The Problem With Pretty

I filled my new hand lettered mug with the last of the morning coffee, scooped up my official canvas tote filled with notebooks, pens, and my journaling Bible, threw my favorite cozy blanket scarf over my shoulders, and walked to the hotel conference room to listen to the day’s speakers. The beautiful decorations looked fresh out of the craftiest blogs and most followed Pinterest accounts, the worship was richly experiential and full of emotion, and the weekend was filled with heartfelt reminders that God made us each beautiful and unique, and that we never needed to feel anything less than fully enough as we embraced big and powerful callings for Jesus. Women left the weekend feeling refreshed, feeling encouraged, and feeling empowered.

What I never felt that weekend?

Convicted.

brigitte-tohm-187223Sure, there were tweetable quotes from speakers who inspired us and encouraged us – but was there ever time they had really convicted us? Had they ever challenged us? Had I ever felt shaken from my spiritual comfort zone? Ever felt possible disagreement with something that was said from the platform? Ever felt that Holy Spirit punch to the gut that urges us to confession, and repentance, and ultimately to transformational change?

It wasn’t simply this particular weekend either. Looking back over many of the various retreats, conferences, and women’s ministries I had experienced so far, I began to see a common thread take shape. Between the adorable swag bags and the hand letters quotes, amongst the DIY decor and the fellowship around cupcake bars and campfires, and in spite of journal after journal filled with furiously scrawled notes from speakers, I struggled to find a moment in which the experience had been anything but beautiful. Even speakers who were seen as “raw” or “vulnerable” had ultimately shared past-tense experiences and struggles, most of which had an arc mimicking the 30 minute sitcom episodes of my 90’s childhood. Sure, there’s always a problem for our protagonists, but by about minute 25 we find the solution, the lesson to be learned, or the surprise happy ending, and we can put a bow on this week’s episode and see the happy family hug as the end credits roll. We feel inspired, we feel uplifted, and ultimately we feel comfortable and secure.ย 

Friends, I’m growing increasingly disillusioned with the state of women’s ministries in our modern churches, and with all of the beautiful conferences and retreats marketed to Christian women. We go to be encouraged, we go to feel connected, we go to be comforted and to be healed from our burdens and reminded of how loved we are in Christ – but where do we go to feel convicted? Where do we go to hear the less than pretty truths like “our righteous acts are like filthy rags?” (Isaiah 64:6) Where do we go to be reminded that if we aren’t serving the least of these we aren’t really serving Jesus at all? (Matthew 25) Where do we go to be reminded that no, we aren’t actually promised those deep desires of our heart, and that the Christian life means embracing suffering? (Too many verses to list) More importantly, where do we go to really do the work of Jesus rather than simply hearing about it?

Have we become confused about what “Church” really is, and about what it means to truly follow Jesus? Have we elevated reading the Word and hearing Christian teaching above actually doing the Word and implementing the teaching? It’s as if we are a generation of Indy 500 drivers who have become so addicted to the pit stops and refuels that we have stopped making any laps around the track. We see the hustle and bustle of our pit crew, changing our tires and tapping up our fluids, and we confuse this with the excitement of actually driving in the race. We’ve taken the acts that were supposed to better equip us to follow Jesus and somehow turned them into to being a Jesus follower. We’ve conflated going to church with actually being the church.

brooke-cagle-52216

We’ve sought out the Comforter, but often neglected comforting the most marginalized among us.

We’ve brought refreshment and encouragement to women of faith, but fallen short of stirring them to repentance or acts of radical faith.

We’ve sung the songs of His matchless grace, yet we’ve failed to offer grace to the “other,” to the seemingly unclean, to the ones we simply can’t agree with.

We’ve highlighted our Bibles and filled notebooks with sermon notes and quotes from inspirational speakers, but we’ve forgotten how to be doers of the word and not merely hearers. (James 1:22)

We’ve empowered women to build businesses and platforms, and to embrace their callings and identity, but we’ve all too often neglected to call them to die to self, take up their cross, and focus solely on building His kingdom instead of their own.

We’ve heard calls to unity in the body and community with our sisters in Christ, but we’ve all too often silenced the voices who are speaking uncomfortable truths, asking difficult questions, and are embracing the diversity of our differing opinions and points of view.

We’ve made our faith pretty, and at great cost to its power. In an effort to make our women’s ministries both accessible and marketable, we’ve created an environment where the message is no longer of how desperately we as believers still need Jesus, but of how confident and empowered and “enough” we should feel. We’ve created an expectation that we should always feel refreshed and encouraged by encounters with the Spirit, and left little room for powerful conviction to change or for the Holy tension of questioning and uncertainty. We’ve filled our meetings with safe topics and broad affirmations so as never to risk disagreement or discomfort, and we’ve replaced the idea of unity in the body with conformity amongst its members. We’ve taken the teachings of a Savior who spent his ministry homeless and unmarried, and we’ve somehow channeled them into women’s ministries focused primarily on homemaking, marriage, and parenting.

suhyeon-choi-104926It’s time to ask difficult questions about our women’s ministries, about all the pretty conferences and our weekend retreats. How can we make space for more radical faith? How can we better call and equip the women in our congregations to lay down their lives and take up their crosses? How can we worry less about making women feel better about themselves, and focus more on making them more like Jesus? Is there a way to make women feel welcomed and encouraged while also making them feel challenged and convicted as well? Can we embrace diversity by assembling voices from various backgrounds, races, cultures, classes, marital statuses, and political affiliations, and start doing the hard work of unity without simply glossing over our differences? Can we still equip and refresh the hearts of our women while continuously pointing them back outside of our walls to do the real work of following Jesus? Can we return to a faith that’s anything but pretty; a faith thats radical, and countercultural; a faith thats risky and wild and comes with great personal cost?

