Archive for February 2018

The Value of Representation

Sitting in the dimly lit theater waiting for the movie to start, my mum and I watched as group after group of excited friends and families poured into their seats. Many were dressed all in black, some in beautiful and ornate African designs, a few in Black Panther t-shirts. Everyone was smiling, from the oldest grandma to the littlest child. And while I was thrilled for this movie, I could only imagine the soul-deep fulfillment for the people of color in the audience finally seeing such empowering representation on the big screen from Marvel. I felt this as a woman when I saw DC’s “Wonder Woman.” Representation matters. Not just for kids, who need to see people who look and are like them to show them who they can grow up to be, but for adults too. To know we are seen, we are valued, we are home.

This Sunday, I got to sit in a room full of Biblical Counselors or those training to be, both men and women. We were asked to go around an introduce ourselves, sharing how we got into counseling. We were seen. We were valued. Though I was entirely freaked out as I walked into the room, a relative newbie to this church, only recognizing a couple of faces and having no true friends yet, I left feeling enthusiastic about the ministry and looking forward to the next meeting. You see, there were men and women of all stages of life there, and we were all given a voice. Singles, marrieds, retirees, professionals, students, parents, different ages and races, we were a good representation of the church as a whole.

As a single adult in the church, representation is an issue. The assumption that all good Christians will get married and have kids is embedded into the very fabric of the church, and reveals itself in every sermon and Sunday school class.

In my Sunday school class this week, this back and forth occurred:
“What does it take for someone to become an elder?”
“He has to live up the standards in scripture.”
“We should ask his wife about him, then, because she’d know best!”
General snickers from the many married couples in the room followed.

It was a tiny quip, didn’t mean much, but it revealed the underlying belief that, of course, all the elders would have wives to ask. And, at almost every church I’ve ever gone to, though marriage was not an elder requirement, every elder was, indeed, a married man. While 1 Timothy, Titus, and 1 Peter give a pretty detailed look at how elders should be chosen, the “husband of one wife” parts are generally considered not to be a command of marriage, but a call to sexual purity, thus marriage is not considered to be a requirement by most church elder boards. Instead, it has become a cultural one, based on the subtle belief that a mature godly man means a married man, usually a father.

Since it is the elder board which makes the big decisions regarding how many churches operate, there rarely is representation at this level for single men, and none for women, married or single. The idea is that these mature, godly, married male elders will keep the best interests of their entire congregation in mind when applying biblical principles to running the church. This is good – I’m a fan of that idea, and have deeply respected most of the elders of my churches, trusting them. My concern is that they might not even know when they are not representing the whole church, but are basing judgments on their own limited experiences and perspectives, because there is no other voice on the board to question or give a differing viewpoint. No women. No singles. And usually very few minorities.

To think that a group of mostly white, all married men, no matter how wise and kind, will be able to understand how certain verses will affect a single woman when preached a certain way, how an event might alienate those of another race, how the use of only sports and macho metaphors for men’s conferences might influence young boys, how the constant mentioning of young marriage could hit a high school girl, is naive. No one can see through the eyes of everyone, no matter how much they might try. We are all limited. We’re created that way, so we must rely on others to help us flesh out a whole view. We are meant to lean on communities built up of different races, ages, and life stages but in church leadership, this doesn’t always happen. This then trickles down to the entire congregation as a little comment here or a sermon there gets taken as the norm for Christian society.

One of the most important things to me in the church is having men in leadership who try their best to lift up the voices of those around them, who try to build up each person in their care so they can grow and minister to others. I’ve been blessed in my life by past mentors who, though I was a single woman, reached out to me to try to help me grow and learn to help others grow. If our churches are going to have 100% married male leadership, then we need one of their biggest goals to be pouring into those in their care who are not like them and finding ways to help them help others. We need them to see us! We need them to open up opportunities for women, for minorities, for singles to actively minister.

This Sunday, every person on the stage and standing up with an active role in the congregation at my church was male. The worship leader at the piano, the children’s pastor who did announcements, the guy running the soundboard, the pastor giving the sermon, the men passing around the offering plates, heck even the greeters at each door were men. Mostly older, married men. Fathers. I’m a fan of fathers – mine was the best of men and I loved him entirely. Still, it would be nice to have some women involved somewhere, some singles. How much effort would it take to allow women to be part of the team that pass around the offering plates or help with communion? How about letting a single woman do the announcements for once? How about having a mix of male and female greeters? Why not have the singles ministry actually be led by a happily single adult??? It honestly shouldn’t be this hard to get representation in the church for more than just married white men, even in the most conservative ones. I’ve been part of churches that have worked hard to do this, why can’t they all?

I’m not asking for revolution, for all churches to have female head pastors and elders, but I do ask for deaconesses, for roles in ministry, for every other option available to be opened to women and single men. I’m asking for the church to stop limiting its view of maturity to male marriage and parenthood.

