When it comes to discipling girls and women to trust and follow Jesus, are there any observations or tips that help make it more effective? Anessa Westbrook, DMin, professor of Bible and ministry at Harding University, has spent years researching the best ways girls and women grow spiritually. As a mother and professor, she has also spent years in discipling relationships with girls and women. So, in this Q&A, Anessa shares her advice for disciplers and church leaders when it comes to this important task. This Q&A is part of a larger eBook by Anessa, called Reaching and Discipling Women, which you can download here.
Q. What are some of the forces working against girls and women in the church?
Most of the time, it seems to be mostly a lack of noticing or a lack of intentionality by those who should be discipling them. Many churches put a big emphasis on raising up young men to be church leaders. It’s great when godly men disciple young men in their churches, but the women need to step up in this area too. When a young woman is left out, she can be left thinking, “What about me?” It’s sending a message that perhaps there’s not a place for our young women.
As part of my dissertation research in 2014, I wanted to find out what was encouraging our women to grow spiritually before college. One stat is that, of our male students, 27% of them said that a ministry or church leader provided an example for them to grow spiritually. Yet only 19.4% of our female students had this kind of example in their lives. So, there’s definitely work to be done in this area. We’ve got to be intentional about this.
Another example: as far as activities which facilitated spiritual growth before college, 6.2% of male students gave the worship service as a significant factor, while the percentage was only 3.7% for female students. That’s interesting because if we think about how our churches are structured, there’s often a lot of emphasis on the Sunday morning worship service. Yet, as far as involvement and what the church is about, that’s a pretty small slice of the whole week. It’s important, but it’s not sufficient for growing spiritually.
“Most of the time, it seems to be mostly a lack of noticing or a lack of intentionality by those who should be discipling them.”
When we decide we’re going to get people involved in church and only use the worship service, that’s going to be a limiting factor because only certain people are able to be involved. We’ve got to really open up our focus when it comes to spiritual development and what it means to be a Christian. This is why it’s so good to see the growing emphasis in our churches on relational discipleship, where we are actively involved in people’s lives.
Q. What’s one thing you wish you could change in churches?
If there was one thing I would change, it would be that we emphasize more what happens outside of that one hour on Sunday morning. We need to do a better job of asking what really helps women grow spiritually. In my research, 8.9% of male students said leadership opportunities helped them grow spiritually, while it was 6% for young women. Although soft complementarian churches are becoming more intentional in this area, in many churches there are just not very many opportunities for women to grow through leadership opportunities. Even as we encourage women toward visible roles in which they are gifted, we need to open the focus to youth ministry, women’s ministry, and other areas. Then we will see more leadership opportunities open up for both men and women.
From what I have seen in my research, it’s not uncommon for a woman to be seeking God, reading the Bible, growing spiritually, and understanding that her faith needs to be lived out. But she can’t figure out quite where in the church she fits in. She can’t figure out where to serve. If an opportunity at church isn’t coming at church where she feels like she can contribute in significant way, she can start feeling discouraged. That’s where the enemy really gets in—through discouragement.
“She can’t figure out quite where in the church she fits in.”
So, we really need to ask, what do we value most? The Sunday morning service, where only a few people have upfront roles? Or can we get back to placing our main focus on where the New Testament places it: on discipling relationships? Putting our emphasis on discipleship benefits both genders.
Q. How can women do a better job of discipling younger women and girls in the church?
We’ve got to realize the importance of younger females having female examples. In my research, I asked both men and women if it was a male example or female example that was the greatest encouragement in their growing spiritually. I expected they would typically answer based on their own gender. But in our context, males chose male at 83.3% and women chose female at 51.1%. Why weren’t more young women choosing a female example? In many cases, perhaps there just weren’t enough female examples. Maybe we need more women to step up.
And part of stepping up is reaching out. A lot of women I spoke to said it was difficult because they wanted to disciple somebody, but no younger women were asking them. They felt like they couldn’t ask the younger women because it would be getting in their business. But no, I believe it’s okay to approach someone and ask if they would be willing to be discipled. From my conversations, I’ve found there is a hesitation for some women to say that they could help somebody grow spiritually. In fact, we had people signing up to be discipled when they themselves were totally in a position to be the ones mentoring others. For Generation X and younger, there’s a big desire for people to be authentic over being polished. So, stumbling through awkwardness is fine. Don’t fake it; be authentic.
“Stumbling through awkwardness is fine. Don’t fake it; be authentic.”
Q. As a mom of daughters, what are some of the best things you did for your girls to encourage their faith?
Encouragement. I would encourage them when I saw them growing, reading, thinking. I affirmed them and would encourage them to put themselves out there, sign up to be involved in ministry, mission trips, or other leadership opportunities.
For many girls, we have to affirm the possibility before they consider it. We need to open doors and help create opportunities. We can say, “I see the way you talk to the other teens; you may be really good at youth ministry.” Or, “I really appreciate how you notice outsiders and make them feel welcome. I think you could really be a blessing in outreach.” We tried to help them see things within them they hadn’t seen before. Then we would also look for opportunities to help them explore those areas.
“We need to open doors and help create opportunities.”
I made sure to have conversations with our girls about spiritual topics. We also talked about whatever was happening in their lives and try to incorporate our spirituality in it. This helped them learn ways in which our faith informs our decisions and all of life.
Q. How can a women’s ministry be an ideal environment for discipling relationships?
Women’s ministries can play an essential role in discipleship among both existing and new members. Women’s ministries encourage deep relationships through mentoring, programs, and as women serve alongside one another.
As women grow closer to one another, there’s an essential component to discipleship that develops: trust. This can create organic connections where a woman will reach out to someone whom she perceives is in need of guidance. These connections also help those who are themselves in need of a discipling relationship more easily reach out to those who can help them. As women’s ministries become involved within the community and in outreach efforts, those just coming to faith can also find help more easily. It is also not uncommon within women’s ministries to find women with the gifts of evangelism and wisdom actively seeking out those whom they can help.
“As women grow closer to one another, there’s an essential component to discipleship that develops: trust.”
The advantages of discipleship within a women’s ministry are not limited to any particular age group. Preteens and teenage girls can find discipling relationships, as can women of any age who are struggling. Even older women may be in need of spiritual guidance and accountability as they face new challenges. Women’s ministry should be a safe, welcoming, and nurturing environment for these relationships to develop.