It seems to me that a current popular question in the circles that I move in, asked by male preachers sounds something like this ‘When preaching to women what are some things that need to be kept in mind?’ The first time that I heard this I baulked, rolled my eyes and refused to give an answer until the person properly explained to me exactly what they meant. Are women really some sort of strange species that cannot be understood and who cause that much confusion among the male population? However after a few men keep asking me the same question at various times after that, I wondered whether there is a real searching, genuineness and a desire to relate, coming from this question. It is still a question that bothers me and reminds me of the movie ‘What women Want’ with Mel Gibson as the protagonist who gets into the female mind and then receives all sorts of ‘revelations’ about this mysterious species. The movie is full of stereotypes but the discussions around the difference between men and women persist today. And they persist in the church as evidenced by these puzzled men wondering how to preach to women asking me and others for our opinion.
I found really helpful on this issue, Elaine Storkey’s comment in her book Origins of Difference: The Gender Debate Revisited. She states that four paradigms of gender are found in the biblical narrative and that to simply focus on one does injustice to the perspective God has regarding gender. Storkey says that the four paradigms are similarity, difference, complementarity (without hierarchy) and union which are aspects of gender that need to be continually kept in mind when discussing the topic. So her point made from Scripture is that men and women share similarities and also have differences. Although this sounds like such an obvious statement it is a simple truth that is forgotten in the gender debate with complementarians for example leaning towards emphasising differences and egalitarians emphasising similarities between the genders. It’s both and it would help greatly if we could consistently hold to both at the same time. Yes ‘men are from Mars and women are from Venus’ but also ‘men are from Earth and women are from Earth’ so lets move on!
I think this needs to be take into account as we think about questions like the one I keep getting asked, ‘When preaching to women what are some things that need to be kept in mind?’ The answer needs to emphasise similarities and difference.
Here is my answer to the question based on this tension that we need to hold.
Use illustrations from various parts of life
Men and women when they preach can both use illustrations that come from their own particular likes and interests too excessively. If you are a female who loves cooking and shopping and you use illustrations purely from these loves in your life then quite a portion of the audience will not be able to relate. If you are a male who loves sports and you keep using these illustrations ad nauseam the same effect is produced. I am someone who really has no interest whatsoever in sports but I know that many men and women find sport fascinating. So of course I do not mind the occasional analogy which uses sport however I resent it when illustrations from this area of life become first order in a message. Quite often if a male is leading a congregational gathering the first thing he will do is break the ice by making a joke about last night’s football scores or cricket scores. When this happens consistently it makes me feel unwelcome. I feel like a segment of the congregation is bonding but that it does not include me. Illustrations need to come from various areas of life not only our particular likes and interests.
Take into account that women are, generally speaking, a marginalised group
If you were preaching to a congregation in the USA where 50% of those present were African Americans you would obviously keep in mind their difficult history and you would be sensitive to that. Culturally speaking they are a marginalised group still, even in the 21st century. You would be foolish not to keep that in mind. It’s the same I think with women, while we have gained many rights in the Western world especially, power still sits with men in our culture. We see this from the relatively few women who make it into the upper levels of many organisations and various fields be they business, law, academia or the church. The statistics are fairly consistent all round with this fact. So it would be helpful to keep in mind this truth and think about how it might alter our content and even our style in preaching. I became aware of recently of a book for youth about sexuality with the title ‘Dating Delilah’. I have no idea about the content of the book and I don’t know anything about the author, it may be a good book, but simply judging it from its title and considering that women are marginalised in society, one could ask the question, ‘What sort of message would that title send to the females who read it?’ Would our cultural stereotypes of the female as temptress be reinforced thus already marginalised young women might feel more persecuted, ashamed and guilty? Keeping in mind the marginalization of women is a very wise and sensitive thing to do as you preach to a mixed audience. Even doing the politically correct thing like using gender inclusive language helps enormously in breaking down the assumption that the norm is male and engaging women.
Beware of stereotypes
Sometimes when men or women are trying to be relevant and sensitive to the other gender, illustrations are used which are unhelpful and only reinforce stereotypes. I still remember when I was sitting in a congregation once and the male preacher was talking about something, I can’t remember what, then he turned to me and said ‘all women like to shop don’t they Karina? You love to shop’. Well no I don’t really. I find it usually tedious. I can’t remember the point that he was trying to make but my confused look didn’t really help his cause. We need to once and for all let go of the assumption that gender interests are completely different and solidified. How many of us can point to women we know who tire of cooking, shopping, looking after children (but perhaps too scared to admit it) and would prefer to work in an office or talk about sports or look at fast cars? Every time someone throws me a gender stereotype I can usually counter it by saying ‘But I have a friend who is different to that…’ Most of us do.
Keep an eschatological and kingdom of God perspective
The story of the gospel is that our world was created good yet was broken through the sin of Adam and Eve. Genesis 3:16 clearly shows that gender and relationships between men and women are broken aspects of life now post fall. So we need to keep in mind that we walk on this earth damaged in our gender. Through Christ we are on the way to glory to be fully revealed at his return where we will be perfected in our gender. But until then we need to keep humble about what it actually means to be ‘male’ and ‘female’. God has designed us to be different and similar and our culture places many assertions over us as to what that entails. We need to read scripture carefully then, so we can discover what it means to be male and female however we need to realise that this is an area that is not clear even in the Bible and our fallenness gets in the way. As we enter into the kingdom through Jesus we have an opportunity for restoration and reconciliation regarding gender and relationships between men and women. We need to bear this in mind as we think about the differences between men and women and as we relate to them in an audience.
Connect with your relational side
The stereotype in our culture is that men are less inclined or interested in being relational. I think that is a lie which we have believed that has had sad consequences. In an article that I was reading this week the writer was voicing his thoughts on the concerns that some people have when their sons start playing with dolls. Instead of seeing this as something that could inculcate values of nurture, relationality and care in a boy, it was seen by some as a threat to his masculinity. A friend told me the other day that a male acquaintance of hers wonders if he is ‘masculine’ enough because he likes to talk and deeply relate to people. When did relationality, care and tenderness become unmasculine? Of course the truth is that men crave relationships, however since the stereotype is that men don’t, the stereotype is reinforced and perpetuates. If men were more open to developing their relational side and if we stopped perpetuating stereotypes, it would improve their ability to connect with different genders as they preach plus it would break down a lie that is stopping men from being all that God wants them to be.
Keep in mind preaching to same gender audiences does not necessarily make things easier
Some people think that the solution is then for men to preach to men and women to preach to women. I think that this is a strange thought and obviously relies more on the popular yet only partially true premise that ‘men are from Mars and women are from Venus’. Whenever I preach to women, in one sense I feel more comfortable since everyone there is of the same gender as me however there is still a lot going on. Once when preaching at a women’s conference I started off by saying that God loves women and that he wants to enable us to be all that he wanted us to be. I said that we needed to be advocating gender reconciliation today. I was met by a cold silence. I had assumed that all women wanted what I wanted, I had assumed that they were in the same place as me. I was wrong. I realised that some women don’t want what I want and also that some women are in fact happy to be in the status quo. I don’t have a particular style that I use if I’m preaching to women nor do I change to having a particular content for women in particular. I know that some women in the audience will love cooking others will hate it. Some will love sports others will hate it. Probably I can expect a bit more affirmation from a female audience and I also feel that I don’t have to prove myself as much with women. I can also sometimes bring out more that relational side of me when I preach to women… however even after having said all of that, I’d add that this is certainly not always the case at all. I can just as easily sometimes feel unaccepted by women, judged and misinterpreted.