"All conversation between men and women" according to Roy McCloughry, "is cross-cultural conversation." If he's right, any preacher may communicate well with only part of the congregation and miss the other part. As a woman who has listened mostly to male preachers during the past six decades, I've reflected during many sermons on why some connect with my world and others don't.
How men and women think
Ruth Tiffany Barnhouse compares the male and female thinking processes to two kinds of vision we all use: macular and peripheral. Macular vision focuses on one thing to examine its details. Peripheral vision takes in the larger context. We use both every day; in fact, the two taken together allow us to see more fully what is there.
Barnhouse likens macular vision, focus, to the masculine way of thinking. Men tend to analyze problems, figure out their parts, and choose among the options. She compares peripheral vision to feminine thinking. Women tend to consider the context, trying to keep all issues in view. This makes arrival at a "right" answer more complex.
For example, when a couple talks about buying a car, he may check several models and compare prices, horsepower, extras included, and so on. The decision looks pretty straightforward. When he brings up the subject at dinner, his wife asks a new set of questions he may consider irrelevant: What impression would the neighbors have if we start driving such an expensive car? Could Aunt Maude get in and out of the car easily when we take her grocery shopping? Would the pastor think we should increase our giving to the church if we're able to drive such a nice car? He looks at the car; she looks at the context in which the car will be used.
From birth, girl babies respond faster to human contact and are relatively uninterested in things. Boy babies like things from the start. Carol Gilligan underlined the female tendency to put relationships before other values. In studies of children at play, researchers found that boys' games last longer because they settle disputes by elaborating rules. Girls, on the other hand, end the game when disputes break out; relationships are more important than continuing the game.
Roy McCloughry concludes, "Men and women live in different cultures: he in a world characterized by independence, and she in a world characterized by intimacy."
What are the implications of this for preaching? What types of texts or illustrations are most likely to resonate with female listeners? What emphases are they most or least likely to hear?
Caring enough to speak our language
During the years my husband and I worked as missionaries in Europe, I often served as an interpreter. With practice I could do that without thinking. One time I caught myself "translating" a French sentence into other French words. That was not my job! I was supposed to carry meaning from one language into another.
A woman in the pew goes through that process almost every time she listens to a man preach. Most of the time she isn't aware she is doing it. If she has been active in church, she has developed such skill in translating; it has become second nature to her. But she is still translating. By attending to three areas, a skilled preacher can learn to speak in a woman's "native tongue" and thus reach the entire congregation.
Translate masculine images into feminine images
While reworking a series of Bible studies for women, I chatted with Haddon Robinson about the project. He helpfully suggested illustrations for points I wanted to make. One was about a football player, another was a quote from a baseball player. Gratefully, I included them.
But before the book went to the publisher, I took those illustrations out. They just didn't fit. While some women follow sports, others feel that competitive sports violate the values they hold for relationships. The idea of winning is connected with somebody losing. And the violence of sports such as football or hockey does not communicate positively for many women. Unless a woman can translate illustrations from sports or business into relational values and experience, she may not connect emotionally with the point.
Several years ago a large Bible church invited me to speak at their Sunday services. During the first service, I used an illustration from my sewing machine. When I was about halfway through, I stopped and said gently, "I know that this baffles some of you men, but you need to know that this is my sweet revenge for all the sports illustrations I've had to listen to all of my life." There was a titter, and then a roar of laughter, and then applause. Afterward, women came up to me and said, "Thank you for talking about the sewing machine. That connected with me." The experience underscored for me that men and women live in different worlds. But the two worlds can be bridged.
Suppose a male preacher wants to speak on perseverance or determination, topics for which illustrations from sports would be ideal. He can still connect with women by reaching into the world of the Olympics, where usually an individual competes against a standard. Figure skating, for example, does not require violence against an opponent in order to win (besides, it is beautiful). In a similar way, an illustration from Chariots of Fire could show the necessity of discipline in order to achieve, while not being associated with violence.
However, after such an illustration from sports, it would be helpful for women to hear an illustration from another arena of life—for example, professional music. Here, too, great discipline and perseverance are required.
Translate abstract principles into terms of concrete relationships
When I listen to a sermon, I want to know how the biblical principles fit my life—not merely as an individual, but in my complex web of relationships. How does this point affect me in my role as wife, mother, grandmother, neighbor, church member? How will it change the way I speak to my husband in the car on our way home from church? How will it alter the decisions I make about the use of my time when women in distress call me on the phone? My life is about people, a lot of lonely, confused, and hurting people. I want to know how biblical principles work in my world.
Women want to hear the Word of God in a way that applies to our lives in relationship. Effective communicators to women translate abstract principles by using illustrations drawn from relationships.
Consider substitutionary atonement, a principle that can remain abstract for many listeners. Women will relate to it best when the preacher uses human illustrations—for example, a man who donates a kidney in order to keep a family member alive, or a woman who loses her life while giving birth to a child, or a teenager who rescues a toddler from a burning building but dies in the rescue attempt.
Even an abstract principle such as spiritual war (Ephesians 6), which many men relate to positively, can be made appealing for women by explaining it in relational terms. If using an illustration from war, for example, it's important to de-emphasize the bloodshed and emphasize what was at stake for the people involved. For example, if illustrating from the Second World War, emphasize the freedom from Nazi tyranny it won. Or women might relate to a war for independence that freed people from brutality and gave them security.
Translate masculine language to feminine language
Much biblical imagery is masculine. Jesus the Son called God "Father," a masculine image. Christian women can hear that and, unless they were sexually or physically abused by a bad father, appreciate the rich image of relationship that Jesus gives us in that name.
But much more than masculine biblical imagery crops up in many sermons. Perhaps twenty years ago, I heard a woman speaker change the noun and pronoun from masculine to feminine as she quoted 1 Corinthians 5:17—"If any woman is in Christ Jesus, she is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new." I sat there stunned, then realized that tears were running down my cheeks. This meant me. I was included.
Had you asked me ten minutes earlier if I were included in the text of 1 Corinthians 5:17, I would have said, "Of course!" Intellectually, I can grasp that. Emotionally, I cannot. A preacher who cares about communicating to women will not draw back from reiterating the text with feminine pronouns here and there. Saying "men and women" or "women or men," rather than merely "men," helps women feel included.
We understand the need to communicate cross-culturally when we speak to different races or ethnic groups. Do we understand that it also applies when men and women attempt to communicate with one another?
Women in general are good listeners. It's part of being relational. But they are often puzzled listeners. Preachers can make a difference in what women are able to hear as they work to include and affirm both women and men as they speak.
Editor's note: A more complete and nuanced discussion of the wide variety of issues concerning women as listeners is found in Dr. Mathews' Preaching That Speaks to Women (Baker Academic, 2003).
Alice Mathews is distinguished professor emeritus of educational ministries and women's ministries at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and author of Preaching That Speaks to Women (Baker and IVP).