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July 10, 2012

A Challenge to the Chronically Underchallenged

The message much of the church gives women—and what we should do about that.

Growing up in the church, I was inspired to serve the Lord with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength. When I was a teenager, I responded enthusiastically to the messages I heard in youth group—visions of the impact God can make on the world with the life on one courageous Christian; calls to discipleship; challenges to think biblically and boldly about ethical and moral dilemmas that are easier to avoid. I signed up for outreach opportunities, service projects, and leadership training.

When I became an adult, I realized the church must have been talking to the boys in the youth group. Because joining the ranks of grown women meant I stopped hearing those challenges, stopped having church-sponsored opportunities to reach out to others, do something difficult in the power of Christ, and ask myself tough questions about what it means to follow Jesus in this brilliant and terrifying world. I received a new set of messages from the church.

This is how the church challenges women: Attend the Christmas tea. Keep quiet. Being a mother is your highest calling. The best way to serve your neighbors is to indulge in shopping for fair trade items you don’t need. Enjoy spa day, frequently. Be modest. Be sexy in a Christian way. Lose weight by praying and eating foods grown in ancient Palestine. Breastfeed or else. Your greatest accomplishment is being weak enough to be rescued and protected. Stay in the background. Spend all your time with other Christian women. You’re too busy; let us make life easier for you.

We are the most educated, wealthy, powerful generation of women in the history of the world. We have the ears of politicians and media moguls. Advertisers hang on our every whim. Entertainment and product designs are shaped around our preferences. We are networked through social media in ways that our foremothers could not even have dreamed of. In many ways, we literally have the world at our fingertips. And some of us actually have time on our hands. Yet in the church, many of us hear a nonstop call to action, aimed only at men. Many women believe they must wait on their husbands’ direction before mobilizing for God’s kingdom. Every year on Mother’s Day, we hear sermons praising mothers, and often women in general, for their great and loving deeds. On Father’s Day, we hear sermons challenging men to do more.

No wonder so many women are weak, neurotic, and standing on the sidelines. We are educated, gifted, equipped, and called to shoulder half the burden God has asked the church to carry. And we are chronically underchallenged.

It’s not that we don’t have enough to do. We’re definitely busy enough. We are taxed and weary and worried. But we aren’t expected to do great things. We are overworked and underchallenged.

When people are underchallenged for long periods of time, they become bored, unhappy, and unmotivated. They stop growing, stop thinking, weaken, and lose their vision and courage for what they could and should be doing with the gifts God has given them. And they often leave to find a place that will stimulate them in a way that causes their neurons and their muscles to fire and flex.

I believe this is the general state of Christian women in our culture. We underestimate and undervalue our own contributions. We buy into the lie that our great Christian mission is the pursuit of our own spiritual comfort. That a Christian lifestyle means living the same way as the world around us, with the addition of a few items we purchased at a Christian store. We settle into the belief that our sphere of influence can and should extend only as far as own family and friends. And by doing so, we reject the mission God gave each of us when he placed us here, now, for the sake of his own kingdom.

We can’t wait for someone else to change this; the ones to challenge women are women themselves. Those of us called to leadership in the church must identify the gifts we see in other women and give them a vision for how they might exercise those gifts. We especially need to identify ministries for which women are specially gifted or equipped. We must awaken and invest ourselves in things that will remain long after we’re gone. We must expect more of ourselves and each other.

God has never called anyone to selfishness. He has not given us gifts so that we could neglect them. “God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline” (2 Timothy 1:7). We are called to carry the presence of Christ with us everywhere we go, so powerfully that the world is different (and better) because God placed us here.

Imagine a generation of Christian women pouring out of the doors of the spa and into the streets. Leaving the church armed with compassion and purpose. Building on their friendships to form powerful networks for cultural change. Being the church, arm in arm with their brothers in Christ, living for something that matters. Let’s start with this kind of vision for ourselves—and translate that into action that makes a difference.

Amy Simpson is editor of GiftedforLeadership.com, a freelance writer, and author Into the Word: How to Get the Most from Your Bible (NavPress). www.AmySimpsonOnline.com

Related Tags: challenge, leadership, ministry, serving, women


interesting... and well timed for me, as i have been praying for what/where/how God wants me to serve as i end one ministry commitment & have nothing new on the horizon. i have been feeling that motherhood & being a pastor's wife just may be 'it' for now... thanks for leading me to actively pray for a larger vision of cultural change.

I'm baffled that this post has been up for two days and not garnered much commentary. Amy, I wholeheartedly agree with you! The (white, middle class, evangelical) church has taught this message to women quite thoroughly. And as you say, those who can't fit the consumer mold often leave.

This is a sad, sad state of affairs: sad that it exists, and even sadder that we can't even speak up to agree with you, let alone take action.

Amen! I agree with everything in your article. As a therapist at a Christian clinic, I run into this so often, but wasn't able to put my finger on the issue. This helped put words to what I was sensing and seeing in my practice - and in my church. Thank you for putting out this challenge!

