I wasn’t a stranger to the twist-in-the-gut unpleasantness of sitting in church and hearing something shocking from the pulpit. After all, Jesus said some very uncomfortable things in his time on earth. Naturally, the people up front proclaiming his truth are sure to ruffle some feathers. However, when the pastor referred to women’s place in the church as merely a “secondary issue,” a deep shudder hit.
What sent heat to my face and tension to my fists wasn’t this singular comment by the preaching pastor. Instead, my reaction was rooted in an overwhelming protective instinct, triggered by the sight of five ponytailed girls sitting three rows in front of me. They nervously exchanged whispers and one shrugged her shoulders in response.
These weren’t just any girls sitting in our Sunday morning church service. These were five girls with whom I’d walked, talked, and prayed for the last year as they journeyed through their senior year of college. Their differences were easy to identity—different majors, personalities, and styles—but their unique relationships with God tied them together. They were each honest and vulnerable about their questions in the frightening season ahead, but continued to steadfastly walk with God in the midst of uncertainties.
On the other side of the aisle sat two giggling high school sophomores, snuggled between their respective parents. I was surprised to see that these girls had tucked their bejeweled iPhones away during the service. Even as that thought crossed my mind, though, I realized that I wished they had been distracted by texting or Snapchat for the previous few minutes. At least then, their minds might not have registered and recalled the words of this respected man about where they fit into the church.
One of the most important lessons I’ve learned as an egalitarian growing up in several complementarian churches is that I don’t need permission to be who God created me to be (in this case: a leader). And those of us who have reached that point should pass along that confidence and knowledge to the younger generation.
These young women I sat alongside in church, whether graduation-bound college seniors or just-starting-the-journey high school sophomores, face a barrage of harmful messages about their God-gifted identity on a daily basis. The heart-wrenching idea that they also face these messages within the church body breaks my heart.
I considered getting up and walking out of the service right then. I knew I was distracted, that my indignation on behalf of the younger women in the service was inflating and quickly filling my heart and mind. I also knew that the people I attended church with would smile in acknowledgement of the reason I was leaving, knowing me full well as “that young feminist single gal” who attended their service.
What kept me sitting quietly in that service instead of storming out was knowing that those girls needed someone to look to after the pastor’s comments, someone who they knew would take them aside after church to really see and speak to them.
What would be best would be for them to see women in positions of strength and leadership in every church and organization. In the absence of those people in the visible leadership roles of a church, though, they need women to look to for answers, encouragement, and reassurance.
And that’s exactly what I did. I’ve had personal, long-standing relationships with each of those young women. We have talked about our identity in Christ, our role in the church, and the purpose for which God has placed us on earth. They have seen me in difficult seasons, as I have seen them.
We have exchanged the same portions of truth another over and over again—our deep and inherent value as beings made in the image of God, not in spite of our femaleness, but in line with it.
I’m thankful that I am not the only older-than-them-woman pouring into each of their lives, but I sure am glad to be one of them. I hope that when they look back on this season, they will remember that their voices were heard and valued by other Christians, and that those who would not value them did not speak on behalf of the God who created them.
The Fuller Youth and Family Institute has uncovered the impact and importance of intergenerational relationships for young Christians. These are often what is most missing in the lives of our young people who are graduating away from their faith.
While there are missing links and sexist undertones hurting both men and women in our churches, I believe that our young women are suffering most from this lack of mentorship because, unlike the men in churches who usually have a whole staff of male leaders to emulate and imitate, the young women are left with few female role models to even observe.
It is the duty of the body of Christ to raise up young people in our faith, and that means stepping into the role of mentor and disciple-maker, particularly for our young women. It means inviting them into the messiness of our lives, and being sensitive to God’s truth to speak to and over them when it comes to their identity—both who they are and who they are becoming.
I’ve been fortunate enough to have such role models in my life, and my trajectory has been eternally-altered because of those relationships. I choose to step into these mentoring relationships as the mentor now, in this stage of life, having recognized the deep need, and desiring to be a part of God’s plan to fulfill that.
I hope to pass along messages like the one I received from author Rachel Held Evans–that I am not confined to the quiet, submissive stereotype of women that the church has so often held up. Instead, Rachel encouraged me to be an “eshet chayil”—a woman of valor—and she writes, “We women are brave in so many ways. We are brave in ways worthy of poetry. We are Proverbs 31 Women, not because of what we do, but how we do it—with guts, with vulnerability, with love.”
I want to be a voice that cheers on the younger women around me, that encourages them to do more and move beyond the restrictions of culture and patriarchalism. I want to push, challenge, and empower them because I believe that their place in the local church, and in the body of Christ is much more than a secondary issue.
To borrow from Paul Tripp, I believe that people, both female and male, are God’s “Plan A,” and that our embodiment of that belief is how we fully and wholeheartedly serve him with our lives.