Editor’s Note: This article is part of “Change Makers,” our recent CT special issue focused on some of the ways women are influencing the church, their communities, and the world. In this special issue, we’ve included articles that explore trends in women’s discipleship, examine research on women and workplace leadership, highlight women who are making a difference, and grapple with the unique challenges female leaders face. Click here to download your own free digital copy of “Change Makers.”

Harper Lee’s classic, To Kill a Mockingbird, reveals the delicate interplay of race, class, and religion in the Jim Crow South. It also reveals something important about women’s discipleship.

The story unfolds around the trial of Tom Robinson, an African American man falsely accused of raping a white woman, and is told from the perspective of Scout, the daughter of Tom’s lawyer, Atticus Finch. Despite his innocence, Tom is convicted and sent to prison.

As the town moves on from the trial, the ladies’ missionary circle of Maycomb Alabama Methodist Episcopal Church South gathers to raise awareness of the plight of the faraway Mruna tribe. Scout’s Aunt Alexandra hosts the event in the Finch home. In the midst of the refreshments, pastel prints, and concern for souls, Atticus slips into the kitchen with the news that Tom has been shot and killed. As Aunt Alexandra and the housekeeper, Calpurnia, struggle to absorb what has happened, the ladies in the front room continue their earnest missionary efforts in oblivion.

Lee uses this scene to show the disparity between the white citizens’ sense of their own compassion and their neglect of justice in their local community. But the scene does something else. For those of us with a vested interest in the state of women’s discipleship, these moments with the ladies of Maycomb remind us that women’s ministry does not happen in a cultural vacuum. To understand what’s happening inside our Bible studies and discipleship classes, we must understand what’s happening outside of them, too.

Larger forces

Women’s ministry is just as influenced by broader culture as any other form of church ministry. In the wake of the Industrial Revolution, for example, influential evangelical women turned their attention to prison reform, abolitionism, and the Sunday school movement. In the late 19th century, widespread social corruption led some Christian women to form the Women’s Temperance Union and lobby for the right to vote. In the 1950s and ’60s, women in the African American church fought for their civil rights, often suffering the same brutality and unlawful arrests as their male counterparts. And for the past generation, women’s discipleship has responded to the challenges of the sexual revolution by prioritizing conversations about women’s roles in society.

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Today, the conversations are shifting again. As more women work in the marketplace, women wrestle with questions of vocation, calling, and faithful service. As more women achieve higher levels of education, there is increasing demand for intellectually challenging resources. And as the average age of marriage rises, women want to know how to live faithfully beyond roles in the nuclear family.

For some, the change is still slow. Gina Dalfonzo, author of One by One: Welcoming the Singles in Your Church, observes how our ecclesial structures can exclude some women from discipleship spaces. “The scheduling of a women’s Bible study says something significant about which women get prioritized,” Dalfonzo says. “Studies scheduled during the workday are clearly meant for homemakers and stay-at-home moms only. It’s this kind of thing that tells me that women’s ministries still have a long way to go in learning to care for all women.”

As Dalfonzo reveals, “learning to care for all women” is the greatest cultural challenge facing women’s discipleship today. In a postmodern age in which individual identity quickly becomes subsumed by group identity, churches and women’s ministry leaders must find a way to honor each woman’s God-given individual identity while simultaneously calling them to something greater than themselves.

The tribe online

In broader culture, aligning around a shared identity for a common cause is termed “identity politics.” If you survey women’s discipleship resources online, you won’t necessarily find that phrase, but you will increasingly find the language of tribe and the promise of belonging. The message is simple: You may feel out of place in your church, but here you’ll belong. We’re like you. We get you. Race, gender, geography, and relationship status have all become ways of making sense of which tribe we fit into (and which ones we don’t).

In the age of the internet, almost anyone can bring about change through the power of a tribe of people who share your same experiences, goals, values, and beliefs. Now publishers come knocking on the doors of social-media mavens who can, like Lysa Terkeurst or Beth Moore, broadcast a message to nearly a million followers with one click. Bloggers like Ann Voskamp and Jen Hatmaker routinely make The New York Times’ Best Sellers List.

