I remember the day I parted ways with the old model of women's ministry. I was sitting in a hotel ballroom full of women. The speaker shared a gut-wrenching testimony that elicited a few sniffles from the crowd, which gradually grew into sobs, which snowballed into full-on emotional meltdown. It was exactly the kind of thing men imagine happening when women get together. I didn't like it at all.
In retrospect, my younger self was arrogant and naïve in that moment. Women need healing from the Lord, and sometimes a good cry in a safe space is spiritually restorative. That aspect of ministry is necessary and valuable. Even so, I couldn't ignore the part of my spirit that wanted more. That yearning has persisted ever since, and it is present in the hearts of many women I know today. Emotional forms of ministry have their place, but women in the church are eager to move beyond emotion, and beyond the surface.
Blogger Emerging Mummy recently captured this sentiment in her impassioned post "In Which I Write a Letter to Women's Ministry":
But I'm here with you tonight because I want what the world cannot give me. We're choking on cutesy things and crafty bits, safe lady topics and if one more person says that modest is hottest with a straight face, I may throw up.We are hungry for authenticity and vulnerability, not churchified life hacks from lady magazines. Some of us are drowning, suffocating, dying of thirst for want of the cold water of real community. We're trying really hard - after all, we keep showing up to your lady events and we leave feeling just a bit empty. It's just more of the same every time.
But she is not the first to express such concerns with women's ministry.
Several years ago author Wendy Horger Alsup wrote a post titled "Pink Fluffy Bunny Women's Bible Studies" in which she criticized the "emotional fluff out there masquerading as Bible study." Alsup, I should add, works hard at demonstrating an alternative to spiritual milk. She writes in a manner that is consistently theological, thoughtful, and faithful. She is a wonderful example of the change she would like to see.
Undoubtedly, the younger generations of women want a different kind of women's ministry, one that is Christ-centered, biblically based, and kingdom oriented. However, Alsup's example also highlights a tension in the very term "women's ministry." On the one hand, Emerging Mummy has consistently encountered a model of women's ministry that is deeply troubling when she would like to see something else. Here is what she writes:
You know what I would have liked tonight instead of decorating tips or a new recipe? I would have liked to pray together. I would have liked for the women of the church to share their stories or wisdom with one another, no more celebrity speakers, please just hand the microphone to that lady over there that brought the apples. I would love to wrestle with some questions that don't have a one-paragraph answer in your study guide. I would like to do a Bible study that does not have pink or flowers on the cover. I would have liked to sign up to bring a meal for our elderly or drop off some clothes for a new baby or be informed about issues in our city where we can make space for God. I would like to organize and prioritize, to rabble-rouse and disturb the peace of the rest of the world on behalf of justice, truth, beauty and love. I'd love to hear the prophetic voice of women in our church.
On the other hand, women like Alsup are working hard for change. In addition to serving in her local context, Alsup helps women go deeper with her book Practical Theology for Women. The ministry of Southern Baptist Seminary professor Mary Kassian challenges women to love God with both their hearts and minds. And while Beth Moore is often associated with the old-school model, she must also be credited as a real trailblazer in the field, assembling Bible studies that are consistently in-depth.
The tension, then, is in the diversity of women's ministry models. In spite of the criticism frequently leveled at "women's ministry" as a generic whole, women's ministry isn't generic at all. On the contrary, women's ministries vary from church to church.
Women's ministry, as a form, is in the midst of a massive shift. Many women's ministries have responded to the outcry and evolved, but the stereotypes have not always changed accordingly. Rather than doing justice to the change, broad stereotypes have remained, further stigmatizing women's ministry in the minds of female church-goers.
Nowhere has this stigma been more apparent to me than in my efforts to involve young women. In most of the churches where I have served, the 20-somethings have been all but absent from women's ministry events. This younger generation has grown up hearing about "fluffy" women's ministries, and the stereotype has become entrenched. Even when change is happening in their churches, many young women persist in the belief that all women's ministries are inherently superficial.
An additional tension raised by these stereotypes is the attitude that often accompanies them. In the interest of improving women's ministry, there is a tendency to belittle women who have done it differently. I am guilty of this. In the past, my critiques of women's ministry were not only unfair but often condescending. I painted in broad strokes and I was ungrateful for the contributions of the women who had gone before me. I did not distinguish form from function, ignoring the reality that in some parts of the country, a tea party is exactly the kind of outreach event that a non-Christian, middle-aged woman might attend.
Women's ministry is not a monolithic movement. As some women's ministries begin to change, it is important that our language reflects the complexity of this shift. Old stereotypes and blanket condemnations can be just as detrimental to the growth of a women's ministry as its own frivolous methods. Prophetic correction is indeed necessary at times, but the line between constructive criticism and destructive cynicism is a fine one. Too often our conversations about women's ministry have fallen on the wrong side of that divide, so we might consider hope as a categorical alternative. After all, women discipling women is certainly worth getting excited about.
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