Representation matters. Why are single people leaving the church? Why don’t we stay? A better question might be, why should we stay when we don’t feel like we’re really a part of it? Why should we keep attending once we age out of the “singles group” led by a married pastor who has stated out loud that his goal is to get everyone married off? Why should we stay when we are often depicted by church leadership as held in a perpetual state of immaturity, never quite allowed to grow up with our married counterparts?

I don’t think church leadership does this on purpose, but that it’s just something they’ve not thought much about. After all, they’re married men with kids so that’s the only perspective they know. So, let’s branch out, guys. As much as is biblically possible. If you can’t represent the singles in your midst, work to find someone who can. And please, can every sermon illustration stop being about macho men, fatherhood, parenthood, and marriage? Try one about roommates, friends, work, taxes, heck – standing in line at the grocery store, anything that might have a more universal appeal. Try it one Sunday – an entire Sunday without references specifically targeting married men. An entire day trying to represent the rest of us. How sad that this would be a novelty.

Representation matters. The church needs to stop pretending it doesn’t.

A Galentine’s Reading Recommendation

While I am a fan of female writers and do what I can to encourage and support the women who write in my life, I have a guilty secret. When it comes to books written by Christian women for Christian women, my first instinct is to flee. Like King Arthur’s men running away from the Killer Rabbit of Caerbannog, I cannot bear to stick it out for long. My Amazon queue is filled with books for women just like me, highly recommended by friends, yet they never quite make it to the shopping cart alongside the graphic novels and decaf PG Tips shipped from England.

As a child, I was that little girl who wore pink day in and day out. And then, the day after I graduated from junior high in Pepto-Bismol pink taffeta and tulle, I was done. After several years of wearing all black, it took a conscious effort to reintroduce color into my wardrobe, and only in the past decade have I allowed hints of pink back in. Like most women, I am both a girly girl and a tough broad. I paint my nails, love soaking in a bath by candlelight, and can host the girliest high tea ever, but I also tromp about in Dr. Martens, squash my own bugs, own my own toolkit, and drink scotch neat. This is normal for women – we contain multitudes.

Yet many books targeted to our spiritual growth seem to ignore this fact. From generic “feminine” covers, poorly kerned curly fonts, and chapter after chapter narrowing biblical womanhood down to the big two of “wife” and “mother,” I have developed an uncontrollable cringe at the sight or sound of books for Christian women.

I still have a bit of PTSD from the last time I got excited for one such text. My church (which was fabulous, and never underestimated women) was going to have a women’s tea, and the speaker had written a book entitled “Fierce Women.” For once, I actually wanted to go to a women’s event! Fierce Women!!! Wow. I had images of Wonder Womanesque Amazons dancing in my head as I quickly ordered the book online. After the 2 day shipping, it finally arrived and I tore into the bubbly envelope only to find they had actually put a picture of a bride, in full gown and veil, on the cover. I was floored. And, while I’m sure it’s an incredible book (I think it probably really is, based on what my married friends have told me!), I only got through the first chapter which confirmed that, yes, like almost every other book for Christian women, it highlighted a woman’s fierceness in wife/mother roles in almost every section, with just a touch here and there to placate the singles. Not gonna lie, I canceled my ticket to the tea and shoved the book into my shelves, never to look at it again.

Books that target Christian single women are almost worse than the ones that have 10 chapters for the married mothers and 1 tacked on to gloss over singleness in shallow fashion. Now, to be fair once again, my automatic flinch mechanism has kept me from reading many published books for single Christian women, so I’m going to work on that and try again. I’ve heard there are some brilliant ones out there now. But if I read one more book that looks at Christian singleness as a place to develop skills to become a fantastic wife and mother, looks at sex as merely something we don’t do until we do (when we’re married, of course), looks at courtship as the answer to all our dating woes, promises a husband when I just change this one thing, or sees singleness as a temporary life stage on the way to the inevitable godly goal of husband and kids, I might just have to start chucking books out the window. Or, better yet, at every singles pastor (all married, every single one of them) who espouses these same views and sees the main goal of their ministry as trying to marry off everyone in their group.

However, over the past year as I’ve been blogging and discussing singleness and womanhood in the church, I’ve stumbled across quite a few Christian women who write, who also happen to be single, and who are awesome. Twitter, which I still suck at, has been eye-opening for me in that there’s this lovely little community of other ladies who love God, write blogs, articles, and books, and also happen to be single. One such woman, Joy Beth Smith, celebrated her book release this week, and once again I found myself excitedly waiting for it to arrive on my doorstep. This time there was no throwing of the paperback across the room or angry texting to my sister for moral support. This time, there was the opening of the Notes app on my phone so I could converse with the book as I read it. This time, there was hope.

