ST. LOUIS (RNS) The scene near the concession stands resembled something closer to a strip mall on Black Friday than the hour preceding a worship service.
Hundreds of women lined up outside a temporary “boutique” with displays of $25 T-shirts and $40 hoodies emblazoned with messages like “Love Revolution” and “Think Happy Thoughts.”
A staff member controlling the flow of shoppers wondered aloud whether a bullhorn would help.
Nearby, a crush of women lined up three deep to pick up copies of DVDs and books, most bearing the smiling face of Joyce Meyer, the woman they’d all paid an average of $55 to see and hear.
It’s likely all of them had seen Meyer on television, or heard her on the radio, before. And a good percentage had probably also seen her live at one of the many conferences that Joyce Meyer Ministries puts on across the country each year.
Many were veterans of the women’s conference that Meyer has convened annually in St. Louis for 28 years. The forum grew from 65 women to a peak of 25,000 and back down to 17,000 this year. They’d come from all 50 states and 21 countries to hear Meyers’ no-nonsense, populist version of the gospel.
“In some way, shape or form we all have something in our lives we’re dealing with,” said Michelle Madl, 45, from Rhinelander, Wis., who was attending her second women’s conference. “But we come together here, as women, to meet new friends and to help each of us see we’re not in this alone.
For many of the women, seeing and hearing Meyer was worth the journey and money they spent on airfare, gas, hotel rooms, tickets and food.
“I watch Joyce on TV, and I’ve read lots of her books,” said Linda Donald, 46, of Jackson, Miss.
Her friend, Gwendolyn Sample, 42 of Pickens, Miss., added that she was ready for a “fresh word” from the tart-tongued evangelist.
The atmosphere is a mixture of humor, inspiration, pampering and all-out consumerism. If women came for Meyer’s preaching, they were also here for the stuff.
That included many of Meyer’s 80 books, or her $20 DVDs. Pamphlets offered “partnerships” — monthly donations to the ministry bolstered by scriptural justification for giving (“It is more blessed to give than to receive.” — Acts 20:35).
But in the face of such peddling, women like Jennifer Lake, 41, of Festus, Mo., were anything but bothered. Lake was carrying a bag full of new Joyce Meyer purchases and saw no conflict between the collective spiritual sisterhood on display and the equally evident commercialism.
“There are plenty of women who can’t be here this weekend, and we can support them financially in this way,” she said.
Madl said, “I know where the proceeds are going and the impact they have with the wonderful things this ministry does.”
Ensuring women feel appreciated, relaxed and comfortable is a big part of Meyer’s annual conference. Women won everything from free massages and makeovers to $250 Wal-Mart gift certificates to a home addition.
“Part of our goal is to make everyone feel loved and special,” Ginger Stache, the ministry’s chief media officer, told the crowd.
Meyer is known as a champion of the so-called prosperity gospel, which ties financial generosity and wealth to physical and spiritual well-being.
Shayne Lee, a sociology professor at Tulane University and author of “Holy Mavericks: Evangelical Innovators and the Spiritual Marketplace,” compared Meyer to George Whitefield, the 18th-century British evangelist who toured the colonies preaching the gospel and becoming “the first American celebrity.”
“What (Meyer) is doing is carving out space in market share and converting Christianity into a commodity,” Lee said. “She proves that Christianity can compete in the marketplace.”
Roby Walker, the ministry’s chief operations officer, said the conference costs “millions” to stage, and that total receipts add up to “about $2 million to $3 million.”
The ministry says sales of the clothing in the conference “boutique” go to help needy children. “Our goal is to cover the expenses of the conference and break even,” Walker said.
There’s a local benefit, too, officials said. Walker noted that attendees booked 4,000 hotel rooms and spent money on local restaurants and shops between Meyer’s teaching sessions.
As she spoke about the parable of the Prodigal Son, Meyer paced the stage in black pants and a black leather jacket. A big diamond ring sparkled from her left hand and long earrings dangled from her ears.
While much has been made of Meyer and money — the Senate Finance Committee asked for copies of her financial records back in 2007 — the women attending her conference looked beyond the sparkly jewelry toward the message at the heart of Meyer’s preaching.
God, Meyer said to hoots and cheers Thursday, loves a party. The evidence is that Jesus’ first miracle was to turn water to wine at the wedding in Cana. “Jesus made the party better,” she said, smiling.
Meyer looks and sounds like the women in her mammoth, middle-class congregation. She is their husky-voiced, sassy neighbor who speaks wisdom directly to the broken lives many of them lead. They recognize her vocabulary, her sense of humor, her demeanor of world weariness.
“We pray for all we left at home,” she said to loud applause as she welcomed her flock to St. Louis. “We pray for the husbands, the kids, the baby sitters and all the dishes left in the sink. We pray for it all.”
(Tim Townsend writes for The St. Louis Post-Dispatch in St. Louis, Mo.)