Do We Need Gender-Specific Ministries?

Why women's teas and men's paintball nights just don't cut it anymore (and maybe never did).

I am a woman and I am a church-going Christian—but I don’t do women’s ministry. At least not the kind of women's ministry that's become the norm in many churches over the last several decades.

Traditional women’s ministry just holds no appeal for me. I have long felt most women’s ministry programs are designed around the lifestyle and desires of one kind of woman—and I don’t fit. As a full-time working professional, I’m not available at 10 o’clock on Tuesday mornings. As a 21st-century woman with more than enough ways to fill my time, I’m not compelled to sacrifice family time, much-needed rest, or real-world relationships for anything less than a serious faith-building challenge. And as a Gen-Xer, born into a world of crumbling and corrupt institutions, with the thirst for authenticity characteristic of my generation, I have no interest in signing a mutual agreement to pretend the world is something other than what it is.

Yes, that’s been my experience with women’s ministry—and judging by what others have written and told me, I’m not alone. Women’s ministry either is on the decline or has a PR problem—or both.

What about men’s ministry? In general, it’s less vibrant than women’s ministry and absent from a lot of churches. The downsizing of national ministries to men may suggest overall decline in interest. Anecdotally, my conversations with men reflect low participation.

Why the decline? As generations have shifted, gender-based ministries have failed to keep pace with changing preferences and needs. By nature, traditional gender-based ministries hold narrow views of men’s and women’s lifestyles. In current culture, both men and women fill diverse roles and follow unique daily rhythms. We no longer hold as much in common within our sex as many churches would like to believe. Our lifestyles, preferences and attitudes contrast sharply. Not all women enjoy baking; not all men enjoy sports. We don't all have children; we're not all married, single, engaged or divorced. In fact, male and female professional accountants may have more in common than two 35-year-old women.

Such ministries often build themselves on common denominators—and in the process make assumptions about who we are. This approach is doomed to fail. What do all women have in common? All men? Biology, anatomy and a few similar experiences are not enough to deeply bond us.

Such ministries compete with family time—already in short supply for many. Today, people don’t always want time away from their families. We don't see each other all week, so why would my husband want breakfast at church on Saturday morning instead of pancakes with the kids? Why would I want to spend Tuesday evening at a ladies' Bible study when my family is home without me, after we spent all day apart at work and school?

Only in a room full of men would I automatically bond with another woman. Many factors determine whether true relationships form. Our ministries are faulty when they make assumptions about what women are like, what men prefer, how we spend our time, and what we need. They are flawed when they discourage families from being together, make people feel pigeonholed and misunderstood, and appeal to the lowest common denominator—in the process encouraging everyone to stay immature rather than grow.

So—with all that said—what’s the point? Is there still any merit to gender-based church ministries?

The short answer, for me, is yes. For three reasons, I contend gender-based ministry still does have value:

1) We need understanding and friendship from our same-sex peers. Expecting me to connect with all women is like expecting Kim Kardashian and Maya Angelou to be best friends. But I will, and need to, connect with some women in a way I can’t connect with men.

2) We desperately need godly examples and mentoring relationships. I polled Christian men and women in their 20s, 30s and 40s. Their experiences with gender-based ministries were mixed, but everyone said he or she wanted to connect in such ministries. We still want what gender-based groups provide, especially if they can help us form authentic relationships across generations.

3) Most compelling is the passion behind complaints about traditional gender-based ministries. People aren’t just ignoring them and hoping they’ll go away. Their emotional responses suggest they believe in such ministries’ promise and they’re hoping for something better.

How can gender-based ministries be more effective? Strategies will differ by setting and leadership gifts, but consider these general principles:

Acknowledge diversity. Even if you don’t have much racial or socioeconomic diversity in your church, you certainly have diversity in lifestyles and personalities.

Be well-rounded. Appeal to the intellect and the emotions. The fun side and the serious side of life. No one should treat all women as emotional basket cases and all men as football-crazed manly men.

Recognize many roles and life stages. Women are not just wives and mothers, and many will never be either. Men are not only husbands and employees. Allow people to be individuals, regardless of their circumstances.

Be honest and non-judgmental. People don’t look to the church to solve problems that have easy answers. Acknowledge the trials of life in the 21st century, and let people be real.

Avoid feminine and masculine ideals. Most are rooted in culture rather than Scripture, and few can live up to them. When we insist on ideals, we erect barriers to relationship with Christ and His people.

Challenge people. I can enjoy Christmas tea and pancake breakfasts at home. But a deeper, more authentic relationship with Christ and His people will keep me coming back. Accept people as they are, then ask and equip them to grow.

So is there a place for gender-specific ministry? Yes, but not as the primary way we relate and minister to one another. Inevitably, our categories become narrow and stereotypical, and we define people primarily by the gender-based categories they fit (or don’t fit) into. Only when the church knows how to minister to men and women together, to whole families, and to individuals in their uniqueness will our gender-based ministries meet the needs they are best designed to fulfill.

