“I feel alone at church.”
“There aren’t other women at church who understand what I’m going through.”
“We’ve invited every single family at our church to our home, but they have all declined to meet with us, except a few.”
“At one church, another woman refused to shake my hand.”
These are just a few statements I have heard about how women feel about church in the US. These have all been shared with me in the past two months, but I have had my own share of experiences of feeling alone in church.
I am broken for these women, and I am broken for the churches where they attend.
Church doesn’t have to be this way, where women’s ministries seem to feel cold, and where leaders are so perplexed since the men’s ministries in comparison are overflowing. I don’t think this is a “Christian” issue, I believe it’s a cultural and maybe even a cross-generational issue. From my experience and research, women in other cultures around the world are incredibly gracious and help form an important part of the warm community of the church.
Laying aside culture and generation though, without a doubt, it’s most certainly a heart issue for everyone involved, as genuine fellowship is a marker of healthy faith.
Fellowship not Socializing
While doing research about whether my US friends and I were the only ones who had felt this coldness, I received a great deal of responses from women. Many had experiences where they expressed feeling alone at a church. Sometimes this was a reason why some had left attending churches altogether.
During this research, someone mentioned that church is meant for worship and not a social hour. On one hand I agree. Church’s main focus is worship. When I decry coldness, I’m not requesting that the Lord’s house be used for partying and gossip. Paul rebuked the cliquish Corinthians who were using the Lord’s supper to get drunk and indulge while others went hungry. There is definitely a reverence that is characteristic of Gospel-centered churches.
There is also a warmness that is characteristic of Gospel-centered churches. In Acts, the believers shared everything in common with one another. That’s not going to create a stuffy atmosphere. And 1 John 1 makes clear that part of walking with Christ is fellowship with one another.
Genuine fellowship is one of the many tests scripture gives believers to see if they’re walking in the light as He is in the light.
Genuine fellowship definitely includes…
- being devoted to the apostles’ teachings
- breaking bread with one another.
- confessing to one another.
- exhorting one another.
- loving one another.
- bearing one another’s burdens.
You can’t do any of these “one another” commands without actually talking to one another. You can’t do any of these commands if you’re not actively seeking proximity with one another.
So though “social hour” isn’t the idea, worship should involve time to check in with one another and hopefully even time to apply the sermon to one another’s hearts right after the sermon is finished.
Getting To It: Seeking Out Those Vulnerable Relationships
For the woman who is struggling to find meaningful relationships within church, this is what I would advise without knowing much about the situation.
You may believe you are fostering vulnerability in your relationships with other women and continuing to be shut down for no reason, but maybe you are actually the one tripping up these relationships. Perhaps you’re expecting too much but not offering enough grace. Perhaps you’re asking to hang out once, but then never speaking to that person again. Perhaps you’re caught up in your own struggles and not seeing what’s going on in other people’s lives around you. Perhaps you are so shy you’re displaying to others you don’t want to talk.
This is all SO me.
I used to really hate talking to new people first, even in church. I realized once that I had gone half a year without talking to the people I had never met in my church, (it was a medium-sized church and I had young ones, but still). I did a lot of finger-pointing without examining my own expectations to see if they were reasonable. It was all about me and not about the good of the body.
I also had started to idolize relationships of the past that had awesome vulnerability. If I couldn’t have that, it wasn’t a relationship worth pursuing. Ohhh yes. I want to shrink to admit that, but it’s for everyone’s good right? I was a total snob and hypocrite. I bet I was a real joy to be around. Haha… ha… *face-palm*
Ask the Lord for wisdom in this and to examine your own heart. To desire gospel-centered, vulnerable fellowship is beautiful and wonderful, but it’s not OK to demand it. This is something that needs to be cultivated through application of scripture and changed hearts. If you’re not the women’s leader (who can have direct influence in the shape of a women’s community), this will take time, maybe a lot of time.
Whether you’re seeking accountability or mentorship, continue to pray, ask, and seek until you find. I believe that the church is THE agent God uses to refine believers and to glorify himself among the nations. That means that the church needs each individual member as much as the other. Your church needs you; don’t forget that. Continue to seek to fill needs and seek to be filled. Don’t give up no matter how imperfect the church is.
