Preaching to women (how not to)

The lack of men in church, especially younger men, has been a topic of much debate in recent years.

A number of articles and books, researched and written by men, have argued that church suits women better than men: it meets women’s need for a safe, protective environment in which they are objects of neither lust nor contempt, and invites them to become involved in a network of positive relationships.

Men, with their preference for shared activity rather than conversation and for pro-active debate rather than passive listening, are constitutionally unsuited to church culture – and especially to listening to sermons.

While these are valid points, I’m not sure the Sunday-service 20-40 minute talk on a given subject meets women’s needs any better than men’s.

Conducting an informal poll among women of a range of ages and denominations reveals a gulf between the perceptions of preachers and the impressions of the hearers.

Certainly, most women are skilled in passive listening. We listen to friends, family, colleagues, bosses and, if we have them, to husbands and children, for a large part of every day. Perhaps for that reason most women, if asked what they’d like most as a treat, choose time for themselves, alone.

And sometimes it happens. Sometimes it happens in church.

A particular phrase of a worship song may resonate, or a line from scripture may set off a train of thought. Once the children have gone out to their own activities many women settle back in their chairs or pews, rely on the men to supply any answers the preacher may require if he’s gone interactive, take a break from thinking about everyone else’s needs and have a chance, at last, to spend time alone with God. 

If the speaker talks about God in a way that doesn’t intrude on that time but complements it, they will be responsive. If he or she doesn’t, they will look as though they are listening but will have switched off within the first few minutes.

It’s not a criticism of preaching, or of preachers, to say that most sermons do not seem to leave a lasting impression on women, but it is a serious point that bears examining.

Most preachers, still, are men. Most have been trained to preach, in bible college or seminary, by men. Many have also learned from mentors or role models whose preaching style they admire – who are men. And at a guess I’d say few have asked women what they find effective or off-putting in the way of preaching and teaching, and assessed where that may differ from the expectations of men.

So here, in an aim to be helpful, are a few do’s and don’ts about preaching to women – starting with the don’ts mentioned first by most of the women I consulted.

Don’t make assumptions about women ...

... such as, ‘I know how you ladies love shopping.’ The speaker may intend it as cosy understanding; it will be heard as contempt.

Don’t equate ‘woman’ with ‘wife and mother’ – even if every woman in the gathering is married and has children. It leaves out the single childless person they used to be, and the divorced or widowed one they may become, and reinforces the view that they are no more than their wifely or maternal role.

Don’t repeat the same point. It implies that the audience is too thick to have grasped it the first time.
This was a major dislike quoted by many women. (And, incidentally, men.)

Only make jokes if they’re original, funny, and illustrate the sermon. Being expected to laugh at jokes has negative connotations for most women. Single men tell jokes to impress women and to avoid being vulnerable in conversation. Husbands tell jokes in company and require their wives to laugh every time, however often they’ve heard it before, in case no one else does, and bosses tell jokes to emphasize their authority. (If you want to keep your job, laugh at the punchline - or if there’s no punchline, when the joker stops his narration.)

So a preacher making jokes is seen by many women as making demands: stop thinking about whatever you were thinking of (God?) and flatter someone’s ego. Again.

Don’t tell secondhand anecdotes as though they happened to you personally.
Women who aren’t impressed by their best friend’s or smallest child’s lying are not convinced by stories poached from someone else’s experience, book or article.

Don’t make joky, or pseudo-tolerant, comments about certain groups of people, even if those ‘types’ are clearly not present.Even old ladies have dope-smoking nephews with body piercings, or kindly neighbours with multiple tattoos. And a speaker who makes fun of ‘yoof culture,’ for instance, is likely to be equally dismissive of women who watch TV soaps, panic in lifts, drink too much at parties or have a secret longing to dye their hair purple.

Don't SHOUT!

In many women’s agenda of how-to-lose-your-female-audience, this point came first.
Preachers who raise their voices feel they are raising the tempo of the sermon, emphasizing a point, or being dynamic and impassioned.
Women, almost universally, experience it as being shouted at by some bloke.

Similarly: don’t point. A finger pointed at the crowd does make a point – it is seen as aggression or accusation.

Don’t say, ‘Repeat after me, now’

Repeating slogans and catchphrases (even holy ones) is something women associate with their own early schooldays or with mother-and-toddler groups. Even toddlers don’t find it acceptable after the age of three. If a preacher doesn’t want to be mentally consigned to the naughty corner, it’s best not to make women recite things.

