I woke up from an odd dream. I was at a church event (odd since I haven’t returned to in person services yet) for youth (odd because I don’t have youth, and, if I did, they probably wouldn’t want me tagging along), and it seemed like a big deal. It was well-attended and full of energy, but I noticed a friend and her teens quietly slipped out of the room. I followed. We sat outside and enjoyed talking about everyday life. We didn’t address the specifics of why they left the event until the teens got distracted and left the two of us. We then talked about the disappointment and challenges of the church reaching out well to youth. That’s pretty much all I remember. But then I put a few other pieces together. I’d recently chatted with someone considering her role in women’s ministry. I had a more general conversation about ministry and church culture with a couple friends who serve in different parts of the country. And although the issues raised are not new, I was aware of the timing of many conversations and thoughts converging.
I love the church, but I will always be honest about areas in which we need to change. While we can’t base everything on individual’s experiences, it’s important to look at trends. And here’s something I’ve noticed: people experience church similarly to how people experience small towns. We find many people who have been involved for years or are invited by friends or welcomed by strangers, and they feel as if it is all friendly and welcoming. Others find it cliquish. Some move into a new town and connect with people and find it wonderful. Others find it is hard to break into. It is sad to see the church as a place that insiders love and outsiders struggle to become an insider. I’m glad God is not that way.
We need to connect with one another. We need to constantly assess the culture in the church. That doesn’t mean we sacrifice God’s truth, but he’s much more flexible than we want to think he is when it comes to how we do things. We build a lot of extra on his directives for the church. Of course, some organization is good. It’s healthy to have some dependability and consistency, but we get stagnant, or we shake things up just because we need a change instead of being intentional.
As I travelled across the country and connected with women’s ministry leaders, I saw patterns of why so many women’s ministries were struggling. We could point to some similar dynamics in a variety of ministries built around a demographic. There were too many assumptions that women are all similar in certain ways, whether that was marital status (or the desire of it), interests, schedules, etc. Women were lumped together, and those who shared those qualities or availabilities benefitted, but so many were hurt or left out. Among other issues, it stirred up old stuff from school days if women had experiences with cliques, bullying, etc. Those ministries willing to open their eyes to the diversity among the women they were reaching and serving were able to thrive.
It’s not as if we need a program to meet each need of each woman. I think there were many years of offering programs that centered on a topic, issue, or interest. But now, there is more of a realization that what we have in common is much more basic than that. We have insecurities. We wrestle with responsibilities. We are healing through a variety of experiences. We find encouragement in sources that are good and some that aren’t. We want to know God better, but we struggle with the messages we hear in church, on social media, etc. So, what we all benefit from is…connecting with others, pursuing authentic faith, inviting accountability, and so on. And we can only get those things with humility, respect, truth, and hope.
Instead of programs, we focus on people and character. Instead of the content of ministry and conversations, we pay attention to process and make it intentional. It’s simple yet challenging to actually live out in daily life. I find that age truly has little to do with reaching out to and encouraging women. Friendships bridge all sorts of ages, as well as the influence we can have on each other when we’re open to it.
The issue of taking a blanket approach isn’t specific to women’s ministries. In youth ministries, we often throw all the kids together because they fit a certain age group even though each individual is different. Some fit together and relate to each other better than others. Creating opportunities across generations can foster genuine connections that encourage people to pursue a place in a faith community while being disciplined and encouraged each step of the way. Those who want to explore repairs and building care and community help can do so, as youth serve alongside young families, older individuals, and people with different experiences and knowledge. Those who like to organize and clean can connect with others who do the same for the church and others. Those who learn in group studies, discussions, and classes get together. We miss out when we relegate people to age and life stages—not that there isn’t a place for that but it cannot be only that.
When programs—even good ones—overshadow people and a process of equipping and discipleship, there is a problem. We need to invite people to engage not just participate. I understand some people are more challenging to reach than others, but we must listen to people who have struggled to find a place in our communities. People who attend a few of our church events and even seem to get plugged in for a short time then slip out the proverbial back door have some important insights for us. We might not like to listen if we like things the way they are. If our experience is good, it’s too easy to dismiss anyone whose experience is not. But just because we think we’re friendly and welcoming doesn’t mean we are. Just because some have been discipled in our church doesn’t mean we are a discipling church. Just because we have been generous sometimes doesn’t mean we’re generous. Just because we’ve made some adjustments over time doesn’t mean we’re open to change. Just because we want to welcome others doesn’t mean we do. Just because we want to reach others doesn’t mean we’re willing to do what it takes to humbly sacrifice our own ways and preferences.
I think we can do better, not just in small ways but in ways that make a difference to people around us—in their everyday lives and for eternity. Let’s stop turning away, seeing what we want to see, and missing out. Worse yet, let’s stop living so that others are missing out.