A question that comes up in the circles I move in, usually 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 I heard this I rolled my eyes and refused to answer until the person explained exactly what they meant. Are women really some sort of strange species who cause that much confusion among the male population?
However, after a few men asked, I wondered whether there might be a real searching, genuineness and desire to relate behind the question. It still 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. They also persist in the church, as evidenced by these puzzled men wondering how to preach to women.
I found Storkey’s book “Origins of Difference: The Gender Debate Revisited” helpful on this issue. She states that four paradigms of gender are found in the biblical narrative and that to focus on just one does injustice to God’s perspective. Storkey’s paradigms; similarity, difference, complementarity (without hierarchy), and union, need to be kept in mind when discussing gender. Her point, made from Scripture, is that men and women share both similarities and differences. Although this sounds obvious, it is a simple truth often forgotten in the gender debate. For example, complementarians lean towards emphasising differences and egalitarians towards emphasising similarities. It would help 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!
This needs to be taken into account as we think about the question “What are some things to keep in mind when preaching to women?” Here is my answer based on this tension that we need to hold:
1. Use illustrations from various parts of life
Both men and women can use illustrations that come from their own 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 relate. If you are a male who loves sports, and you keep using these illustrations ad nauseam, the same effect is produced. I have no interest in sports but I know that many men and women find sports fascinating. So I do not mind the occasional sports analogy, however I resent it when these illustrations become first order in a message. Quite often when a male is leading a congregational gathering, the first thing he does is break the ice by joking 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 own particular likes and interests.
2. 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 keep in mind their difficult history and be sensitive to that. They are still a marginalised group, even in the 21st century. You would be foolish not to keep that in mind. It’s the same with women. While we have gained many rights, in the Western world especially, power still sits with men. We see this from the relatively few women who make it into the upper levels of many organisations and fields be they business, law, academia, or the church. The statistics are fairly consistent with this fact. So it’s helpful to keep this truth in mind and think about how it might alter our content and even our style in preaching.
I recently became aware of a book titled ‘Dating Delilah’. I don’t know anything about the author or the content. It may be a good book, but considering that women are marginalised in society, what message would that title send to those who read it? Would our cultural stereotypes of the female as temptress be reinforced, thus making already marginalised young women 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 to engage women and break down the assumption that the norm is male.
3. Beware of stereotypes
Sometimes when speakers are trying to be relevant and sensitive to gender, illustrations are used which only reinforce stereotypes. I remember sitting in a congregation when a male preacher 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 tedious. I can’t remember the point that he was trying to make, but my confused look didn’t help his cause. We need to let go of the assumption that our interests are completely different and solidified. How many of us know women 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 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 from that…’ Most of us do.
4. Keep an eschatological and Kingdom of God perspective
The story of the Bible is that our world was created good, yet was broken through sin. Genesis 3:16 shows that relationships between men and women are broken aspects of life now, post fall. We need to keep in mind that we walk on this earth damaged in our gender. Through Christ we will one day be perfected. Until then we need to keep humble about what it means to be ‘male’ and ‘female’. God designed us to be both different and similar. We need to read scripture carefully to discover what it means to be male and female. This is an area that is not clear even in the Bible; 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 relate to an audience.
5. Connect with your relational side
A stereotype in our culture is that men are less inclined to be relational. I think this is a lie that has had sad consequences. In an article I read recently, the writer voiced concerns that some people have when their sons play with dolls. Instead of seeing this as something that could inculcate values of nurture, relationality, and care, it was seen by some as a threat to masculinity. A friend told me the other day that a male acquaintance 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. But since the stereotype is that they don’t, the idea is reinforced. If men were more open to developing their relational side, and if we stopped perpetuating stereotypes, our ability to connect with different genders would improve.
6. Keep in mind that preaching to same gender audiences does not necessarily make things easier
Some people think the solution is for men to preach to men and women to preach to women. I think that this is a strange thought and 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 is the same gender, however there is still a lot going on.
Once when preaching at a women’s conference, I started by saying that God loves women and wants to enable us to be all he wants us to be. I also said that we need to advocate for gender reconciliation today. I was met by a cold silence. I had assumed that all women were in the same place as me. I was wrong. Some women don’t want what I want; some women are happy with the status quo.
I don’t have a particular style that I use if I’m preaching only to women, nor do I have particular content for women. I know that some in the audience will love cooking, others will hate it. Some will love sports, others will not. I probably expect more affirmation and feel that I don’t have to prove myself as much with a female audience. And sometimes preaching to women brings out more of my relational side. Having said that, I’d add that this is certainly not always the case. I can just as easily sometimes feel unaccepted by women, judged and misinterpreted.
YOUR TURN: What would you add to Karina’s thoughts about ways to make preaching more “gender” effective?