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How Christian women are making ‘holy mischief’ in the church

Bestselling authors and speakers Shauna Niequist, left, and Jen Hatmaker, kick off the Belong Tour stop at the Xcel Energy Center with a lightning round of questions on Oct. 21, 2016, in St. Paul, Minn. RNS photo by Emily McFarlan Miller
Singer, songwriter and "America's Got Talent" contestant Sharon Irving leads worship on Oct. 21, 2016, at the Belong Tour stop at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn. RNS photo by Emily McFarlan Miller

Singer, songwriter and “America’s Got Talent” contestant Sharon Irving leads worship on Oct. 21, 2016, at the Belong Tour stop at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn. RNS photo by Emily McFarlan Miller

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.


RELATED: Will evangelical women turn the tide against Trump?


“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.

Author, speaker and star of HGTV's "My Big Family Home Renovation" Jen Hatmaker speaks on Oct. 21, 2016, at the Belong Tour stop at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn. RNS photo by Emily McFarlan Miller

Author, speaker and star of HGTV’s “My Big Family Home Renovation” Jen Hatmaker speaks on Oct. 21, 2016, at the Belong Tour stop at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn. RNS photo by Emily McFarlan Miller

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.

LifeWay Christian Stores pulled Hatmaker’s books from its shelves this week after she expressed support for the LGBT community in an interview with RNS.

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.”


RELATED: The Politics of Jen Hatmaker: Trump, Black Lives Matter, gay marriage and more


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.

Raechel Myers, left, and Amanda Bible Williams, co-authors of the new book She Reads Truth. Photo courtesy of She Reads Truth

Raechel Myers, left, and Amanda Bible Williams, co-authors of the new book “She Reads Truth.” Photo courtesy of She Reads Truth

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.

Singer-songwriters Sharon Irving, left, and Nichole Nordeman lead worship on Oct. 21, 2016, at the Belong Tour stop at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn. RNS photo by Emily McFarlan Miller

Singer-songwriters Sharon Irving, left, and Nichole Nordeman lead worship on Oct. 21, 2016, at the Belong Tour stop at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn. RNS photo by Emily McFarlan Miller

“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.”

About the author

Emily McFarlan Miller

Emily McFarlan Miller is a national reporter for RNS based in Chicago. She covers evangelical and mainline Protestant Christianity.

25 Comments

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  • This is wonderful. Kudos to all those courageous women at the forefront.

    Re-Imagining began as a gathering of women in 1995 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The purpose was to celebrate women in ministry and it was sponsored by mainline denominations. Women came from all the world to be a part of a gathering of, by, and for women who planned, implemented and led the celebration. There were men in attendance too.

    The feeling was electric. The worship aspects, as well as the rest of the experience were formed from the feminine perspective and differed greatly from highly regimented, hierarchical, excessively patriarchal forms created by men. It was one of the most profound Christian experiences many women ever had according to their comments.

    Re-Imagining was resoundingly attacked because the women had not strictly adhered to the male way of doing things. Outrageous lies were reported about what happened at the event. PCUSA and UMC condemned the event and their clergy and paid staff who participated. Re-Imagining continued to hold large events for several years to meet the demand and small groups continue to gather and do theology without male approval.

  • Thank you for minimizing us so thoroughly, but your patriarchal attitude won’t even slow women down. You may return to your cave and haunch of mastodon now.

  • I don’t care how dogmatically or doctrinally correct you may be, your failure to embrace the instructions of both Jesus and St. Paul with respect to treating others with compassion and consideration even when you view them as deceived or in error makes your putative doctrinal truth null and void. Can you even comprehend that? You will not win people to your point of view by treating them with disdain in every single post, and isn’t it your responsibility to persuade, rather than condemn. Sheesh!

  • You know nothing of my life, though I’m prepared to confess that I’m not without sin. Without being certain I suspect that you are among those who believe in the doctrine of perfectibility, and that somehow you have achieved it. That is a mistaken notion, and your utter lack of humility demonstrates the spirit of Pride, which was the very sin that caused Satan to fall. I’m no happier with the present spiritual trends in our culture than you are, but as we are not on the same page as how best to address them, I will specifically refrain from engaging you in further discussion in the future. You can quote all the passages of scripture that you desire, I can quote them too, and endorse every one of them, but in the absence of a humble and contrite spirit all the doctrinal correctness in the world acts to no effect but to drive sinners and unbelievers further from our Lord. Further, in the Name of Jesus Christ, the Risen Savior and Lord, the Most High and Holy God, I rebuke the Spirit of Pride and Self Righteousness that indwells you. And I must also confess, I’m not feeling much love at the moment, but I’ll seek the Face of the Lord and ask for both His forgiveness, and my deliverance from my own anger.

  • I defend no sin, and certainly don’t have a favorite, though I’m certainly guilty of committing them even as I strive against them. Can you even make the confession that you are also guilty of committing sin even as you struggle against it?

  • All I can say is that I thank God, yes God, the Almighty Lord Jehovah, that you are not He. You are a Pharisee. Utterly lacking in charity and compassion. Read 1st Cor. Chap 13 again, and again until you get it. By the way, please reveal to me the specific sin you accuse me of. I have not compromised God’s Word, I have simply declared that there are other areas more important to me than the question of whether or not the Episcopalians have appointed a female bishop. You are a cold, heartless, loveless soul. Parrot the scripture all you want, until the spirit of it is engrafted on your soul, it’s useless to you.

