Fifteen years ago, I signed up for my first women’s Bible study at my church. I was excited to learn more about everything I was hearing on Sundays, but I was terrified I would stand out too much and be noticed. After all, the way I had found this church was by going on the internet and searching “churches.” Literally. I scrolled through the results until I found one with a vibe that I thought would let me blend in.
See, I was the woman—one of the very many women—sitting in your sanctuary every Sunday not attending your Bible studies yet, because she feels hesitant, unworthy, inhibited, unable, or otherwise disengaged. She is slipping into church, or reading at home; she is listening to podcast sermons, or watching online. She is responding to God’s wooing, but she is not yet learning and growing in Christian community with other women.
After being that woman for a year, I got up the courage to go to my first Bible study, and it opened my eyes to everything I had been missing. And, I realized I was not alone. Many other women were like me, on the fringes, feeling like they don’t know enough to join in, yet so hungry for the nourishment of God’s Word served in a warm, accepting community.
Decades later, now in a position of leadership in my church in a church of 1,600 members (roughly 800 women), I asked the Women’s Ministry Director how many women attended the Bible studies we were offering. Her answer? 250. Did you do that math? Almost 550 women were NOT engaged in a study of any sort. I had been one of these women for a year and I made it my mission to figure out how to engage “me” from then on.
I set out to reach the woman I used to be, the woman on the fringes. My strategy? I treated her like me. I got permission to advertise a new study group in our church, and I did eight things to fill my group with women on the fringes:
- I didn’t call it Bible study. I called it book club. Why? Because the very first woman I invited, a friend at work, didn’t say yes right away. But the next day she said would love to join my “book club.” She was right, too. It was a book club. A very, very good and important Book club.
- I didn’t just advertise it in the church bulletin. I made flyers for the laundromat, the library, the gym, coffee shops, grocery stores, and the DMV. I personally invited every woman in my office and any woman with whom I struck up a conversation at my kids’ schools, the store, or the pharmacy. I wasn’t annoying. I was inviting.
- I called the local women’s shelter. There was a bit more red tape to go through to engage these women, but it seemed so vitally important that women in transition were being fed with God’s Word, too. It took some paperwork, a reference from my church administration, provision of the materials, and gas in my car to pick the women up and drive them home again (before curfew). Years later I would hold the book club at the shelter so transportation was no longer an issue.
- I called the book club “Just As I Am,” because that was my requirement for showing up—come just as you are. I described the book club as something new, something for the woman who has felt left out, overlooked, or dismissed. Remember, it’s especially for the woman for whom Bible study just hasn’t made sense yet.
- I described the study clearly. I explained our topic, author, length, environment, the necessary tools to bring along, and a short summary of how each gathering would go. I posted directional signs inside our building so women could easily find our room with full confidence. I also showed up early and met the women at the door the first few nights to make them feel welcomed. My first group was comprised of one woman from our church, and 16 who didn’t attend anywhere! Don’t assume they will know to bring a pen unless you tell them. Don’t assume they have their own Bible to use. Don’t assume anything!
- I addressed every excuse a woman could possibly have for not attending.
- I left my house early to pick up women who didn’t have rides.
- I met women for coffee ahead of time to ease their minds about coming and to let them meet me in person first, so they could see I wasn’t weird.
- I asked my church to help with the expense of the study guides, and I found a way to provide the accompanying books (FYI, Bible Study Source for Women offers GREAT group discounts).
- I asked the High School Ministry director if some students would be able to babysit for anyone who had a child.
- I chose studies that were accessible and felt-needs focused. Don’t start with a deep, inductive Bible study that requires a Bible concordance. Choose a study with very little between-session homework, that does not presume women are coming in with a lot of Bible knowledge. Our Bible Study Finder is a great place to start to find a study for your group. My favorite is the Known by Name series (Naomi, Rahab, and Hagar), three human-reality studies with a strong connection to Scripture.
- I. Prayed.
The amazing truth is that you can engage women on the fringes. Think about who is underserved in your community. Pray. Don’t judge, love. Create a flyer. Choose an accessible study. Eliminate excuses. Make yourself available.
She will come.