Last weekend my family and I had a rare opportunity to spend a weekend in the mountain-side town of Canmore, Alberta. Along with breathtaking views and fine cuisine, Canmore also boasts a well-stocked yarn store. As knitting is one of my wife’s main hobbies, this yarn store was a ‘must-visit’ before returning to Calgary.
We entered the shop and my wife began to wade through the countless balls of yarn that spanned the walls. My son and I perched ourselves in the two bucket seats located near the front of the store. As we sat in those chairs, I looked over at the stack of magazines set upon the nearby coffee-table. I was taken aback at the titles that I saw before me. One would assume that a shop dedicated to knitting would display magazines of that ilk. This is akin to expecting that a car dealership would display various automobile related reading materials. Yet this place was different. The magazines that were before me were ‘Men’s Journal’, ‘Esquire’, “Men’s Health’, and ‘Outdoor Living. There was a clear theme to these magazines – and it wasn’t knitting.
At first I was impressed by this. Obviously the owners of the shop had done some work in identifying the demographic of individuals who sit in these chairs. It’s quite innovative, really. This shop had decided not simply to focus on the needs of their clients, but also on the needs of those who would be accompanying their clients. It conveyed the message that this yarn shop was welcoming to all people.
But then another thought entered my mind. Was this an innovative means of addressing the needs/wants of men within the shop, or was this actually an instance of gender stereotyping? After all, being a guy doesn’t preclude me from being interested in knitting, does it? What is more, for the owners to conclude that as a male I have no knowledge of what it means to ‘knit’ or ‘purl’ and can’t tell the difference between a circular and double-pointed needles, isn’t that highly insensitive and ultimately offensive?
As I pondered this I found myself getting a little angry. Who do these owners think they are to judge me this way? After all, I have knitted. While in seminary, three of us (all males) decided to knit some tuques for our respective girlfriend, fiancée and spouse. Yes, we knit while we watched action movies, and no, none of our projects actually fit the head of our loved one, but that’s not the point. The point is it cannot be assumed that I have no interest in knitting simply because I am male.
After all we don’t stand for the reverse. Just recently an old Lego advertisement made its way around Facebook and other social media sites. This advertisement made its viral rounds because of the gender neutrality of the image and text. While the advertisement displayed a girl playing with the popular toy, never once was the product marketed as a ‘girl’s toy’. The image is distinctly lacking of the pinks and purples that define much of the products aimed at young girls. In this, the advertisement made it clear that Lego was a toy for all children regardless of their gender. (Read a great article about this here)
How drastically things have changed in terms of gender marketing.
In all honesty, I am not sure if I think that this yarn shop’s actions amounts to innovative service or gender stereotyping, but this whole experience got me thinking about the ministries of the church. Do we define ministries based on one’s gender? If so, is this appropriate? Men are often funneled into a ‘men’s breakfast’ or a ‘men’s group’ and women into the ‘Ladies Guild’, ‘Altar Guild’, or ‘ACW’. Yet in a day when The Scouts dropped their gender distinctions, and it is deemed unacceptable to have a ‘men only’ gym, should we continue to define one’s role and function in the church by his or her gender? Should a church, built upon the declaration that ‘in Christ there is neither male nor female’, have such gender-based distinctions? Think about it, we don’t expect the men’s group to care for the flowers in the church and the women to look after mowing the lawn; nor have I ever seen a man asked to join the Altar Guild. Instead, typical expectations of one’s activity in the church are often more stereotypical: The men look after the grounds keeping, the women look after tidying up the church.
Is this responsible ministry, or gender stereotyping?
Sure, an argument can easily be made that such male/female distinctions is about ministering to the unique needs of each gender. Yet that doesn’t actually get us off the hook. If we argue that differences in roles and expectations began as a response to the different needs and interests of each gender, at what point does this actually become the perpetuation of gender-based stereotypes?
The fact is, our society is growing tired of gender based distinctions. More and more people are rallying against these false and insulting judgments that attempt to define behaviour by on one’s gender. This dynamic should be reflected in the church, not just in its proclamation, but also in the practical ways in which it exercises its ministry. We are called to embody a truth which sees the radical dismantling of such distinctions, and by doing so, calls people to the freedom found in Christ. After all, if our identity in the church is based on Christ’s grace and love, shouldn’t the ministries of the church be based on the same thing?
What do you think, does gender-based groups in the church amount to sensitive ministry or offensive stereotyping?