In the same vein, don’t make demands such as: ‘Wake up!’ ‘Why is nobody smiling?’ ‘Are you alive out there?’ ‘You all look so miserable!’ ‘Come on!’or ‘Shout the good news out - LOUDER!’
This may have been taught as motivational preaching. Women perceive it as bullying.

If sermons are interactive – which can be useful and effective in engaging the audience – don’t reject anyone’s answers as ‘the wrong one’ or ‘not the one I’m looking for’. Women empathize with scapegoats and rejects. It works better to invite people’s comments without commenting on them.
And putting pressure on anyone to speak out – even to ensure a male/female balance – is counterproductive. Women will join in once they feel there is genuine acceptance.

Don’t prepare sermons like essays and read them out.

Don't ask ...!

Don’t ask women, ‘What did you think of my sermon?’ We will probably be polite. Better to ask for positive suggestions on what people personally find effective.
Be prepared to hear they might prefer a sermon substitute – bible study in groups, a discussion, testimonies, DVDs, Powerpoints, shared prayer … even silence. Don’t take it as a rebuke. Times change. And ‘good solid teaching’ doesn’t lose its nutritional value if cooked to a different recipe.

In case this list of ‘don’ts’ has reduced any prospective preacher to mutism, here are some positives expressed by women of different ages and backgrounds, in city and rural churches across several Christian denominations.

Women don’t need sermons to be perfectly delivered by a polished speaker. Mistakes, pauses to recollect what on earth you were saying, lost notes, mispronounced words, scuffed trainers and arrived-late-because-I-overslept are acceptable, even endearing.

Pressure to fill out a time-slot of 25 minutes or so may come from church leaders but most women, unless they are multinational CEOs, have a more flexible view of time. If a sermon idea is good for ten minutes, stopping after ten minutes and doing something else with the rest of the time is preferred to forcing in more information and losing focus.

Genuine personal anecdote – regarded as unprofessional by some hermeneutics teachers – has a positive impact on women audiences.

One woman speaker, trained to keep sermons factual and objective, delivered a well-prepared sermon about encountering Christ in everyday life. The bible references and derived points have passed into the mists of time. But she broke the rules to digress into a personal incident: being asked as a primary school teacher supervising swimming to apply eczema cream to a child whose body was covered with scales and sores. Every woman in that church still remembers that example, and the point it illustrated so poignantly.
Showing vulnerability is a trait that men try to avoid, especially when speaking in public, but women have a deep respect for men who take risks in revealing their weaknesses or fears, and appreciate their courage and openness.

Of all the qualities that make a good speaker, women most highly rate humility.
Integrity is valued above theological correctness. Women generally prefer someone who doesn’t have all the answers and says so, to someone who goes by the book and suppresses doubts. One pastor’s wife added a word of advice on preaching in times of spiritual dryness: ‘Don’t!’

Most women view emotion as part of their intellectual equipment, not the antithesis of it, and appreciate men who accept their own emotions. A preacher who is hurt and bewildered by the death of a child or disappointed by a church member’s return to addiction or crime will speak more clearly to the hearts of women than one who quotes the appropriate bible verses for the occasion.

Simplicity in sermons isn’t necessarily seen as being lightweight or talking down to people. It can be a real bonus when it’s a genuine attempt to be clear and accessible, especially when backed up by solid research by the speaker who then condenses the topic to its essentials. It takes self-control to spend hours on diligent study then refrain from making the audience suffer your cleverness.

If a carefully prepared sermon gets reduced by its hearers to one phrase or word and all the rest is forgotten, don’t be discouraged. For the individual listener, that may be their one phrase or word that will carry them through the week or even a lifetime.

Women rarely complain of boredom with sermons ...

... about God’s love, when delivered by someone who has personally experienced it and who consistently loves the most difficult person in or outside the church. There’s no need to search frantically for fresh topics or angles. The spirit of the speaker counts far more than the words.

The most memorable sermon I ever heard is still fresh in my memory simply because in the course of it (it was lengthy) I felt the presence of God so tangibly that it changed my whole awareness of his closeness, from that time up to the present. It was eight years ago, in India, in Hindi. I didn’t understand a word of it.

First published in the Baptist Times