. The 2006 Statistical Abstract of the United States identified 29,561,000 never-married men compared to 23,655,000 never-married women — that's almost 6 million more never-married men than women.
If you apply Barna's most recent faith percentages to the totals for never-marrieds, you come up with 12,120,000 never-married Christian men for 11,590,000 never-married Christian women — a variance of 1,530,000 more Christian men. See the following chart:
You may wonder if that's true of only some age categories — if the surplus of men only exists on college campuses; among twentysomethings but not elsewhere. Surprisingly, the only age segment where never-married women outnumber never-married men is among those 75 and older — which is also tied to greater life expectancy for women.
Yet every time I've heard the "more women than men" stat cited, it's been in the context of never-married women bemoaning their chances of finding a mate. If we're trying to get a sense of a never-married Christian woman's probability of getting married to a Christian man, we've got to honestly (and I'd say thankfully) admit women have the advantage.
A Matter of Faith
I feel like celebrating: Never-married Christian women don't outnumber never-married Christian men. But what if that stat were true? Or what if, on a more personal note, it seems true in your life? What if you're the only never-married single under 40 in your church and you work with the elderly or teach preschool and live in a small town? What if there aren't any prospects in your world? And more importantly, doesn't any disparity between the sexes mean some women — or men — who want to marry won't, simply because there aren't enough spouses to go around?
There have always been anecdotal reasons to doubt the likelihood of getting married. A seeming disproportionate number of women to men is nothing new. Consider the prospects for unmarried women in 1865 following the deaths of 620,000 soldiers in the Civil War. What about the single women worldwide after World Wars I and II? They had plenty of reason to doubt. By 1918 9 million soldiers had died and by 1945, military deaths numbered as high as 25 million. And yet for all the shortages of marriageable men, whether real or imagined, the age of first time marriages was much lower then than it is now, and the same percentage of people got married then as now. Historically 85-90 percent of Americans eventually marry. Ninety percent!
You have every reason to hope for marriage. You just have to keep your focus in the right place.
Never-married women are a lot like Peter walking on the water. Having confirmed that it was Jesus, and not a ghost, coming toward them, Peter had the confidence to get out of the boat and join Him in a miraculous stroll. "But when he saw the wind," the Scripture says, "he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, 'Lord, save me!' Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. 'You of little faith,' he said, 'why did you doubt?'"
It wasn't that the wind suddenly appeared to throw Peter off, the storm had been raging, but that he suddenly shifted his focus from Jesus to the weather. He lost sight of what was most important — God's presence in the midst of the storm.
Blaming our current problem of protracted singleness on "not enough men," "lack of male initiative," "men with unreasonable expectations,"1 or any other probable cause is like shifting our gaze from Christ to the stormy weather. It's no wonder so many women are discouraged. From appearances, things look bleak.
Thankfully we have more to go on than appearances. God is still God. He designed us for marriage and despite all the roadblocks our culture puts between us and the altar, He's still in the business of "setting the lonely in families." He hasn't rescinded the Creation Mandate to be fruitful and multiply. His solution to man's loneliness is still a wife — the suitable helper. He's still in the business of making good matches. And no matter what happens in any one woman's life, He's still able.
This is not to say women don't have a part to play in God's plan for marriage. Or that men are doing everything right. Yes, men need to be more active in pursuing us ("He who finds a wife finds what is good and receives favor from the LORD"). They need to be preparing to be providers and protectors and make sure they are not taking advantage of their sisters in Christ. And women need to do a better job of preparing to be helpers, esteeming marriage, seeking out mentors for Godly counsel and practicing modesty.
But at least we now know we can move on from the fallacy that there simply aren't enough men to go around. The real question is, where are they? Barna's study did find that more single women than single men are in church. So we're left wondering how to find them. If all these Christian men aren't in church on Sunday morning, what are single Christian women who want to marry supposed to do?
That's a question I'll come back to next month.
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- Even this is an illegitimate claim. There's no evidence that women are any less guilty when it comes to unrealistic expectations. According the National Marriage Project there is "no significant gender gap" between the number of men and women who are holding out for a "soul mate."