  • What abomination have I defended? If I treat homosexuals with temperance and compassion without agreeing that such practices are normal, consistent with Christianity, and unsinful, I have not endorsed nor defended them. Nor in the scripture is the appointment of female bishops declared an abomination, it is neither advised, nor condemned. I’m not in favor of it personally, but I’m not going to get my knickers in a twist about it, when greater issues need to be addressed. I claim my faith in Jesus the Most High, and He not you is the only authority, excepting my pastor, I have to answer to. You are a Pharisee.

  • May I suggest a more productive course of conversation? This ugly arguing harms our collective witness. Peace, please, brothers.

  • Well I do consider referring to someone as a heretic “ugly arguing.” I’m also afraid that many people–especially nonbelievers–will find your tone is unnecessarily harsh. This article is about Christian women gathering in unity. I pray you can elevate the discussion going forward.

  • None of the N.T. writers gave credence to women preachers. The directives were given specifically to men, such is the reason for the Timothy and Titus chapters and verse on qualifications to hold the office of ‘shepherd’.

  • Please show from Timothy or Titus or the words of Jesus were women are to hold ‘biship’ or in reality, shepherd status.

  • I do not endorse, nor have I indicated that women should have authority over men in the Church, but it is not my place to police every denomination’s particular policies on leadership. While I may believe or argue that certain policies are errors in effect, they do not all rise to the level of heresy. I would point out that both Paul and Jesus commended women, who though they held no official leadership role, demonstrated mature spiritual leadership by the manner in which they lead their lives.

  • Your comment is disappointing. Edward, I urge you to examine the posts at JuniaProject per 1Timothy 2:8-15, and receive a better translation: “I do not (presently) permit a woman to teach or exercise her authority inappropriately over a man.” A statement which pertains to only a particular situation where Paul disagreed with what was being preached. Generally, Paul knew how to work with women and did not oppress them, although the same cannot be said for his editors/deuteros. Do you think I am second class?

  • I’m sorry that my remarks disappointed you, but I would point out that I averred that Paul and Jesus both commended women of spiritual maturity on a level equal to that of any man that they commended. I do not think of women as second class, but as an admitted traditionalist with a conservative mindset, I generally hold that men and women indeed have certain intrinsic differences that as a rule demonstrate gifts and competencies that do not function most effectively as equally interchangeable. I may be wrong. As to roles of official leadership for women, if I allow that it’s not a deal breaker for me, I get beat up by my fellow conservative believers. If I do not wholly accept senior leadership for women in the Church from my own interpretation of scripture, then I get brickbats from progressives. I accept your argument that Paul often spoke to specific situations and local issues though I often have difficulty parsing those instances. I hope that answers your questions and mollifies you to some extent. Oh…and on the question of leadership, my prayers are with anyone who has the responsibility of leading the Church, it is not a position that I would envy anyone, because with that responsibility comes a greater accountability before God.

  • Thanks for those thoughts Edward. We are all individuals and no one is “equally interchangeable” with anyone else.

    I don’t know if there are “intrinsic differences” between men and women that produce gifts according to gender. I still want to recognize the amazing variability among individuals within gender, and I don’t want to limit people to artificial roles. Rather, as much as I am able, I want to empower people and meet them where they are. I want to receive the unique gift that each one brings to me.

    Gender, ethnicity, and species are maybe not what I am at soul level, but merely tools for expressing who I AM really, as I am being created and as we are collectively being created in ITS image, “neither male nor female,” to be more than mere traits. I do not think of gender as being limiting, but rather enabling unlimited possibilities, “a door that no one can shut.” But it becomes imperative to think only in terms of stereotypes if you feel a need to limit and control people.

    Jesus said, “That all may be One.” That does not mean homogeneous, but rather unified. It does not mean two ‘complements’ that are guaranteed to end up unequal.

  • I.. this will sound odd and probably insulting to men and women. Apologies.
    I’m not a Christian, I’ve studied and cannot reconcile the doctrine with the actions of many followers I’ve met..including some today dealing with this conversation…. why does it seem like many men do in fact fear or even hate women? Perhaps I’m wrong here, but from the outside it looks almost like they purposefully devote themselves to keeping women well in hand, preferably silent.
    Many of the men’s comments here come off as… mean spirited, punitive… aggressive to the idea of sharing any authority with any woman… and the response to men who are open to it is kind of brutal.

    Why is this such a difficult thing to accept? Would women of authority really take so much from men? What do they stand to lose that many won’t even bend a little? I’m really asking, not trying to be mean. I want to understand something I clearly don’t. This very feeling is in large part why I cannot immerse myself in the faith, I love the ideas and morals in most cases but the people seem so… unkind and unlike what the faith calls on them to be.

  • I did. Such attitudes have been a huge detriment to my attempts to become comfortable with the faith and try to… look into the wisdom and truths that might be offered.

  • If your child does the dishes and commend them, does that make them a chef? It means you’re commending them.

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