ST. PAUL, Minn. (RNS) The Xcel Energy Center was full of women – young and old, Protestant and Catholic, on fire for Jesus and burned out by church. Some came alone. Some came with the same groups of friends and family that have attended similar events together for decades. Some came wearing new babies wrapped in slings across their bodies.
There were 8,000 of them, and they came to the Belong Tour to share stories and find inspiration in their faith.
Sitting onstage on a recent Friday (Oct. 21), in a circle of white director’s chairs, the speakers and musicians they would hear from all weekend — all prominent Christian women — shared why they had come to be a part of the nationwide tour, too.
“I’m so excited to be among women who are all about the holy mischief and stirring up things in the world and not doing it safe,” said Sharon Irving, a former “America’s Got Talent” contestant who is preparing to release her first album.
Leslie Reed, vice president of brand communications for the Belong Tour, said Belong is “built on the shoulders” of Women of Faith, the long-running Christian women’s conference that ended last year with a farewell tour of the country. It’s the same leadership team, same producers, but with a new “TED Talk”-like format and a new team of speakers, musicians and spoken-word artists targeting a new generation of women both inside and outside the church.
It’s not the only women’s ministry switching gears as new ministries for and by women launch online and social media sites create spaces where women’s voices can be heard. Even women who have been in ministry for years are making “holy mischief” and claiming space in male-dominated conservative evangelicalism, engaging Scripture and politics and other topics outside of traditionally “safe” subjects like home and family.
“I think there’s a moment of great creativity for women leaders in the religious sphere,” said the Rev. Katharine Rhodes Henderson, president of Auburn Theological Seminary and author of “God’s Troublemakers: How Women of Faith Are Changing the World.”
“I think that we are seeing in lots of areas of American life that some of the traditional structures that served well for a long period of time are no longer doing so. … A time of change means there’s a possibility of new types of leadership and new people doing it.”
‘Mad Men’ women’s ministry
Women’s ministry goes back at least to the New Testament, said Chris Adams, senior lead women’s ministry specialist for LifeWay Christian Resources.
But women’s ministry as we think of it today — while it can look different at different churches — came about in the 1980s and 1990s, when Beth Moore published her first Bible study and Women of Faith toured the country for the first time. By the time Women of Faith held its last event last year, Reed said, it had reached more than 5 million women in 89 cities.
Now, said Holly Stallcup, the millennial founder and executive director of Mended Women, “women’s ministry just has so much negativity surrounding it. It has so many stereotypes surrounding it. It feels to so many people like a dying part of the church.”
To a new generation, the stereotype of Bible studies and conferences and Christian women seems mired in earlier decades, like a scene out of “Mad Men,” Stallcup said.
In her work with Mended Women, which provides consultation for women’s ministries, she said she’s heard from women who don’t fit the cultural norm the church has adopted for women. She has encountered women whose experience of women’s ministry was dressing in their mothers’ wedding gowns for a fashion show, who are more interested in a basketball tournament than a craft night, who aren’t married and don’t have children and feel like they don’t have the password to get into the club.
Those feelings aren’t new, Adams said. Women’s ministry was born from women’s desire to do things differently than their mothers had, she said.
But others sense something bigger is happening.
“I feel like this is just a real season of change and growth for capital ‘C’ Church,” said Nichole Nordeman, Dove Award-winning singer-songwriter and speaker on the Belong Tour.
“There’s just a lot that’s changing. With that, of course, comes the inevitable growing pains, there’s resistance and, for those who are comfortable with the way things have always been, I think it’s a tricky time.”
Not ‘nice’ or ‘sweet’
In the last decade, Nordeman said, Christian women have gained popularity for their teaching and preaching, something that doesn’t necessarily fit into the role women usually play in ministry.
“I think women aren’t necessarily saying new things. It’s that they have a voice,” she said.
And she and other prominent Christian women increasingly are finding their voices online and off. Nordeman and Belong tourmates Jen Hatmaker and Angela Davis have weighed in on the current presidential election — hardly the stereotype for “nice” or “sweet” women.
Hatmaker and Moore also have tweeted about their opposition to late-term abortions, and, without naming names, Moore spoke out condemning sexual assault in a series of tweets posted after the release of the infamous “Trump tape,” in which the Republican presidential nominee is heard talking about grabbing women by the genitals. She since has responded to the avalanche of online comments — some positive, some along the lines of “I have lost all respect for you” — by clarifying she does not support either candidate.
“In my experience, I find women’s ministry ever increasingly transparent and honest — gritty even,” said Hatmaker, reached before LifeWay announced it would stop selling her books.
“If once upon a time women’s ministry was sort of fluffy, now I find real depth to it, really smart study of the Word, conversations that have typically been taboo and just a lot of real healing rise up, so I think there is still absolutely a place for women’s ministry, and I’m proud to see how many great leaders are carrying that baton.”
But it also comes at a cost. There’s still pushback in some Christian circles when women aren’t “sweet” or “nice,” Nordeman added.
“I think that is still an interesting double standard — that men are not just encouraged, but expected to be vocal and to be firm in their convictions. … It’s hard for the church — and even in Christian ministry — to just embrace the strength of a woman’s voice, her own convictions, her own opinions.”
Online and outside the church
The internet also has created new spaces for Christian women to connect. They’ve launched online ministries – some of which have grown to include offline events — to create community, study the Bible and equip other women for leadership at church and at work like Propel Women, (in)courage, The Influence Network and IF:Gathering.
She Reads Truth, started as a hashtag by several online strangers to share what they were reading in the Bible, unexpectedly grew to a website and then an app (and a recently published book). Now about 500,000 women actively read its Bible study plans and reflections, according to chief content officer Amanda Bible Williams.
In a busy world where women are expected to do and have it all, Williams said, “these sorts of online communities do away with those excuses, that obviously I can’t be at church all the time so this is when I read my Bible. It has been really wonderful at creating community.”
Just as women who may not find places in traditional corporate structures have become entrepreneurs, according to Henderson, “it’s also true that women are spiritual entrepreneurs and create ministries where they see a need.”
And Christian women are reaching outside the church, to the nones and to those women who have been hurt by religion.
That’s what makes Belong feel different to Nordeman, who was a special guest for Women of Faith off and on for more than 15 years.
Women’s “ministry” or “gatherings” or “conferences” all are words that “feel like they have so much baggage with them,” she said. The tour is abandoning much of that language, blending worship songs like “Blessed Be the Name” with Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” and openly discussing topics such as divorce and infertility and abandoning the expectations placed on women.
“God” and “faith” barely are mentioned on its website and promotional materials. Instead, said Reed, Belong’s research showed women wanted to discover and live out their purpose, connect in their relationships and experience a deeper faith.
“I don’t know if it’s because women’s voices have been uniquely quieted for so long, but it’s really renewing and fresh to watch women sort of rise up and lead and preach and teach and innovate,” Hatmaker said.
These are the voices many Christians are listening to, Christianity Today Editor-at-Large Katelyn Beaty has said: not the heads of universities and other institutions, but writers and speakers and those with large social media followings.
How they will shape Christianity remains to be seen, Nordeman said.
But, she added, “I can’t imagine the church won’t be changed.”