Amy Simpson is a freelance writer, editor of Christianity Today's Gifted for Leadership, and author of numerous resources for Christian ministry, including Into the Word: How to Get the Most from Your Bible (NavPress) and a forthcoming book on ministry to people with mental illness. You can find her at www.amysimpsononline.com and on Twitter @aresimpson.

78 Comments

84,846

Katrina commented…

I totally hear you! And I think a lot of ministries have tried to "do" exactly what you are saying you'd like.

And there is why we end up with more programming.....

Honestly, I think if more people on any given Sunday were able to practice hospitality and invite strangers to come hang out in their homes (I mean, obviously those other strangers on Sunday morning are looking for the same thing right??)
Then maybe we would all get to experience more of a true Christian community on a regular/more frequent basis.

Anyone open to a dare to invite a person from this Sunday to come chill at your house on a weeknight?

Wanda Hackett

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Wanda Hackett replied to 's comment

Wow! I find this article really negative and, forgive me, but selfish. Just because scrap booking and things like that does not interest you does not mean it will not interest someone else. I believe Women and Men's ministry needs to diversify to include the interests of more people but just forget it? I'm glad our church does not do that.

84,846

Beth commented…

I was actually searching for a topic on worship for a class paper and fell upon this. Awesome to hear that I am not alone in the observations and the feelings many of us having -both men and women are valid in this area. I ran the women's ministry at my church.... I'm the last person I would have picked and I think some of them were hesitant fearing what I would bring to the table - I wanted to flip it over. So we did the first thing I did was build a team of diverse women - I didn't have all the answers nor will I fool myself into thinking I understood every season a woman finds herself in. Then we changed the name to women's team (ministry is moth ball sounding) and we had 3 words to guide us E3 - to Equip, Empower, Engage. Our purpose was to develop each women to her full potential, for her to grow in Christ Empowering her and finally we would engage our world in challenging ways.(Investing in women - Jesus Did was our motto) Each activity was meant to build genuine relationship with each other, to grow in Christ and include family. If it didn't fit in this we cut it. We did our first gutsy event - a ropes course - teenager girls with their fearful mom's and a couple brave 60+ women. You know what, they were all encouraged afterwards, and still talk about it today. We also took 60+ women to a local gun club's women's day event and overwhelmed with church women. They had a blast. To see smiles and the confidence grow in these women, as they stepped outside their comfort zone. breathtaking. blew any stereotypes out the water. We also did a canoe trip with bonfire. The next goal was to pair up with the mens' group and do a few events together. I ended up getting deployed for work and handed the reigns over to someone else. But culturally speaking we must change to reflect our environment. gender stereotypes don't work. Most would rather spend time together. I would than just do separate groups for genders specific studies, and definitely agree women need mentoring these days - transitions in life, many lack confidence perhaps they didn't have a parent, or a father breathing into them.

Karen Wirtz

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Karen Wirtz commented…

i'll be honest --- i absolutely hate gender based ministries --- i've never liked them --- ever since i was little --- i never understood why they separated the guys from the girls --- i don't see the point --- i'm not fond of socializing w/ other women and find it much easier and more comfortable in socializing w/ guys instead --- If i ever join a small group or anything, I make sure they have both guys and girls in the group bc normally, i end up speaking w/ the guys only. I was a part of a bible study group for about 10 years --- they ranged in ages from 18-35 about --- i loved it --- met every tues night at 8pm --- they sang, had a message, and fellowshipped and played games afterwards --- (this wasn't too long ago either) but, i remember, after the bible study, most of the girls would stay and talk, and i was one of the few girls who wanted to "play" w/ the guys --- pool, ping pong, walleyball (yes, walleyball --- a mix of volleyball and raquetball --- awesome game) ---

anyways, just never have gotten the point to separate the guys n girls --- i guess to speak bout diff topics or whatever but, esp for singles, just let us be together instead of separate

Renee

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Renee commented…

I'm glad some of your experiences with women's ministries have been good. I have been part of some women's groups through churches and have not found them to be uplifting or helpful at all. After a canned DVD featuring a heavily made up woman grinning like a Cheshire cat, we discuss generic questions in a study guide to go along with the DVD. Afterward, the discussion dissolves into whining, complaining, and some light gossip masked as "Christian concern." Occasionally, the group hosts "fun days" in which scrapbooking, crafts, and tips for home decor and fashion on a budget are featured.

Bleccchhh!! I AM the demographic these groups go after, the stay at home Mom and I really dislike all of it. If I wanted tips on fashion or crafts, I'd join Pinterest and I find scrapbooking to be a substitute for genuine creativity. The women's groups I have attended feel phony and are just about the furthest thing from real community and serious Christianity as you can get. The worst part though, is the petty jealousy and frequent sizing up from most of the women. So many of them are so insecure about their weight, appearance, competencies, and whatever else that they consider other women as threats. Real conversation is just about impossible.

No thank you. At least groups of men tell it like it is.

Henry Kim

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Henry Kim commented…

i dont care if there is a gender specific ministry. but i'll have problems with it if they get together and do not serve a purpose for true fellowship to become godly men and women. we're old enough not to act like boys against girls BS

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