The house lights were dim. A DJ was churning out a groove that prompted the well-dressed crowd to pulse in a unified rhythm on the dance floor, while others sank into the plush couches because the conversation was too sweet to quit.
The 21-Plus Lounge could be on H Street in the District, Georgetown or any urban strip. But the club, which strutted its stuff for only a few fleeting hours on Friday night, was in the foyer of the Ebenezer African Methodist Episcopal Church in Fort Washington, an extension of the church’s singles ministry. After the Valentine’s get-together, the couches are history, probably until next year. And the dance floor, too.
“The goal . . . is to allow Christian young adults to fellowship with each other in an upscale setting,” said Rev. Vernon Ware, senior minister for young adults at Ebenezer. “The Bible said David danced out of his clothes. That wasn’t in a church service.”
Many churches and other houses of worship in the Washington region are playing a key role in the dating game, counseling singles and hosting social events, and often nudging them to turn away from rowdy clubs and online dating and to return to go-slow roads to romance.
In the District, the Washington Hebrew Congregation has so many events for young adults and singles that it divides them into three categories: strictly social, religious social and social justice, said Rabbi Aaron Miller. McLean Bible Church has young-adult ministries, comprised of many singles, at four venues, along with a popular podcast, led by John McGowan, pastor of the program.
Megachurches appear especially active, with pews full of the uncoupled, and some have full-time staffers for young adults and the singles ministry. On the other side of the equation, it’s not unheard-of for singles to “church shop” to find desirable dates.
The churches have their work cut out for them. At Ebenezer, more than a third of the church’s 8,000 members are single. Some have already been counseled about nurturing healthy relationships and putting off sex until marriage, among other concerns. And Friday’s pop-up nightclub event, “Love and Happiness!,” started off with a panel of relationship experts who offered advice on relationships from a Christian perspective.
The focus on propriety hardly faded amid the dancing. The crowd of 20- and 30-somethings — there were more than 350 last year, and about 500 were expected on Friday — was being watched. Church officials monitored the party, ready to step in if necessary. A video camera was also keeping an eye out.
“There are many challenges to being a godly single,” said Ware, who is divorced. He offers straight talk as well as Bible lessons, more of a warning than an order.
“The problem is, sex doesn’t give you intimacy,” he said in a later interview, echoing a common message to singles. “More times than not, it will not satisfy. Intimacy comes from the relationship. You have to be careful. . . . Don’t show everything.”
Such admonitions put off some singles.
“What is being taught in these churches is one-sided and not realistic,” said Sophia Nelson, author of “Black Women Redefined.” “The Bible is very clear that sex outside of marriage is wrong, but what women are being taught is to be nuns without taking vows.”
She believes there is often a double standard. “If all you are doing is telling the women to be chaste and to wait and you let the men run around, then you are not accomplishing anything,” said Nelson, who is single.
Dana Carl, a member of Metropolitan Baptist Church in the District who has attended church-sponsored singles events, sees the upside of singles ministries. “In general it’s a good thing . . . because church is not just [about] worship,” she said.
But Carl added that she doesn’t “rule out finding friends at events outside the church, because there are no guarantees.”
Brian Crutcher, 30, is local coordinator of the National Christian Singles Seminar, to be held in the District in August. He also works to connect singles at his church, the 60-member Georgia Avenue Church of Christ, with other Church of Christ churches in the area. As for himself, he is preparing with a more Biblical approach.
“The Bible says in Matthew 6:33 to “seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you,” including marriage, Crutcher said.
Others have put the pursuit of a partner on the back burner.
Renette Dallas, a lay minister, naturopathic doctor and fitness trainer, said she is often asked why she isn’t married.
“When I was 20, I wanted to be a millionaire; I fell in love,” said Dallas, who ministers weekly to residents at the Washington Home. “Now, I don’t look for a husband. I look for friends. My number one qualification for any man is that he fear God.”
The Rev. Grainger Browning, who leads Ebenezer with his wife, the Rev. JoAnn Browning, said times have changed since he met her at a Cambridge, Mass., pancake house in 1979.
“The reality is, persons are not interacting face to face anymore,” he said.
JoAnn Browning praised time-honored methods. “Nothing can replace eye-to-eye contact and sitting across the table and having a conversation with someone,” she said.