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Whether they intend to or not, these and other Christian women with large online followings are leveraging the power of their tribe to change the entire culture of women’s discipleship. And women who may feel powerless in their own church are now able to simply gather others who feel similarly disconnected and build their own spaces. Alastair Roberts, blogger and author of the forthcoming book Heirs Together: A Theology of the Sexes, notes that in such discipleship tribes, women leaders take on a status of “super peer.” “The power of these ‘super-peers’ is the power of trust,” Roberts writes. “Many of these ‘super-peers’ are advocates for women . . . who are relatable and likeable, who form close communities and ideological consensuses around themselves.”

While these online communities offer women acceptance and support, they have the potential to isolate women in a different way. The risk of coalescing around shared experiences is that our perspectives are bound and limited. Much like the well-intentioned women in Aunt Alexandra’s front room who were unable to see how larger forces isolated them from their African American neighbors, women who rely on the Christian blogosphere for discipleship and community will inevitably experience a similar informational vacuum. Social media researchers call it a “filter bubble.”

Filter bubbles

While the internet can amplify voices outside the institutional establishment, it cannot ensure that users are listening to voices that challenge them. More likely, given the algorithms of search engines and social media, we’re listening to voices that reflect our own experiences, preferences, and opinions. The real world effect of these informational bubbles is that we increasingly connect with people like us and increasingly disconnect from those who are not like us, deepening existing divides.

The effect of filter bubbles is particularly damning to the work of women’s discipleship because spiritual growth demands that we process ideas that we don’t like. Discipleship requires more than inspiration—it requires confrontation. But because online platforms rely on maintaining consumer goodwill and group cohesion, it’s difficult to offer an alternative perspective without unsettling the tribe—the very tribe on which the entire platform rests.

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In an interview with CT Women, Natasha Robinson, author of Mentor for Life, observes that “if we’re going to be for women, then we have to be for all women and not just women who look like us. It’s such a beautiful thing when we see the history and learn the stories of people who are different.” However Robinson also confirms that isolation often drives women to seek online communities in the first place. As one solution, she suggests small, in-real-life mentoring groups: “Women for various reasons often feel marginalized in the local church context and feel as if there’s no place for them. So when you mentor them in a small group setting, you’re saying to them, we see you, we’ve created a space for you.”

The value of single-gender small groups

Given the risks of homogeneity, some local churches may decide that gender itself is too much of an identity marker and instead opt for mixed-gender discipleship contexts, like community groups that meet in homes. After all, coalescing around womanhood can easily make the shared identity of womanhood the focus of spiritual growth, especially in church traditions that prioritize practical application. The question “How should a Christian woman live?” can very quickly become “How should a Christian woman live in ways that are distinct from a Christian man?” When this happens, a focus on femininity can quickly overtake the process of spiritual formation.

Nonetheless, Jen Wilkin, who has spent over 20 years discipling women and currently ministers at The Village Church in Flower Mound, Texas, still believes that women benefit from learning in exclusively female contexts. Citing research that men and women contribute to discussions differently, Wilkin told me that there is real potential for women to shut down in mixed-gender Bible studies, especially in a “church environment where we praise a ‘quiet and gentle spirit’ in women.”

“Studies show that even when meetings are split 50/50 along gender lines,” says Wilkin, “men do most of the talking. Women tend to be silent for fear of being negatively stereotyped . . . a group made wholly of women can be challenged to enter the dialogue and to do so at the thought level without fear of misperception.” Wilkin also suggests that single-gender learning environments create space to identify and mentor women leaders. “There are many avenues for this for men,” she notes, “but for women this is particularly critical.” In other words, if giving too much attention to a person’s individual identity can stunt spiritual growth, not giving enough attention can, as well.

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Wilkin’s observations square with the logic of Titus 2:3–4, a classic text on discipleship: “While sometimes interpreted as restricting women’s discipleship to the domestic sphere, these verses are addressing how women learn as much as what they should learn. In the surrounding context, Paul admonishes Titus to “teach what is appropriate to sound doctrine” (2:1) and encourages him to focus on the spiritual development of mature men and women. Instead of telling Titus to teach younger women directly, Paul instructs more mature women to teach them. While not an exclusive paradigm, Paul seems to be advocating for the effectiveness of single-sex learning environments to pass on “sound doctrine.”

