Many years ago, I had the honor of serving on the women’s ministry team at my church. Life circumstances prevented me from making it a long-term commitment, but the stint gave me a little peek into women’s ministry and discipleship at-large. One of the most memorable things was the leaders conference our team attended. Speakers gave insights into philosophies, programs, and outreaches for women’s ministries, all geared to nurture and grow the offering for the women in your own church.
Although I don’t remember all the details, one session I attended covered current trends in ministry, including the downward trend in participation. Women’s teams across the nation had reported in a research study that fewer women were involved in the Bible studies, social gatherings, and programs that had long been the backbone of women’s ministries. The reason the speaker gave for this change isn’t surprising: The needs and interests of women have changed, and women’s ministries will have to adapt to a new audience.
Whereas previous generations may have looked to the church’s scheduled events to get their social needs met, today’s women aren’t dependent upon these gatherings to see their friends. We have social media. There’s also a stronger understanding between young parents that both moms and dads need social time away from home; in short, women facilitate their own social activities today. With regular socializing already happening apart from the church, the church’s offering is just one of many options to be selected if the calendar is open that night.
Because really, if church activities for women are primarily social, and women already have their social needs met, why would they add another engagement to already-full calendars?
Another problem is that many women who are gifted teachers and have a desire to invest in the spiritual formation of women are unable to do that professionally, under the church umbrella. (This is primarily true for more traditionally leaning churches, of course.) Enter the Internet, the blogosphere, and the conference circuit.
The marketplace for female spiritual teachers has exploded, fueled by Christian women who are longing to hear solid biblical teaching and to be challenged in their spiritual lives by gifted female teachers. Since the church has been slow to employ women in this way, the locus of influence has shifted away from the church to the platforms found online, on conference stages, and on bookshelves. (In contrast, gifted male teachers have a clear, direct path within the church to use their gifts through speaking, teaching, and writing, and it’s all available under the covering of the local church.)
These new platforms are where many female writers, teachers, and personalities find a legitimate place to nurture and encourage women in their Christian faith. There is much good happening here. (I would be remiss to acknowledge that my use of this blog platform and the release of my first book fall into this realm, and my connection to a local body is necessary for my personal spiritual well-being and as a safeguard for those who take in my words.) However, there is also plenty of disappointing, vapid content. Several friends have shared stories supporting this, and they live in different states and attend churches of different denominations. These women attest to their study groups selecting the trending book-of-the-season and find it high on entertainment but low on substance (or low on both). Sadly, these friends also admit they have stepped away from such groups because popularity of platform overrides quality of content when selecting the next book.
The downside to these para-church platforms and the content they produce is that, in essence, the church has outsourced women’s discipleship, thereby relinquishing its role in the spiritual formation of half the church.
This dilemma bubbled up after the recent uproar regarding statements by author Jen Hatmaker on her approval of same sex marriage. The reactions that ensued—from her mass of followers and from many pastors who said, Jen who?—point to more than a cultural shift in marriage. As people took sides on social media and news outlets, the discussion revealed something deeper about the power and influence the Christian marketplace has upon us all. The business of Christian thought is being bought and sold us; we must know what we are consuming and the church must step in to provide the guidance to this half of its members.
With all this in mind, Hannah Anderson and I recorded this episode of Persuasion: “The Outsourcing of Women’s Discipleship to Para-Church Personalities.” We tackle the state of women’s discipleship today, how it got this way, and some steps forward from here. I hope you’ll take the time to listen and join the conversation, either here or on social media.
So what do we do?
First, let me clarify that many churches (mine included) seek to invest in the spiritual development and formation of their female members. Second, let me also stress that the problem isn’t about women writing books or having a measure of influence in the larger Christian community.
What needs to be addressed is the role the church plays in the spiritual lives of women. Women aren’t needing more social engagements. Women do need, and want, in-depth biblical teaching that spurs them on to maturity as well as to love and good deeds. Spiritual formation must be at the heart, including all the disciplines—from teaching to prayer to outreach—so the beauty of the gospel comes to bear in our hearts, homes, and communities in tangible ways. We also need a place within the church construct for gifted female thinkers to thrive. This would provide healthy accountability and mentoring as well as ensure teaching that isn’t dependent upon economics (because not all needful teaching will be marketable, which limits the offering to only those messages that make money).
What I’ve written here only scratches the surface, of course. Research would be needed to identify the factors contributing to women’s ministry’s place in the church, the impact of Christian celebrity culture, and the influence the marketplace has upon what we consume and the way we think as a result. As Hannah and I mentioned in our discussion, we hope to stir the conversational pot, so to speak, so that the spiritual formation of women might grow stronger in years to come. I am hopeful that women will find the nurture they need as churches step into the role only they can uniquely fulfill.
There is much left to say, and even what I’ve said needs refining. But it’s a start.