I agree that we as women need to break out and challenge ourselves. But it doesn't really help to take aim at the nebulous "culture" of society. Surely the one area that we as Christian women can make a difference is in helping the poor? It's harder and requires us to step out of comfortable middle-class existence, but what could be more counter-cultural than reaching out to the most marginal members of society and showing them Jesus' love and compassion? How blind we are to the loneliness and pain all around us! Especially in cities.

I agree with most everything you said, except for the "dis" on breastfeeding ~ I have 4 kids and did NOT breastfeed; at the time they told us that formula was actually MORE nutritional and would prevent allergies from developing in your baby... WRONG. My kids are LOADED with allergies and immune issues (something I & their father never suffered from) and now research says it's due to never having been breast-fed. Apparently they found this out after formula companines donated tons of formula to third world countries and the kids there started developing allergies like crazy, something largely unheard of there. Breastfeeding actually helps your baby develop a proper immune system SO ladies - feed the poor, clothe the naked, counsel the hurting, and BREASTFEED your children.

Funny this came out just now. I have just been thinking about how easy it is as a stay-at-home mom to become surrounded by only Christians. We go to Bible study, church, Christian play group, and, around here, even Christian exercise group. The sad part is that steps I have taken to put myself in the path of non-Christians have been looked down on. I would love to have friends that got together and prayed for each other as we intentionally put ourselves in the path of the lost world.
I would also say though that men often go unchallenged also. I think as a culture the church in the US loves to be comfortable.

Amy, I laughed out loud at: "Lose weight by praying and eating foods grown in ancient Palestine." You're funny. :) I do believe we are underchallenged, and I think we are also resigned... not all of us, but some of us. I have friends who are itching to dream again, to use their gifts more, but they just don't know how to do that and mother at the same time. It's almost like they are waiting for the challenge, or waiting for permission to 'go after' ministry outside of the home (in addition to mothering).

What a wonderful blog post! I have felt this tension, too, and can't help wonder why women's ministries always include a tea party or chocolate table. We've grown accustomed to listening to cheery, over-simplified messages about being women in the kingdom, and we've forgotten that God calls us to mission throughout our lives. So glad there are women like you, Amy, who are shaking us up and reminding us that there is so much more to the Christian life.

Thank you for this timely post.

You have described exactly how many women (and men) in the church feel about women's ministry. Your point that women are busy is well taken, but it is also true we need to be challenged just as men are challenged to ensure we are in the right place doing the right things for God's kingdom. Thanks for bringing this out for discussion.

Thank you Amy! This is exactly why I left the evangelical church! I could not believe that as a woman I was weak, needed to told and 'protected' by my husband and that the best I could aspire to in ministry was to teach Sunday school. I was unable to have children but God opened up an entire new world to me: for the last 20 years I have been a volunteer with many wonderful secular organizations in our community. Frequently I was the only Christian in the organization! I currently serve on the Board of Directors of a local sexual assault support centre and have watched God bless this wonderful organization and the women who serve it.

domine vobiscum

I very much agree that both men and women should be actively pursuing the call that God has placed on their lives, and that the church should not be encouraging any form of "sanctified selfishness." I think that playing the "the church doesn't think well enough of women" card, however, does nothing for addressing he true issue, and is unnecessarily divisive. he American church painfully resembles he church of Laodicea written about in Revelation. We - men and women alike - so often desire nothing more than our own comfort and prosperity, and a lot of churches are pandering to this. I have a feeling that if the women's study is encouraging women to spend more time in the spa, then the men's group is probably teaching the equivalent - spend more time being manly in the woods, or something silly like that.

I guess I just feel that couching this problem as a gender issue is unhelpful, and only creates a mentality of "we girls can't let ourselves be pushed around" rather than "we Christians need to get our act together."

Marilyn, I'm glad you found useful work in secular organizations (men and women have been doing that all along), but did you have to leave the church to do it? Working entirely in secular organizations, as the "only Christian," will likely pull you down to their non-christian level. You need to go to church for spiritual support. If your church wasn't providing that, perhaps you should try to find a church that meets your needs better. But don't try to do it all in secular work, if being a Christian is important to you.

I have felt a longing in my heart to do more, to live better and to use my gift of leadership, but I feel like I've been stifled into donating my time and efforts into the latest urgent need, leaving me feeling like a burned out failure. God has gifted us for different purposes and I know in my heart that I am meant for more than greeting at the front doors and volunteering for the nursery. I know there are church bodies that are fighting this norm. Our culture is constantly feeding us the entitlement gospel of "I deserve" and I do think the majority of Christians is buying into it.

And to address the breastfeeding comments, I have felt judgement from both Christians and non when I pull out a bottle of formula and feed my babies. People assume they know what's best for you and judge you accordingly without taking into account that most mothers decide do what's best for their children. Thus, we should all do it "God's way" and plan a "natural" birth, breastfeed and homeschool! Woe to those who don't (or can't).

