20.11.11

Small groups and how? and for whom?

Diving in to something new

How do you feel about gendered Bible study/fellowship/prayer groups? I tend to shy away from such groups, however, Aune (2008, 283) describes how, 'Evangelicalism will retain traditional women but is under threat because of the decline of women's domestic and family roles and the increasing diversity of women's lives.' It would seem that whilst some women are adhering to Brown's (2001, 228) nineteenth century archetypal, pietistic Christian housewife and mother, there is a call for a re-articulation for what it means to be a 21st century Christian woman. The church must demonstrate how the Bible can speak into the post-modern situation, without requiring women to return to the nineteenth century vision of the home-making mother and wife, still propagated by some forms of conservative evangelicalism, as they perhaps react to a secularisation associated with the feminism influencing society since the 1960s.

Does the shifting nature of female identity in part legitimate women meeting together to be discipled as women work out this shift together? Is it being too idealistic to think that evangelical men and women can work this out together in a shared group?

...and anyway, are female stereo-types still constraining women?

Is it perhaps that the wife/mother role is a choice?

When is it not a choice?

How many are there of us, like me, who are now not running children back and forth to school, organising dance classes for daughters and cooking the meals but are instead married to a man who has taken on these responsibilities for the main part?

Brown, (2001, 68) describes how 'piety was constructed as an intrinsically feminine quality to be expressed in female duty, biology, dress and recreation, and femininity was enshrouded in a pious respectability but Mary Daly (1971, 351) describes how:

...we have moved into a prefigurative culture, where one can't look to the past for a model of what one will be. Technology has really put the future into our hands...as a part of this rejection of the stereotypes of the "eternal feminine," women will challenge men to liberate themselves from the "eternal masculine."

Is our 'liberation' good for men in challenging them to re-imagine themselves? Can they do this better
together too or do separate gender groups challenge rather than create opportunities for a successful working out of these things? Do we all need to be working this out together?

Last week, in discussions about starting up a small group with a couple who came to dinner, a group that would be mainly for exhausted church leaders, we were able to talk about the constraints on both men and women as they work out their identities within a Christian framework.

Brown (2001, 228) believes that 'since the 1960s, the loss of the pious femininity in Christian discourse in Britain has left something of a vacuum.' Since the 1980s, he has observed the appearance of 'masculinity expressed as militancy' and 'a greater expression of male religiosity' becoming 'something of a trend'. McCloughry (1992, 249) calls for men to explore a 'plurality of masculinities' which might counteract the narrowness of a spiritual male shape advocated by pastors like Mark Driscoll and John Eldredge. In 'Untamed: Reactivating a Missional Form of Discipleship, A & D Hirsch (42) wonder about Driscoll's attempt to 'make him [Jesus] appeal to "real men"' and they analyse a sermon in which Driscoll argues 'the men created in his [Jesus'] image are not sissified church boys; they are aggressive, assertive, and nonverbal.' In Wild at Heart (2006, 11) , Eldredge identifies “God ordained... stages of masculine development [that pass from] Boyhood to Cowboy to Warrior to Lover to King to Sage.' 

Emmm - not so sure about such stages... not in the men I have in my life. Interestingly it would seem however that in practice the experience of small groups of youth working out their identity in Jesus sees coffee-out working for young women in a way that it doesn't for young men, who are better engaging in discussion whilst being more active, e.g. whilst playing sport, hiking etc. There are exceptions, of course. 

And Content?

Can a Christian community become an appropriate place to explore our gender, in terms of our sanctification towards a Christ-likeness, which in itself transcends and yet does not negate gender? We surely have to be careful here too though with what we do and the characters we might inadvertently imitate. Pete Ward's (2011, 129) critique of our tendency to imitate, (celebrity culture most recently), describes the 'theology' of celebrity culture operating only at 'the level of representation,' giving us a glimpse of 'the future of religion in contemporary culture, both for ill and for good,' (2011, 132). He prompts a critique of discipleship programs which site Jesus and other biblical characters as only representations of what we might become if we were only obedient. Groups should call people to develop a relationship with Jesus and with one another, neither setting up ministry leaders whom others might objectify and measure themselves against, nor presenting the gospel as simply a series of propositions or models for life, but as the way through which an invitation into the life of the triune God might be experienced.

Other reasons for small groups

Appleton and Taylor describe how when people are nurtured in smaller groups a process of discipleship can begin. Warren (1995:327) says:

Our church must always be growing larger and smaller at the same time...Small affinity groups...are perfect for creating a sense of intimacy and close fellowship. It's there that everybody knows your name. When you are absent, people notice.

Small groups also counteract today's isolationism so that hospitality becomes something quite profound. Hospitality must be recovered, according to Roxburgh & Romanuk (156-158) because it is a sign of an eschatologically-orientated community, offering a very different way of life to the one that characterises the world. Its importance can not be too heavily stressed. Community making-meaning together is lacking in the post-modern social milieu in which social cohesion is threatened by individualisation and suspicion. One helpful definition of the post-modern condition describes its effects:

...a liberation into plurality (from provincialism), relativity (from absolutism), and difference (from the old frozen authorities). At the same time it describes the void and anxiety we experience when our very selves are dispersed, bureaucratised, isolated, and rendered autonomous. (Farley, 1996, 45) 

Do small groups help perpetuate that equality and sharing of giftings that characterised New Testament communities? Banks (1994:148) reminds us, 'Paul’s communities were... theocratic in structure. Because God gave to each individual within the community some contribution for its welfare... Everyone participates...'

How would it be to meet together as leaders for worship, prayer and refreshment?
There would be less need for that translation of the gospel for seekers?
Hospitality would be shared.
Leaders leading leaders could be avoided with a waiting on God approach and a not having an agenda? Both genders would attend of various ages and experience.

We will see...



Appleton, B. & Taylor, S., (2010). Closing the Back Door of the Church. Cambridge: Grove.

Aune, K., (2008), 'Evangelical Christianity and Women's Changing Lives,' European Journal of Women's Studies, 15:3, pp.277-294.


Banks, R.J. (1980). Paul's idea of community : the early house Churches in their historical setting. GR: Eerdmans. 

Brown, C.G. (2001). The death of Christian Britain: understanding secularisation 1800-2000. London; New York: Routledge.

Farley E., (1996). Deep Symbols: Their Postmodern Effacement and Reclamation. Valley Forge,

USA: Trinity Pres

Hirsch, A & D, (2010). Untamed: Reactivating a Missional Form of Discipleship. Grand Rapids: Baker Books.

Princeton Theological Seminary, (1971). 'The Church and Women: An Interview with Mary Daly ', Theology Today, 28: pp. 349 -354



Roxburgh A.J., and Romanuk F., (2006). The Missional Leader: Equipping Your Church to Reach a Changing World. San Francisco, California: Jossey-Bass.

Ward, P. (2011). Gods Behaving Badly, Media, Religion and Celebrity Culture. London: SCM



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A little background reading on the two theological integrities in the Church of England regarding women in ministry.