One of the major discoveries in the field of community development during the last 10 years is the critical importance of women to the development process.
The feminization of poverty is inarguable. Women and girl-children repeatedly pay the highest price for being poor. They get less food, less health care, and less education. Yet they do most of the agricultural work, maintain the family, and rear the children.
This problem is exacerbated by the fact that most of these women are invisible to the development worker. Many of the cultures of the poor protect their women by walling them off from the world. They are made invisible intentionally to outsiders, and especially to men. In development we now know that the only way to get behind the wall is to use women development workers.
Women are of critical importance to effective community development in a second way. Studies repeatedly have revealed that community development efforts fail when they ignore the role of women in the social and economic life of the community, and that they succeed when they address the needs of women.
For example, the simple act of helping women learn to read is strongly associated with lower child mortality, improvement in child care and nutrition, literacy in succeeding generations, and improvement in family income-generating activity.
The conclusion is inescapable: empowering women is one of the keys to transforming the larger community.
In recent years MARC has been carrying out field research on the intersection of community development and evangelism. As we observed the strategic role of women in development work, we began to wonder whether women might play some special role in the spread of the gospel as well.
If the education and empowerment of women leads to other kinds of positive social change, might women also be critical to spiritual transformation as well? Such a connection might provide important strategic insight with regard to some of the larger unreached people groups that have been highly resistant to traditional forms of evangelism.
We set out to see if there was any evidence to support such a conjecture. In our struggle to find some answers, a lot of other discoveries emerged as well. I’d like to share our pilgrimage with you.
What Do The Scholars Say?
We began by surveying the academic research on religious conversion. We were surprised to discover that, while gender research is going on in a number of fields — from management to marketing and from psychology to child development—very little research has been done in the area of gender and religious conversion.
The available material does not support the conclusion that gender is a significant factor in conversion. The research tends to focus more on things like personality traits, family makeup and socio-economic background.
We did come across one interesting piece of research that includes conversion stories in the early 1800s in America, a time when local Christian periodicals regularly published conversion stories. Susan Juster has analyzed a large number of these narrative accounts and has drawn the following conclusions:
- Women had an image of God that was relational. God was described as father, friend, soulmate, and lover. Men saw God as law-giver, sovereign and king.
- Women thought of sin in terms of failed or flawed relationships. For men sin meant breaking the laws or rules.
- For women, conversion sometimes was a form of liberation from oppressive fathers and husbands; whereas for men conversion sometimes was motivated by a reaction against unjust social rules.
Juster points out that this pattern of gender differences resembles the differences reported by Carol Gilligan in her current seminal work, In a Different Voice. I’ll come back to this a little later.
What Do The Practitioners Say?
After getting little help from the academics in testing our hypothesis, we turned to the mission practitioners — mission executives, professors of mission, and missionaries. More than 50 people responded in telephone interviews or by letters to questions about what they learned from their experiences concerning the importance of gender in conversion.
Almost 90 percent of the respondents felt gender was a significant factor in conversion. Again and again people said, “We don’t have any documented studies, but our experience tells us that gender is important.”
The importance of the role of women in conversion took two forms: women as the recipients of the gospel and women as the messengers of the gospel.
In many cases, women appear to be preferential recipients of the gospel. We heard many examples of this.
- Of the 260,000 Christians in Hong Kong, 60 percent are women.
- In one county in China, 83 percent of Christians are women.
- In a Shanghai working-class neighborhood, older women are by far the most responsive to the gospel.
- In Korea the gospel came first to the women because they were willing to read the Bible in the new simplified Korean script, while the men refused to read it except in Chinese characters.
- The first Hottentot convert in Africa was a woman named Eva. The first Nazarene convert in Swaziland was Ruth, the lower wife of an old man.
Dana Robert, a woman missiologist at the School of Theology at Boston University, reflected on stories such as these and wonders whether women tend to respond, at least in part, as a result of the oppression and marginalization they feel in their own cultures.
Kwok Pui-lan, a feminist theologian at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, has studied the history of the church in China and concludes that Chinese women experience Christianity not as an oppressive instrument but as a liberating force challenging some of the indigenous patriarchal practices.
Other stories we heard made it clear that women played critical roles as messengers of the gospel.
- In China the house church movement has grown largely through the ministry of uneducated women evangelists.
- In Japan the missionary wives often were the initial church planters, after which men moved into the “traditional” leadership roles.
- Of the 50,000 prayer cells in Paul Cho’s church in Korea, only 3,000 of the leaders are men.
- In a study of converts from Islam in the United States, all of the women converts received the Good News from another woman or from a couple.
- The Methodist church in Russia is making significant inroads among educated ex-communists. Almost all of the Methodist lay leaders are well-educated women who turned to Methodism because there was no room for them in the Baptist or Orthodox churches.
We also were reminded that history provides clues as well.
- The history of Europe contains stories of kings who became Christians as a result of their wives or mothers, including Vladimir, king of the Rus, and Ethelbert, king of Kent.
- The women’s missionary movement in the United States during the early part of this century involved more than 3 million women in 40 different denominational mission societies. This movement supported 2,500 missionaries and more than 6,000 indigenous women workers who ministered in 3,600 schools, 80 hospitals and 11 colleges.
What Can We Conclude?
What can we say when the academics and the practitioners seem to disagree? We need to remember that one of the major surprises in reviewing the literature was the paucity of research that directly addressed the issue of gender in religious conversion. To say that the research literature does not support the link between gender and conversion is to say the issue really has not been studied seriously.
At the same time, the observations of the practitioners are consistent and mutually supportive.
On balance, I believe it is appropriate to accept the idea that gender plays an important role in conversion as a working hypothesis, pending the further research that so clearly needs to be done.
What Does It Mean?
This tentative conclusion leads me to suggest two possible keys to reaching the people groups resistant to the gospel in the 1990s.
The first key will be to recognize the possibly critical importance of women as a responsive entry point to resistant people groups. The experience of the people working in community development and the information communicated by mission practitioners both suggest this possibility is worth serious attention.
The second key will be to recognize the importance of women as the ones most likely to have opportunities to speak to unreached women and to present the gospel in ways they understand.
Women in mission may have the only opportunities to develop relationships with the women who may be the key to reaching an unreached people group. As the work of Juster and Gilligan suggests, women speak “in a different voice,” which may mean that they will more effectively communicate the gospel in terms other women can understand.
What’s the bottom line? We need to give preference to recruiting, training, and supporting far more women if we are to reach the unreached. The twin tragedies of the disappearance of the women’s mission movement in the US and the marginalization and under-utilization of women within evangelical missions may be among the major reasons we have not been able to make gospel breakthroughs in the 10/40 window during the last half of this century.