Meg is twenty-six and has gone to church all her life. She loves Jesus and lives with her boyfriend. She also serves in children’s ministry at her church and attends a women’s small group Bible study. Meg knows that the Bible has some things to say about marriage and sexual purity, but she hasn’t thought too deeply about what this has to do with her.
Meg thinks of passages like Romans 1:24-27 and I Corinthians 5:9-11 and I Corinthians 6:9 (all of which, talk about sexual purity) the way I think about I Corinthians 11:15, (which is about head coverings): She knows there’s something in there about it, but she’s not sure it’s culturally relevant and she’s pretty sure that nobody follows those guidelines anyway—Christian or not.
So suppose Meg is part of your women’s ministry. What’s the best way to disciple Meg?
Circles, but No Rows
I’m going to take a stab in the dark, here, and guess that your first idea for Meg is to place her in a small setting where she can interact with women who are living by the Book and who love Jesus. You’re thinking their obedience to Jesus will inspire her to follow him more closely.
Am I right? Partly right?
I love the small group Circle. I love creating and participating in life on life discipleship. (I even created a set of Circle Questions to help cultivate connections!) But I’ve noticed that all Circles and no Rows makes discipleship a challenge. For your reference:
- The Row is where women gather to hear large group teaching on the Bible.
- The Circles is where women gather to discuss what they are learning about the Bible.
Discipling (Only) in the Circle
Last time, I made the argument that you need both Rows and Circles in your women’s ministry. I talked about the subtle messages we communicate and the typical patterns that form when we place women in either Rows Only or Circles Only settings. This time I’d like to talk especially about how discipleship is reinforced and supported, when you add Rows to your women’s ministry.
I’ve had the privilege of serving as a Bible study leader in a handful of churches and ministries, and I’ve gotten to observe dozens (maybe hundreds at this point?) of churches and groups, as I interact as a visiting speaker or Bible teacher. Here’s what I know. Discipleship is not all sunshine and roses. Discipleship, which is calling women to conform to the teachings of Jesus and his Word, is uncomfortable. Discipleship goes against the grain. And when you try to disciple, only from the Circle, it puts a lot of pressure on that Circle leader. She basically has two options: To teach or not to teach. It’s far easier to do the latter and say, “Okay, let’s move on to question six.” (I know this because I’ve done it.)
No Mini-Sermons, Please
I am a woman who has been entrusted with the spiritual gift of teaching, so if Meg were in my Circle and we were working through one of the above passages, I’d have to sit on my hands and remind myself not to unleash a mini-sermon on my poor, unsuspecting group. To state the obvious, preaching doesn’t create the environment anybody had in mind, when they arranged the chairs in a circle.
Now for my non-teacher-type friend, this would never be an issue. The only reason she agreed to lead was because she was told, “No, you don’t have to teach. In fact we don’t want you to! We just want you to facilitate the group.”
But “facilitating”, for her, often translates into sidestepping all uncomfortable against-the-grain teachings in the Bible. Especially in women’s groups. Jen Wilkin says (sorry I can’t remember where) that women get uncomfortable when the group is not in full agreement—and I agree.
So my bent is to preach a mini-sermon and teach everyone into agreement; my sweeter-than-me friend simply wants to avoid the disagreement, and neither of us make any headway in discipling Meg.
The solution? Adding teaching time to your women’s ministry program. I’d like to offer you three ways Meg (and plenty of others like her) will benefit if you add Rows, and not just Circles to your women’s ministry. You need women teaching women—especially as you encounter texts in your Bible that speak about things like sexuality, submission in marriage, the Bible’s metaphors of giving birth or mothering or prostitution, leadership from a complimentarian position, etc. Your women will find the teaching from a woman on sensitive subjects like these far more receivable and impactful than hearing it from a man.
God has placed among you women who are gifted to teach. Here are three ways the Row (not the Circle) gives them an advantage—for the benefit of your women and your group as a whole.
From the platform, your teacher is granted more time. She can finish her thought and build her argument. She can trace a biblical theme throughout the pages of the Bible.
Doing this from within the Circle is awkward. (Again, I know because I’ve tried.) When I take ten minutes to finish my thoughts in a small group setting, it seems rude. And if I ask my sisters to turn in their Bibles to several passages, it even seems condescending. The whole idea of a Circle is to give each person an equal share of time, and it feels “wrong” when a teacher takes more than her share.
But when a teacher stands before a group of women who are seated in rows—even a very small group, it’s expected that she’ll take the time to explain and expound on what the Word is teaching.
I have the privilege of sharing God’s Word in churches or groups across the country, and when I step onto a platform, the women in the audience know that I didn’t weasel my way up there. I have the trust and confidence of their leaders (which is a responsibility I never take lightly!)
Because of this, I’ve never had someone cut in, from her seat in the row, and say, “Well I disagree!” I’ve never had someone grab my microphone and share a personal story which contradicts my point. Yet in the circle, this is commonplace.
That’s because the whole point of the circle is to create a place where everyone is included in the conversation. We want the group members to offer their push-back and contrasting experiences in the circle—which both offer opportunities to learn and grow. On the other hand, the whole point of the row is to create a place where everyone can listen.
Just by simply inviting your teacher to the platform, or the front of the room, you offer her a measure of authority and credibility. Simply by allowing her to teach, you clear away the confusion of having so many voices.
God’s Word is filled with challenging truths, and it’s your teacher’s responsibility to create a fork in the road and invite the women in your rows to choose the right direction. This fork-laying is best done from the platform, because there’s more distance between the teacher and the listener.
On the platform, my “you” is understood to be plural, so I can be more direct (and less concerned with offending someone). In the circle, my “you” is understood to be singular. So if I look at a woman across my circle and say, “This is what God is calling you to. Will you obey?” there’s a good chance she would feel singled out, and possibly offended. But if this same woman is seated in the row as I say the exact same thing, she feels more anonymous—which allows her to hear from God’s Word, and not be distracted by me.
Like I mentioned earlier, I find that I’m most often choosing obedience to the Lord when I close my mouth in the Circle. And I find that I’m most often choosing obedience to the Lord when I open my mouth (and say some things I’d rather not) when my sisters are seated in rows.
The preaching that happens on Sunday morning is needed and wonderful. But when women are arranged in shorter rows, it’s more natural for your teachers to boldly proclaim—not sidestep—the truth, and for your women to hear it. When you add Rows to your women’s ministry, you create a compelling environment for discipleship.
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