Maybe you asked another sister to meet but she said no. Don’t assume why she said no. If you really want to know why, seek understanding by asking gentle questions of genuine concern. For example, ask, “Is it a busy season for you at the moment?” If it’s a busy season, maybe that means this woman actually needs pouring into rather than pouring out. The following Sunday, take her a meal and say you hope it helps relieve some of her stress. Making a meal is very easy, but if you know her even past the surface level, you could offer something more, like helping with childcare or running errands or picking up something and dropping it off while you’re out.
For more ideas on serving through proximity, check out this great interview with Katie Frugè.
Lead out in vulnerability. Don’t worry about what others think.
If you’re being persistent and consistently receiving no’s and walls, don’t be frustrated. Maybe God is using you to be that person to teach vulnerability because the women at your local body don’t actually know how to have gospel-centered vulnerability (as a general rule).
Open up about your own struggles anyway. You will need to lead out in showing how you can share about your sin while still finding your identity firmly rooted in Christ.
One time a pastor’s wife told me she could only share her sin with other pastors’ wives. She genuinely believed everyone thought she needed to be holy all the time and never struggle with sin. She was several decades older than me, but this type of thinking persists in churches today.
There’s an expectation among women that we must be put together, our home must be clean when company comes over, dinner must be ready and served, and our kids must be well-behaved. Culture perfection must be obtained or we’re going to be expecting a whole heap of judgment. If someone is struggling with that type of false gospel, of course they’re going to be exhausted even thinking of hosting someone. Of course they’re going to be scared about sharing their own sin and being vulnerable.
So, lead out in vulnerability and flaws. Show your sisters that perfection is something to be hoped for, not something that’s going to be completely obtained on this side of eternity. Show your sisters that your identity is in Christ, not in a thousand other requirements from our culture.
When you do open up, expect that there’s going to be two main responses. One response will be shock that you would even share that you sin. They might tell you that you don’t need to beat yourself up and that it’s OK, that Jesus loves you. Some might even say, “Well, I don’t struggle with that. Wow.”
Don’t be discouraged. This sister needs to grow in maturity because she doesn’t know everyone sins every day. This is exactly the person encountered by the pastor’s wife I mentioned earlier. But don’t make the mistake and shut yourself off forever. This sister needs your example in grace.
The second response will be deep appreciation from those who are struggling too. They also felt alone. That’s the response you’re looking for in a church where it’s cold but there’s potential. This sister just needs coaxing, and she’ll be an awesome partner in grace.
Start with the gospel, work from there.
And once you do start opening up and seeing that women need vulnerability modeled, start with the gospel. Start with sharing how you fight sin because of the hope you have in the gospel. Show how sweet, genuine, and warm fellowship is possible because of what Christ has done in you and is doing in them too.
Remind the other woman that there’s nothing she could possibly do that would make you think she’s anything other than a redeemed and justified sister in Christ. She is a new creation who is still trapped in the old flesh and you want to help her in that fight to believe in Christ more.
Until her identity is strongly rooted in Christ rather than cultural expectations, she needs to learn to trust you before she is able to be vulnerable. She cannot, without a strong foundation in the gospel, open up easily.
If you need help with how to build accountability, this article and matching infographic is a great resource.
Sister, I love you dearly. I pray this article helps you and if it doesn’t help with your specific situation, please let me know. I do want to help and maybe that means prayer. I would love to pray for you and about what’s going on in your life. Also, hearing about your story will help me to understand why on earth some US churches are cold among women. The “why’s and how’s” boggle my brain sometimes.
This week, I want to challenge you to:
- Examine your heart and see where you might be adding to coldness in your church.
- Introduce yourself to someone you haven’t met at church.
- Re-invite someone you’ve asked before to get together, and if she says no, find out why.
- If lady from #3 doesn’t need to be served, find out how you can serve another lady who is struggling. Ask your pastor or a women’s pastor if you really just don’t know anyone at all.
I believe these are manageable steps for a first week in walking in faith toward gospel-centered vulnerability.
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