I could have written the opening paragraph of this article. Then I went to Bible College (women could do that) and followed my husband into Seminary. It was not unusual to be stopped in the hall by other (male) students and asked why I was there. Our churches are a bit more open to women in ministry now, decades later; but, I still don't know of a multi-staff church where a woman is the lead minister. My husband and I are now both in leadership in a church that appreciates women as Christ did and gives us the freedom to do everything God calls us to do.

Well, I know we're all scattered across the globe, but I would simply have to say: "Come to my church. There's plenty for you to do in ministry and you would be most welcome to do it."

In response to Bob D:
I left the evangelical church because it didn't want me. I have a Bible college education, studied journalism, Christian history and started my Masters of Divinity degree but had to leave it when I got an eating disorder. I am deeply devoted to my Lord and the causes on His heart. I have a radical vision of the church which, apparantly is not in line with the very narrow version of Christian womanhood. This includes welcoming and befriending people normal church 'folks' don't seem to have a use for: the mentally ill, the atheists and agnostics, people who question and gay people. And I am an athlete and environmentalist. Bob, we have to do better, we need to do better. I deal with people who have been alienatde and hurt by Christians.
I have not been 'pulled down to their non-Christian level': who are we to judge? Christ died for them as much as He died for me! I have met Christians who are not very Christ-like!
And I am in a church: it is a small Christian Reformed church plant with a very active membership whom I feel blessed to know! And my relationship with my Lord is very good! Thanks for your comments!

Joyce L. Young (not Marilyn)
domine vobiscum

I am experiencing this phenomenon in my life. We are recently retired from the military. My husband served as a chaplain. we have visited many churches and finally joined a local congregation but nobody wants us to work in service! They say thanks for your service but we have so much to give. Either one of us would like a staff position, not a large paycheck just enough. We are serving on the hospitality team, door greeting and taking up the offering. I guess this is due paying? I feel exactly like the adjectives in the article. Volunteering outside the church is more welcoming. It is disheartening.

I'll see you and raise you one..."wife" of minister

It does sometimes feel like we live most of our lives down a “Christian rabbit warren” doesn’t it; popping up every now and then to “mingle with and evangelise” our non-Christian friends, before disappearing back down to our familiar world of ministry teas and ladies meetings. While these are good in themselves, we constantly need to address the challenge of this article: to not slide into middle class comfort and become invisible to the world. Thanks for the challenge!

Jesus death was not about women's rights,
it was about mankind's sin.

We are meant to be women,
under the covering of a soveriegn God,
who is covering a man,
who should be leading well.

As women, we must be willing to
humble ourselves to the Truth of the Gospel,
and allow God to shape the men in our life,
through our biblically submissive posture!

diana--it is not a woman's place (it is not in her power) to allow God to shape anyone but herself. a man's "shaping" is not dependent upon a woman's actions; a woman's "shaping" is not dependent upon a man's actions. EACH of us is called to submit to God and His truth, this is not a calling merely for women.

no, Jesus death was not about women's rights--it was about bringing us all to an equal level, drawing us all to the cross at His feet where we all can receive forgiveness. and because we are all equally valuable and made in His image, we are all worth saving and we all have gifts to offer.

thank you amy for calling the church out on what much of it has done to women--reduced them to a level of importance and validity below men, confined them to a man-made role, and in doing so has hurt itself (and Christ) and missed out on many opportunities.


I want to shout this from the rooftops!

I left my church of 31 years, because they voted me out of membership, because I got a divorce after 31 years of abuse (then let the x live in the house for awhile); my name was put up on a big screen, followed by the words, "Conduct Unbecoming a Child of God."

My mission in life is to talk about something which affects 1 in 3 women on our planet (and their children): Verbal abuse; precursor to physical violence and a pandemic in our universe.

At age 65 I am a Freshman in college, because I wrote about my life and won a scholarship.

Even aftr 8 years (voted out on my birthday; how kind); I still suffer and don't know if it will ever get any better.

If that's the message you think you've heard from Christ and received from the Church, you're listening to the great Liar. Of course, the church is not the only place to listen, and the great cloud of witnesses is not meant to obstruct your vision of this world.

Open your ears and hear! Open your eyes and see! The Word is alive and calling to you. Every day, you can make the choice to serve your Lord. Maybe people who are "Cultural Christians" play it safe with the Christmas Tea and go to the spa. We are called to be the Body of Christ.

It's on YOU and you alone if you don't think carefully, pay attention, and follow Christ.

Thanks, Amy, for this timely post! Right now I'm struggling with where I fit as a woman and Christian, and have a strong desire to share my time and talents in some kind of serving role. But I'm also looking for balance, so that I don't get taken advantage of or overwhelmed (as I tend to take on TOO much and give too much of myself away). Someone gave me advice recently to go get a massage, and that sounds lovely (and I probably need it ;) but I want to find a place to serve and use my gifts as an intelligent, talented, compassionate Christian woman. I think sometimes the church needs to realize that we are actually looking for ways to actively serve in our communities (and churches and families), instead of assuming that we all want to sit and have tea and go to spas, etc. Not that there's anything wrong with those things, I just personally want to be useful and want to feel a part of something meaningful and Christ centered. Great post!

All I can say is AMEN! I'm not alone!

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