My husband used to say that the mark of a good church was whether or not there were smokers cloistered outside. Was the church able to make everyone feel welcome just as they are—even the most marginalized?
I knew from experience exactly what he meant. When I returned to the Christian faith in my early twenties, getting sober was easy. One day I wasn’t sober and the next day, I was. But quitting smoking? Impossible. I hid my ugly habit for years before I finally quit, smoking only in my apartment or in my car when driving alone. Besides, smoking was just one thing I hid from my fellow believers. I attended a small church in an upscale neighborhood outside of Dallas, and the main programs for women were the standard women’s fare: teas, crafts, Pampered Chef parties, brunches, and an occasional game of Bunko.
In all the years I attended, I never really felt welcome because no one knew me for who I really was. I’m the type of person who finds it difficult to talk with others about lighthearted subjects unless I have spoken with them deeply, and Pampered Chef parties hardly seemed the kind of place to talk about how scared I was that I wouldn’t be able to pay rent and tuition. Ladies’ teas weren’t the place to talk about being raped or what it was like to live in a body that had been raped. Those typical ladies events never transpired into something deeper, and the gulf between them and I was great. I felt like I was shut out in the cold, looking in through a double-paned window on a strange world in which I didn’t belong and I could never take part.
I never intended on writing any further on the issue of women’s ministries (besides the single chapter in which I address it in my book, Dare Mighty Things), but given the feedback I’ve received from the open letter to women’s ministry directors, I believe the issue is problematic enough to warrant further, deeper exploration. So, over the next several weeks, each Tuesday we’ll first look at why the traditional women’s ministry paradigm isn’t working for many women and then, what we can do to move forward. I invite you to subscribe, discuss, debate, and push back. All gracious and well-intended voices are welcome.
The last seven years, I’ve been talking with Christian women leaders from around the world, and I’ve interviewed a number of women’s ministry directors who’ve said they have to close traditional programs because women, especially younger women, fail to come and they don’t know why. Here’s why: it’s because they’ve taken a program designed for a certain demographic (namely white, Baby-Boomer, married mothers) and applied it in contexts where it is irrelevant and borders on insulting. In doing so, they’ve shut out in the cold the vast majority of Christian women who are not included in this demographic.
Not all Christian women are white. A growing percentage of us are minorities with rich heritages of their own. As my friend Gail, an African American woman writes, “the African-American church context you will not find crafts, or pampering sort of activities, or roundtable conversations. You will see ‘service’ be it caring for the elderly, preparing and serving food, standing on the street corners sharing Christ with the homeless, or prostitutes, and attending … in-depth conferences.” Not all Christian women are married. Some of us are happily single, but feel like an outcast or an object of pity. Not all of us are stay-at-home moms. Some of us are single moms who skip supper so our kids will have something to eat and others of us are barren, unable to have children at all. Not all of us are from Christian homes with scot-free, unblemished pasts. Some of us are ragamuffins like me.
What do we have in common? We’re human. We struggle and fail, strive and succeed. We fear. We love God and want to make a difference, want to leave the world a better place than we found it. Until our programs build on these commonalities and reflect a commitment to honor the great diversity of the body of Christ, they will not be successful because they fail to embrace and welcome people as they really are before God, cigarettes and all.