It’s precisely this attention to doctrine—and not our personal identities or preferences—that may help women’s ministries thread the needle between maintaining group unity while still honoring each woman’s unique calling and circumstances. As part of a comprehensive plan for discipling women at all stages of maturity, Amanda Edmondson, director of women’s ministry for Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, Kentucky, has prioritized teaching the basics of Christian living. “Discipling women in how to study the Bible, who is God, and how to disciple other women,” Edmondson says, “allows women to gather together, learn together, recognize our differences, but see the beauty in how we all work together to serve the Lord and his church as the body of Christ.” By uniting around universal Christian truth, women of varying ages, classes, races, and backgrounds are able to prioritize what they have in common: Christ himself.

Making discipleship local again

If it’s true that women’s spiritual growth happens best in small, in-person, gender-specific groups, some local churches may need to grow and adapt to prioritize women’s discipleship. While many churches recognize the need to staff and fund organized children’s and youth ministries, fewer do the same for women’s ministry, even though women statistically represent a majority of church congregations. “When churches set aside resources for women’s discipleship—time, space, energy, or money,” Edmondson observes, “it communicates priority. It also makes it easier for women to disciple when those things are provided for and thought through.”

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Local churches need to commit financial support for women’s discipleship, but of equal importance, they need to engage in difficult conversations. In an episode of the podcast Truth’s Table, “Why the Church Matters,” cohost Michelle Higgins offers a vision for how our union in the body of Christ calls us to the hard process of confrontation and correction. Speaking in context of the racial marginalization that many Christians of color experience within evangelicalism, Faith for Justice that God intends for us to press into the conflicts that arise around our differences as a means of growth for the body.

“We have a responsibility to one another as family to go to each other and say, ‘I see a void here,’” Higgins says. If we don’t, “we’re missing an opportunity to partake in the struggle that God is calling all of us to. . . . [God] has given each of us a different kind of life-experience wisdom. . . . It is those things that God has given us that we are to humbly present to our brothers and sisters who have never thought of or seen them before.”

Higgins’ wisdom applies equally to the challenges facing women’s discipleship. Women who experience neglect or isolation in their local churches will be tempted to withdraw into spaces of more commonality, bypassing conflict altogether. Local churches, meanwhile, will be tempted to disciple in ways that maintain status quo, even if they end up prioritizing certain expressions or experiences of womanhood. However it is precisely these differences that God uses to bind us together. He is not calling us to quiet conformity but to the truer union that comes from confronting and correcting systemic issues in context of relationship. Make no mistake: Affirming the uniqueness of our God-given identities will result in conflict in our communities—however it’s a conflict that God intends to resolve through Christ himself.

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Building better communities

If the last decade of women’s discipleship has proven anything, it’s that women are consummate architects of community. With little more than a laptop and an internet connection, they have effectively changed the shape of women’s discipleship. But these shifts are not without concerns: What kinds of communities are we building? Are they monolithic, representing our own identities, or do they reflect the diversity of Christ’s body? Perhaps even more striking, what kinds of communities might we build if women were more encouraged and better equipped within their own churches?

In an era when declining church attendance rates unsettle many ministry leaders, the key to developing holistic, flourishing communities might just lie in women’s ministry. Local churches that integrate women’s discipleship into their core mission may find that they suddenly have access to untapped talent, passion, and gifting that God intends to use for the good of the entire body.

“Women gather communities around them in ways that men cannot,” Roberts writes, “. . . and tend to possess and represent the heart of any community, irrespective of the forcefulness of the agency of the men in the community.” In other words, women have a unique role to play in building the community of Christ’s church; neglecting their spiritual and vocational development means that we all suffer. “It’s a paradigm shift,” Edmondson says. “Our churches won’t flourish until women are actually in the churches using their gifts to serve the local church.”

Of course, such flourishing will require commitment and sacrifice—the same kind of commitment and sacrifice that transforms us spiritually. The women in Aunt Alexandra’s front room had the power to participate in changing the racial divisions in Maycomb, Alabama, but by sequestering themselves in the parlor, they became part of the problem rather than part of the solution. Seeking unity alone is not enough; women must learn to seek the unity that comes from being part of something larger than their own identities.

When they do, and their gifts are utilized to capacity, there is potential for women to gather people into the family of God in ways that may surprise both church leaders and laywomen alike. As the heart of any community, women’s unique ability to form strong and dynamic groups can go a long way to help local churches become oases of relationship and human connection in an increasingly fractured age.

Hannah Anderson is the author of Made for Moreand Humble Roots: How Humility Grounds and Nourishes Your Soul(Moody). You can find more of her writing at sometimesalight.com, hear her on the weekly podcast Persuasion, or follow her on Twitter @sometimesalight.