A note from Chris Adams: In a key women’s ministry meeting with leaders from across the country, one of the main topics discussed was connecting the different ages of women through mentoring. One of the leaders in attendance was Amanda Thornton, young women’s minister at Green Acres Baptist Church in Tyler, Texas. (I’m partial to this church where I had the privilege of serving on staff before coming to LifeWay!) I believe you will be blessed by hearing Amanda’s perspective on this issue and you will earn from her experience with bridge-building!
By Amanda Thornton
In the movie “Field of Dreams,” Kevin Costner’s character heard a soft voice tell him: “If you build it, they will come.” He couldn’t sleep and he couldn’t eat until he carried out these instructions. All he could think about was building a baseball field in the middle of his farm! Although everyone around him thought he was crazy, he ultimately ended up building the baseball field and a bunch of ghostly looking baseball players showed up and played ball!
Now, I understand it’s only a movie, but if we examine women’s ministry efforts through the lens of this analogy, we might uncover a conflicting dichotomy — if you build it, people may or not come and those who do come may never come back! Isn’t it so frustrating to hear that still, small voice telling you to “build it” and then you plan an event of which no one seems to commit (or RSVP for that matter)? You carry out the typical protocol: You pray, make a plan, round up your leadership team, pray again, make a budget, and pray some more only to find little to no commitment. It’s not only discouraging, but also energy draining.
Instead, I would like to recommend that we set our minds to something simpler: BRIDGE-BUILD and they will come! Women are seeking environments that provide connections and bridge-building opportunities. They crave environments not events. As one young woman once commented to me, “I attended one women’s event and it was great, but I didn’t feel a connection, so I just never went back.” Focusing on a strategy rather than a bridge-building environment, not only steers us away from connecting women, but also creates more work for those involved.
For example, we’ve recently began meeting n a home where college women are given the chance to connect with other women from different generations. To my surprise, we received an amazingly positive response. Each week, women continue to return and we gain someone new just about every time we meet. No big plan or program, just women breaking bread together, then sitting in a living room praying and sharing testimony.
Why is this approach working so well as opposed to everything else we’ve tried? From my observation, the key here is the environment. It fosters bridge building! Meeting in a home with women from all generations provides a safe and comfortable environment for deeper connections to form. Mixing the generations also follows the Titus 2:3-5 Scriptures: “Likewise, teach the older women to be reverent in the way they live, not to be slanderers or addicted to much wine, but to teach what is good. Then they can urge the younger women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no one will malign the word of God” (Titus 2:3-5 NIV). Lastly, meeting in a home motivates women to practice sharing their testimonies while providing each one with a platform to be heard.
I’ve observed that women feel significant when they’re allowed to find their voice, share their voice and form connections. The struggle though is with the “how.” I believe that young women are craving deeper connections and authenticity, so if that’s true, why is it that we find young women losing interest or showing lowered commitment when there’s a Bible study, luncheon or conference? The environment in which we hold our events, our studies and our luncheons can actually counteract our bridge-building efforts and block women from feeling a connection with one another. Overall, the environment means everything.
So, what might be counteracting your bridge-building efforts with the postmodern young women?
1. The Classroom/Lecture Environment
One area that our young women’s prayer team (S.H.E. Prays) is praying about is how to create an environment that allows women to “pull back the curtain.” When I worked with the ministry of Christian Women’s Job Corps, one of the sites in Mississippi continued to struggle with their retention of participants. They would spend long hours preparing for their sessions, have a large number of participants apply, but would then see a large number drop out after two weeks. The site coordinators were not only discouraged, but were on the verge of feeling defeated. As we talked about the possible reasons for their high dropout rate, the Lord placed a visual of their classroom on my heart and I soon found out that it was set up in lecture style with a podium and speaker standing at the front, tables all facing in forward rows. I immediately recognized two issues: first, within this type of classroom/lecture style setting, the participants who had previous struggles in school were now having to re-live it, making them uncomfortable and second, the classroom/lecture style setting provides little to no room for connections and dialogue between anyone other than the teacher and the participant. Overall, the participants were not being allowed to “pull back the curtain” with one another and they quit attending.
