Mar 11, 2002

From the Archives

A Revealing Look at Three Unique Single Adult Populations

More than four out of every ten adults in the United States is not married, producing a singles population that is larger than the total national population of all but eleven of the world’s 192 nations. But a new book about single adults written by researcher George Barna contends that thinking of single adults as one, unified group is inadvisable.

Your Leadership Toolkit

Strengthen your message, train your team and grow your church with cultural insights and practical resources, all in one place.

“There are three major groups which must be studied separately to truly understand singles,” Barna explained. “The never-been-married group, which is the largest singles subset, is the youngest, most active and most optimistic of the three segments. Divorced adults are typically middle-aged and have completely different needs, goals, expectations and issues. Widowed adults tend to be primarily female, are generally in their sixties and beyond, and possess an entirely different view on the future than do their younger, single counterparts. All three groups are single, but the route to singlehood and their perspectives and lifestyles suggest that it is inappropriate to think of or to treat all singles alike.”

Barna indicated that those who have never been married make up the lion’s share of America’s 82 million single adults, representing nearly six out of every ten singles. Adults who are currently divorced are one-quarter of the singles population, while widowed adults form the remaining one-sixth. Whereas men slightly outnumber women among those who have never been married and divorced women slightly outnumber divorced men, widowed women dwarf widowed men by a 4.3-to-1 ratio.

Religious Practices

Barna found that faith plays a significant – and changing – role in the lives of singles. Substantial majorities of each of the three dominant singles segments say they are “spiritual.” Most single adults – about four out of five – think of themselves as Christian, although their depth of commitment to the Christian faith varies considerably.

One portion of the book describes how single adults relate to eight primary spiritual emphases. Across-the-board, worship was perceived to be the most significant spiritual undertaking, followed by learning about the content of one’s faith. The aspects of spiritual experience deemed least important by single adults were evangelism, relationships with others who belong to the same faith group, and material stewardship. The statistics outlined in the book show the substantial distinctions in the views of each singles niche in relation to these priorities.

Other data described by Barna examined the religious practices of singles during a typical week. The only activity measured that a majority engages in during a typical week is prayer. In contrast, just one-third of the unmarried population attends church services during a typical week, and the same proportion reads from the Bible other than at church. Fewer singles volunteer at a church, attend a Sunday school class, or participate in a small group or cell group during an average week. In general, widowed adults are most active in a range of religious pursuits and the never-been-married individuals ranked lowest, although Barna points out the specific factors that distinguish each group from the other.

The research regarding donation patterns revealed that most never-been-marrieds do not give money to any causes or organizations. Among the divorced and never-married people who donate money during the year, they are nearly as likely to give to non-church entities as to support a church; in contrast, an overwhelming majority of the funds donated by married adults go to churches.

Your Leadership Toolkit

Strengthen your message, train your team and grow your church with cultural insights and practical resources, all in one place.

Religious Beliefs

Single adults hold different faith views than do married people. Just two out of three single adults have an orthodox, biblical view of God. One of the many beliefs that Barna’s research examined was the idea “if a person is basically good, or does enough good things for other people he or she will earn their way into Heaven.” A majority of single adults adopt that view of life after death.

Further research regarding salvation discovered that even though six out of ten single adults said they have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their lives these days, only a little more than half of them are certain they will go to Heaven after they die solely because they have confessed their sins and have accepted Jesus to be their savior. In other words, only one-third of single adults (35%) have become “born again” – that is, they no longer trust in their own good deeds as a means to reconciliation with God, but rely completely upon God’s grace for their eternal destiny. Never-been-married adults are the least likely to meet the “born again” criteria. In fact, single adults from all three segments are less likely to be born again than are married people. Barna also reports that Hispanic singles are less likely to be born again (22%) than are white (35%) or black (48%) singles.

Single adults are skeptical of many biblical teachings. Among the ideas they are likely to reject are the existence of the Holy Spirit and Satan. Most single adults contend that both of those supernatural beings are simply literary symbols used in the Bible for effect.

Born Again Singles

The one-third of all single adults who fit the born again criteria that is used in Barna’s surveys were generally similar in values and lifestyles to those who were not born again. For instance, both groups were equally likely to be “stressed out,” searching for meaning and purpose in life, struggling with financial pressures, and struggling with personal relationships.

However, the born again contingent did possess various distinctives. They are more conservative on social and political matters and have notably divergent moral views and behaviors.

Perhaps the biggest area of difference relates to theological perspectives. Christians are much more likely to contend that the Bible is accurate, to describe themselves as “spiritual” and as “absolutely committed” to Christianity, to firmly believe that God created the universe and that Jesus is alive today. Born again singles were much more likely to strongly disagree that a good person can earn salvation, that all of the major faith groups teach the same lessons, that Jesus never had a physical resurrection, that Jesus committed sins, that Satan is symbolic but not real and that the Holy Spirit is symbolic but not real.

Your Leadership Toolkit

Strengthen your message, train your team and grow your church with cultural insights and practical resources, all in one place.

Singles and the Future

Barna indicated that things would continue to change for single adults. “The balance within the singles population will continue to shift, since the number of people 65 and older will double in the coming thirty years, producing an explosion of widowed people.” The researcher outlined other trends he foresees, as well. “Our racial and ethnic patterns lead us to believe that there will be continued increases in divorce and children born out-of-wedlock. Despite the heightened optimism of young adults regarding their future marriage and family experiences, we also expect continued growth in the acceptance and practice of co-habitation.”

Single Adults provides a foundation of understanding the three very different populations whose distinctions are generally overlooked. In addition to a substantial focus on the religious and spiritual dimension of single adult life, the book explores the relational lifecycle, self-image, life satisfaction, spending priorities, entertainment preferences, relationships, sexuality, career emphases, technology ownership and usage, personal goals, moral views and behaviors, and core values of each of the dominant singles groups.

Single Adults is no longer available from The Barna Group.

About Barna

Since 1984, Barna Group has conducted more than two million interviews over the course of thousands of studies and has become a go-to source for insights about faith, culture, leadership, vocation and generations. Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization.

Get Barna in your inbox

Subscribe to Barna’s free newsletters for the latest data and insights to navigate today’s most complex issues.