Joy Beth Smith is a managing editor with Christianity Today who also happens to have her MA in English Lit, which might be one of the reasons I clicked with her so quickly when I read her tweets (@JBsTwoCents). I’m an English Lit major myself. She’s also 10 years younger than me, which is a bit annoying because she’s not supposed to be able to write a book like this one this well yet. Sigh. One day I might catch up! Anyway, I couldn’t put it down. I read through it in 2 nights, with my mum checking in every hour or two to see if I was still enjoying it. She was pretty surprised to see me reading this bright teal fauxligraphy fonted cover with (gasp) a little black dress as the A in “Party of One.” Yet, there I was, happily devouring it.

Party of One: Truth, Longing, and the Subtle Art of Singleness” is broken into 3 parts dealing with unfulfilled promises, sex and other stumbling blocks, and hopeless dating with hopes for marriage. Though I did take notes as I went through it, I’ve decided not to blog through those because I think you should all order the book and read it for yourselves. The main thing I appreciated about this book is how Smith validates singleness as valuable and godly rather than merely something to be overcome. She reminds us that joy and maturity are accessible to all Christians, not just through marriage and parenting. And she does so with humor, intelligence, a biblical perspective, and genuine knowledge of and care for Christian singles.

She also tackles the oft-taboo topics of sexuality, masturbation, and pornography. I appreciate how she doesn’t sugar-coat or avoid discussing these subjects, things that are often vaguely alluded to or glossed over in much Christian writing for single women. We are adults, we can take it. We need to hear it. We need to discuss it. Maybe it’s because of my background in social work and counseling, but very little shocks me so I find this kind of frank discussion empowering and helpful rather than embarrassing. You might not agree with everything she says, and that’s okay. The best reading will provoke thought and add to the ongoing discussion, and this one does just that.

Using a blend of intelligent questions about the topics, practical applications, real life examples brought up in round tables she had all over the country with other single Christian women, and personal experience, Smith is engaging and thought-provoking. One of my favorite parts is when she presents multiple views on a topic and calls on us to think about it, continue the conversation she’s started, and come to our own conclusions. After sermons, articles, and books written by once-single-now-married people which can come across as unrelatable, heavy handed, or even condescending, Smith’s voice is refreshingly real. This book is more the beginning of a conversation the church should have been having with its singles for decades, but hasn’t gotten the hang of yet. It’s the beginning of the conversation we single Christian women can continue among ourselves and with those who love and support us. There is more to be said on the art of singleness, and this book allows for discussion, disagreement, questions, and further conversation. And, even though the book is mainly aimed at single Christian women, I believe it would be an excellent beginning to a conversation for single men and married couples as well. Let’s not shy away from this, but embrace it, and let voices like Joy Beth Smith’s lead the way.

Who have you been reading lately? Anyone I should put in my Amazon shopping cart, and skip the queue entirely? I promise I’ll try to be more open minded. But if there’s a bride on the cover, I might not be able to contain myself…

The Church’s Silencing of Single Women

This morning, as I grabbed a seat in my Sunday school class, a man stopped as he walked by to read the button on my purse. With a quizzical look, he read, “Hear Our Voice” and looked up to me for explanation. I happily stated, “it’s from the women’s march a couple weeks ago.” His eyes grew wide, and he literally started to back away from me saying, “have a nice day” as he turned and walked away. Like a big alarm had gone off for him, blaring “Do Not Engage!!!”

Many thoughts went through my head as I watched him flee in fear of me. Deep sadness at knowing I was, yet again, judged for being a “liberal” in this conservative town. Amusement at his discomfort. Grief that the conversation hadn’t continued because it could have been an awesome one. And the resigned exasperation of yet another woman who rarely gets a chance to be heard in the church, to explain herself, to be taken seriously. I thought, if I’d had a husband standing by my side, the conversation probably would have gone on much longer and perhaps could have even led to greater mutual understanding.

As a woman in the evangelical church, my role is limited already. I cannot be in leadership positions over men, can’t be a pastor or elder, apparently can’t even serve communion at most churches. Many churches who allow for women to be deacons will only have a couple, and they’re usually the heads of children’s ministries. Female representation is rare as these churches are usually led by all-male elder boards and sermons are taught by all-male pastors. A female perspective isn’t included in this picture. Yeah, they might run some things by their wives from time to time, but the vast majority of day to day decision making and sermonizing is from an entirely male perspective. It’s not that they’re trying to preach from a male-oriented view, it’s that they don’t even realize a different view could exist in the church. Their way of teaching, their way of reading, their way of applying the Bible is the right way. The idea that women might see things differently, yet still be biblically accurate, would seem heretical.

I’m not going to get into a complementarian vs egalitarian debate in this post, as that’s not the point. Whether you believe female leadership is biblically okay or biblically forbidden is another matter entirely. I’m just stating that much of the evangelical church has this hierarchy in leadership, and women’s voices are pretty low down the ladder. Here’s my added argument: that the voices of single women are even lower still.