2. The Parental Environment
In years past, when I attended women’s ministry events where there were predominantly older women present, I would actually get excited. I love to hear from the older, spiritually mature women in the church, learning from them and getting their advice about life. However, there has been a time or two when I became uncomfortable when an older woman (not my mother) would correct me or call someone out without first getting to know them. I like to call this instantaneous switch in roles the “Mommy Mode.” When it happens, I immediately feel my walls go up and my desire to connect dissipates. Another young woman once told me about a time when she was in the grocery store and had her 1-year-old sitting in the shopping cart unbuckled. An older woman, who she did not know, approached her and said, “He’s going to fall out of there, so you need to buckle him up!” Immediately, the young woman’s guard went up and she became defensive. In my opinion, this parental approach accompanied by “you need to” caused an uncomfortable shift in roles. The older woman inadvertently established herself as the judging parent and the young woman as a reprimanded child. No matter one’s age, without a prior relationship with someone, a parent-esque comment can appear judgmental, condescending and counteractive to the bridge-building process. It deflates the opportunity for mentorship, but more importantly, hinders evangelism efforts.
3. The Age Segregated Environment
As the church grows, it’s easy to assume that women only want to connect with other women their age. However, in my opinion, segregating groups by age not only hinders the bridge-building process, but also deprives women of potential mentorship and discipleship opportunities. A few years ago, the Lord placed me in partnership with an older woman who helped me coordinate the Christian Women’s Job Corps site for three counties in Northeast Mississippi. At first, I thought it was difficult to work with her mainly because of the generational differences, but overtime, I began to respect her gifts as a leader and recognize the balance we brought to the table as a team. The Lord paired her wisdom and experience with my excitement and vision to bring forth an effective partnership. Without her, I would have felt lost. It was because of her support and input that I was able to find my voice.
In Ruth 1:15-16, we see the younger Ruth yearning to follow the older Naomi (despite Naomi’s assumption that the two young widows would want to go off together). It was through Naomi’s mentorship that Ruth blossomed into the woman that God called her to be: “Look,” said Naomi, “your sister-in-law is going back to her people and her gods. Go back with her.” But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God” (Ruth 1:15-16 NIV).
After reading through these counteractive/bridge blockers, is there a special formula that all women will respond to with fervor? The answer is simply, no. There is no one formula that will appeal to all women, but when searching Scripture, we find in Acts 2:42-43, the apostles kept it simple — teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread and prayer. With the Holy Spirit’s leading, they were unified and had one common goal. Teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread and prayer helped create an environment where the people felt unified. Simplicity at its best! Nevertheless, I can only imagine that the women of the early church didn’t meet in a classroom, sanctuary or lecture hall. They probably sat in a circle on the floor in someone’s home.
So, before you pray, make a plan, round up your leadership team, pray again, make a budget, and pray some more only to get to the end and find little to no commitment, revisit your environment. Would the apostles of the Bible feel comfortable with this? Nevertheless, they’d probably tell you: If we BRIDGE- BUILD, they will come.
Amanda Thornton is the young women’s minister at Green Acres Baptist Church in Tyler, Texas. She leads the S.H.E. women’s ministry, which encourages young women age 20-40 to “Seek Him Earnestly” (Psalm 63:1) through discipleship, worship, prayer and daily living. She also helped design and co-author a work-in-progress, Stepping Stones—God’s Unfolding Plan of Salvation: A Chronological Bible Study Course for Diverse Groups. Amanda has served as executive director of two Christian Women’s Job Corps sites: CWJC Tyler and a second site during her time in Mississippi. She and her meteorologist husband, Robert Thornton, recently returned to the Tyler area from Mississippi with their two preschoolers, Caralise and Caleb.