Are we ready to give up pretty and seek something powerful in it’s place?

Comments

  1. Kelly says

    Wow, spot on! I absolute love this. Too often, I see women wrap and keep their Christianity and lives in pretty little tidy boxes. You can live and work outside of the box and still be a woman of faith. I could get really detailed here, but I think you know where I’m coming from.

  2. Melissa says

    Hi Stephanie,

    While I’m not sure how to share what I’m feeling without sounding like how my mind feels (like it’s running, at a million miles a minute) – this post prompted me to share because of similar feelings/experiences.
    I’ve all but stopped going to women’s retreats because I’ve felt on the fringe in many ways:
    – my singleness (never been married, never had kids, not in any position to be a parent whatsoever – and know I never should be a parent (BIG point of contention at times).
    – I do not seem to “fit” into any of the sub-groups that the retreats try to make up so that all women feel included – I’m in an in-between spot – not young enough to just be starting my life and potentially having a family; not a grandma or mother of older aged children who can now think about travel/etc.
    – my finances are such that I truly do not have any aspirations for ever going on a vacation – maybe an overnight, but that’s about it – so when there is talk about saving for special opportunities in my life – that just isn’t permissible right now.
    – my career – I don’t really have one to speak of – my jobs have been so unstable and that leads to the financial instability – I’ve yet to feel like I’m truly rooted in my life, where I live and work and worship – I feel more like a transient.

    Regarding retreats themselves – when the time comes at the end of either a specific message, or at the end of the retreat and the opportunity comes to share feedback – more times than not, my attempts to share feel rushed and I’m admonished to “find more joy in Him!”. I come to them, more often than not, feeling vulnerable, broken, desiring a little validation but end up being given a trite sound bite that seems to come from their publisher or the PR people, to help “move things along”.

    I do not know how to inject authenticity into a retreat – other than to take out the plans that have been made, and truly engage those involved to take their masks off, let the phones stay in the hotel rooms, let any reminder of time be set aside for a day, even two and lead them to a place of vulnerable, candid discussion about what’s going on around their homes, their workplaces, the country, the world – really start dialoging about Pain and Suffering.

    There are so many more layers to this, I’ve only delve into the first few – I hope I made sense.

    Thanks!

  3. Marie says

    THANK YOU. I’ve felt this way about most women’s ministries my entire adult life (and perhaps longer). It’s like people are afraid of breaking us; like they think we’re too fragile to handle the grit of suffering and hard work and true repentance. The Church too often sends this message to us, though I know it’s unintentional. Either that, or we receive the message that it’s really just our job to be beautiful and add beauty to the world wherever we go, which is as offensive as it is unBiblical. I so appreciate you saying these things.

  4. Patti says

    Amen. We have become American Christians. Rather than Christians who happen to live in the USA. It’s time to put our money and time where our faith is.

  5. Karen M. Roth says

    I could not agree with you more if I said these words myself.

    In fact, I had two sweet visitors come and check on me yesterday and you know the sad thing….They are not even members of my own church. It truly touched me deeply that anyone would miss me so much as to come and check up on me. I have not been able to attend my own church in three years due to physical pain and yet in that time…not .one.person came to check in on me in any format. I am not harboring bitterness towards my own church …just deeply saddened.

    I am vulnerable and authentic but many times I have been told to keep these parts to myself. Pretty sad when even your own Pastor tells you this. But you know what, God is telling me to share my story as there is someone somewhere who needs to hear that they are not alone in their suffering and heartaches and broken dreams that are laying on the ground all around them. I have been there and am there again.

    This life is not easy but is it worth it, yes.

  6. says

    There are such good thoughts in this piece, Stephanie. I see a lot of what you’re talking about in events and women’s ministries. I think there’s a desire to tell women that they’re loved, but somehow we too often miss the mark of truly expressing to women their identity in Christ, rooted in who He Himself is and the gospel… and what knowing who He is and who we are in Him then compels us to do as His people.

    The encouraging thing, to me, is that I’ve been to a few women’s ministry (and co-ed ministry) events over the last year, and I’ve been challenged and convicted at them. It’s been in different ways each time, but the fruit from those events was good. It came from truth being shared and time being given to process with the Lord, and it resulted in change in my heart, mind and life. So it’s encouraging to know that there are groups out there sharing spiritual meat and not just milk. (And then here come all sorts of thoughts on providing milk for those still needing it but also providing for growth beyond that… I will stop typing now, though, and leave it at that. :) ) Thank you for sharing these thoughts! There is always going to be room to grow and (hard) questions to ask ourselves, both in our personal lives and in the ministries we choose to be apart of in our local and national contexts. If we can’t ask the questions, how can we grow? <3

  7. says

    Stephanie, I know that I have been one of those speakers at a women’s conference that you have attended. I’m shaking my head as I read your words of not feeling convicted. Honestly, I couldn’t agree with you more. The world is filled with all kinds of pretty, and truth be told, we’re all messy, and beautiful at the same time. Us women, we are so hard on ourselves and it’s silly to think that everything on social media is reality but sometimes we do. We all need to challenge ourselves to believe that we are ENOUGH! Psalm 139:14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. BIG HUGS TO YOU!!!

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