As a woman without the headship of a husband, I can be seen as a threat. I don’t have a husband to reign me in, to filter my thoughts and speech. Adult single women in the church can even be seen as dangerous, like talking to us can be risky. Risky for the wives, because our independent ways might rub off on them. Risky for the husbands, because we single women must be on the hunt for a man so might try to seduce them away from their marriages. Risky for the church, because we might be upstarts and rebels.

While women in general often do not merit the level of respect in the church that men do, single women get even less. Married women can be respected because of their husbands, that association protects and lifts them up. After all, in many evangelical churches today, the highest calling for a woman is as wife and mother – so if you’re fulfilling this calling, you have earned honor. And while I agree that being a wife and mother can be an epically awesome way to glorify God, holding it up as the gold standard over the heads of those of us who just can’t quite seem to get married or have kids, who aren’t the perfect little homemakers, is a pretty horrible thing to do. Sorry, but we can’t all be the Joanna Gaineses of the world.

Single men can suffer voicelessness to a certain level as well, for they can be seen as irresponsible and immature. The mark of a Real Man in the church is often that you are husband and father, and if you don’t fit this mold by a certain age, you need to “be a man” and “settle down.” Though single men are much less likely to actually be hired by a church than their married counterparts, they are still more likely to have positions of influence than any woman, married or single, and single women are definitely the bottom of the barrel.

There are individual churches that work hard to hear women’s voices, even those of single women. I’ve been lucky enough to be part of churches like that. But this seems to be the exception more than the rule.

Two weeks ago, as I stood side by side with almost 600,000 other women in the streets of Downtown Los Angeles, I felt like my voice might actually be heard. Yes, I am different from many of the women there – I am a Christian feminist. But the response to my sign was 100% positive, with many people commenting on it, wanting pictures of it, and telling me they were just like me, were glad I was there, or were so excited to see that represented. Surrounded by women who often feel voiceless, and men and children who wanted to give us the chance to be heard, was a profound and beautiful experience. But no one in the church will discuss this with me. No one will even ask about it. No one from church commented on my social media pictures, no one asked questions, no one even tried to debate my going. Because what does it matter? I’m just one single woman. My thoughts and ideas don’t make a dent in the church.

I realize this post is a bit more emotionally charged than usual – it is not researched and backed up by Bible verses. But guys, I’ve got to tell you, it’s incredibly demoralizing to feel silenced over and over again. To feel like the very church I’ve grown up in, been educated in, have served and ministered in, and thrived in often sees me as someone to be silenced, or maybe just ignored.

I’ve considered, very seriously, just leaving the modern evangelical church altogether and seeking out more progressive pastures, as most of the single women bloggers and writers out there have done. I get the appeal. I’m drawn to it. But my heart, and my head still belong to the reformed church. This rebellious liberal is actually quite theologically conservative. Shocking, I know. So I can’t bring myself to jump ship. Besides, if everyone who is struggling with the post-Trump views subtly (or obviously) infusing the American evangelical church today leaves, what will become of it? If we all run away, will we not be partially complicit for allowing these poisonous views to grow and thrive?

Or maybe this feminist Christian will just chuck it all and move somewhere I can happily be a liberal Christian, drink wine with communion, and go to women’s marches with a whole truck load of my fellow church-goers. Who knows.

For now, I’ve decided to be a gently squeaking wheel in the machine I’ve so loved. Maybe, just maybe, if I’m at my new church a little longer, make more friends, get more involved in ministry, maybe, just maybe, my voice will be heard. Maybe, if enough of us speak up, if enough single women share our concerns with love and grace, the church will take us more seriously. Maybe, if we stick around trying to help the vulnerable, lift up the weak, and love the least loved in policy and practice, the church will follow our example. Yeah, we’re not supposed to be in leadership, but persistent examples of Godly love for others are hard to ignore.

To all the non-singles in the church, I challenge you to listen. Just listen. Ask your single brothers and sisters in Christ questions and listen to their answers without trying to “solve” their concerns. If you are in leadership in a church, ask yourself how you can give single women a platform, how you can help them grow and teach and speak and minister. Find ways to involve women in the decision making aspects of the church. Run sermon ideas by women to see how they’ll come across to the other half of the audience. Get creative. Consider that only getting input from those who represent 1/2 the congregation might not work. Consider that single people have as much to offer the church as married ones. Just ponder the possibility. Start there.

My challenge to all the single Christians out there is to make your voices heard. Become so involved in the ministries and day to day lives of your churches that they can’t help but listen. Help peel away the prejudiced views that have been built up over decades regarding the value of singleness in the church and in the world. Do not allow yourselves to be silenced, but with humility and grace, keep speaking.

I end this post somewhere between heartbreak and hope.