I recently received this question from a partner at The Austin Stone, and I thought it would be beneficial to address here:
Hey Todd, thanks for your faithfulness to getting this information to us. It’s proven to be a great resource for myself in regards to leading my MC and coaching others. A quick search didn’t bring anything up so I wanted to get your thoughts on gender specific missional communities.
Below is a response.
Gender-Specific Missional Communities
The idea of gender-specific missional communities probably belongs into a wider question about affinity-based groups in general. Gender isn’t necessarily an “affinity”, but most churches have a tendency with respect to groups to see it that way. Men’s groups and Women’s groups typically are part of a wider network that includes life-stage, geography, and various other affinities.
Affinity or Mission?
The short answer to why there are not many affinity-based groups at The Austin Stone is that missional communities ideally define their group around a pocket of people rather than an affinity. Rather than focusing on creating places for specific genders, we’ve tried to focus on helping communities reach groups of people in our city.
I’m perfectly happy for a group to be all women, all men, or life-stage specific (newly-weds, young professionals, etc.) if that is best for the mission. If the people you are wanting to live amongst and share Jesus with are primarily women, and that is the best kind of community to help someone meet Jesus, then go for it.
If the affinity becomes exclusive or primarily focused internally on the group, however, then I think it can be unhelpful. I’ve seen many groups who build an affinity-based community struggle to take steps toward mission because they are primarily meeting needs of individuals inside the group.
The commitment from The Stone is that we primarily want to build community for the sake of mission, rather than build community for community’s sake. In my experience, the American Church has primarily done the opposite, so it’s a little difficult for people to comprehend that join The Stone from other churches.
Where Do Men and Women Gather?
Second, I’d say that we really do create gender specific environments through the Life Transformation Group. Although the wider group may be mixed in gender, we want to hone in on authentic relationships with men and women in a small setting that is more conducive to fostering that kind of relationship.
For me, I know that men need strong relationships with men, and women need healthy relationships with other women, and I desperately want to foster those kinds of relationships. The LTG, in my experience, is one of the best ways to cultivate Jesus-centered relationships quickly and healthily.
That strategy does have a weakness: it often leaves people only with a few friends. So how can we help cultivate a wider network of relationships for men and women in the church?
Focus on Gender-Specific Equipping
Having healthy, “best friend” type relationships are critical, but so too is having a healthy network of relationships with many other people of the same gender. We also seek to cultivate those kinds of relationships in our church, but don’t see them as the primary building block of everyday community.
We mostly gather affinity groups for the purpose of equipping, rather than community on mission. We have a women’s event, or a class, or a men’s seminar, but by and large we’ve focused on equipping affinities rather than gathering them into ongoing communities. An excellent example of this is “Women at The Austin Stone” (watch the video for an explanation). This strategy allows us the opportunity to foster a wider set of relationships, as well address biblically any specific issues that a particular affinity may have.
Although our strategy has had weaknesses and difficulties (and is certainly different than most churches approach) we’ve found it to be more effective in cultivating healthy disciple-making communities in the long run.
What would you add to the discussion? Feel free to push back or ask more questions!