I remember a Bible study leader once remarking to me, “There are always the same women who participate in Bible study and always those who never join in.” She said it as though it was a foregone conclusion and nothing could be done to change it.
While I’ve certainly seen some of this in women’s ministry, I think that such expectations can lead us to neglect those on the sidelines altogether. Rather than expect certain women never to participate, I think it’s helpful to ask questions such as: Who are the women on the sidelines? Why are they there? What are the barriers that keep them from participating in ministry? And what are some creative ways to include them?
Women on the Sidelines
The apostle Paul compared the church body to that of the human body. “For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another” (Rom. 12:4–5). Christ is our head, and we make up the parts of the church body. Paul asserted that each part of the body is important and essential to its growth. Just like a human body, when one part of the church body is not working properly, it affects the whole body.
This means that when members of our church exist only on the sidelines, the body is lacking in some way. We miss out on the gifts God gave them to contribute to the church. We are not wholly functioning as we ought because part of us is missing.
While not every woman in our church can feasibly participate in every activity, study, or group we provide in our churches, they should be connected in some way. They should have the opportunity to use their gifts for the church. They should be encouraged and equipped to grow in their faith and live out the gospel in their lives.
As ministry leaders, it is important that we consider some of the barriers that keep women on the sidelines. While we may not know every reason that keeps a woman from engaging with church life, we can explore some common reasons. Knowing these reasons can help us better connect with these sisters in Christ.
Barriers for Those on the Sidelines
What might some of those barriers be?
Have you ever been the odd man out? Perhaps you joined your spouse or a friend to attend their company’s Christmas party. As you sat at the table, everyone talked about office politics. They talked about people you didn’t know. They shared inside jokes and recounted stories of the boss’s particular idiosyncrasies. Because you weren’t familiar with these stories, you had little to offer.
In a similar way, there are women in our churches who are on the outside, simply because they do not fit a particular group dynamic of the church. Perhaps your church is filled with married couples and she is not married. Perhaps your church is filled with young professionals and she is a retired grandmother. Or maybe your church is made up of one ethnicity and she is of a different ethnicity. Maybe most women in the Bible study have been Christians for much of their lives and they seem to know the Bible inside out. She, however, is a new Christian and couldn’t tell you where to find Malachi or Romans. Whatever the difference, she feels like she is on the outside.
Busy Season of Life
Some seasons of life are busier and more intense than others. Often, the activities, small groups, and studies churches offer assume people have margin when they do not. Or they assume certain times of day are open for everyone. Some women would love to participate in a Bible study, but they are working during the day and then driving their children back and forth to activities in the evenings. Or what about young moms who have littles at home and cannot get away during the day for a small group or study?
New to the Church
Those who are new may not know all your ministry has to offer. They may not know how to register for the fall luncheon or where you meet for your studies. Women who are new to the church don’t know all the nuances to church life at your particular church, and as a result, they might miss out on being a part of it.
Never Been Personally Invited
We often announce our events or studies from the pulpit or post them on social media. But how often do we reach out to people in person and invite them to something? How often do we reach out to those women who rarely participate and ask them to come to an event or to be a part of a small group?
Other barriers include not being able to drive, having a disability of some kind, having a compromised immune system which keeps her homebound, having to care for an elderly parent or child with special needs, and more. It is important that we consider all these factors and explore creative ways to include all women in the church.
Four Creative Ways to Include All Women
1. Reach out to those on the sidelines.
Is there a woman who has been a church member for years but never attended a Bible study? Reach out to her and invite her for coffee. Get to know her. Learn about her gifts. Encourage her to use her gifts for the good of the church. Learn about the barriers that keep her from participating. Invite her to the next ministry event and sit with her. Introduce her to others. Sometimes a personal invitation makes all the difference.
2. Consider doing things differently.
Have you always had a midmorning study? Consider starting an evening study so those who work can attend. For those in a busy season of life, consider offering a once-a-month small group. If you’ve always catered to women in one particular season of life, consider ways to change things up so that those in other seasons of life can participate as well. Consider ways to include singles and widows, college students, those with disabilities, and those who have to care for a loved one. Consider ways to connect those on the sidelines with one another—perhaps through service, a mentoring relationship, or praying together.
3. Encourage women to use their gifts.
God has given every member of the body of Christ gifts to use to build up the church (Eph. 4:11–13). Encourage all women in the church to use their gifts. Help women to find ways to utilize their gifts. And tell other women what their gifts mean to you.
4. Meet practical needs.
Perhaps there is a widow who can’t participate because she is unable to drive. Connect her with a young woman who can pick her up and bring her to Bible study. Consider providing childcare so young moms can participate. Find ways to serve the sick and homebound.
I don’t believe it is a foregone conclusion that some women will never participate in the life of the church. As ministry leaders, may we seek to reduce the barriers and find creative ways to include all our women so that “when each part is working properly, [it] makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love” (Eph. 4:16).