Austin, Texas – While past conferences such as Women of Faith have drawn thousands of evangelical women to covered stages for devotional Bible study, a new generation of evangelical women are looking outward and concerned with issues such as social justice.
The IF: Gathering in Austin earlier this month was one such conference. At Austin Music Hall, approximately 1,200 women were greeted by farmhouse tables decorated with candles and centerpieces filled with cabbage and lavender. The free coffee came from Westrock Coffee, an organization committed to safe working conditions in Rwanda. But the healthy, natural vibe was just the start.
The participating women, including more than 44,000 online, sponsored 600 children through Food for the Hungry. Speakers included Christine Caine and Bianca Olthoff, sex trafficking victims advocates, humanitarian photographer Esther Havens and Annie Lobert, founder of Hookers for Jesus, a ministry for prostitutes that seeks to end sex trafficking.
âWe are part of a global system that has always measured greatness in terms of power, but Jesus always measured greatness in terms of service,â blogger and author Jen Hatmaker told the crowd. “If we love mercy for ourselves, then we must love it for everyone else.”
Past conferences and gatherings aimed at women have focused on issues such as marriage, parenthood and forgiveness. Speakers such as Beth Moore and Kay Arthur have drawn thousands of women to the stadiums, but the new batch of women is reaching a new generation concerned with theology, justice and vocation.
âIt was about expanding our vision outside of ourselves,â said Sharon Hodde Miller, a doctoral student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School who studies women in seminary. “It could play out in different ways, but encompassed social justice, racial reconciliation, poverty or the thinking of the neighbor next door who is a widow.”
Jennie Allen, founder of the gathering, was more direct: “We are coming together in a new way because we are not motivated by women’s issues.”
This new wave of evangelical women is fueled by an ever-growing online culture of top bloggers and savvy social media types who laid the groundwork for the new direction.
Tickets for the Austin Gathering, “If God Is Real, Then What?” Â», Sold out in 42 minutes; Word of the conference has spread widely on blogs and social media.
âWe grew up in a different context,â Allen said. “The technology is unprecedented.”
Ahead of the conference, Allen gathered over 50 influential women leaders to hear about OF’s projects, generating interest even before speakers and topics were announced.
âBlogs create a platform for women who might not have been heard otherwise,â said Cindy Bunch, editor at InterVarsity Press, responsible for a new women’s footprint called Crescendo. “Denominations have always had women’s ministries. I think what’s new is maybe that women have a stronger writing platform and are widely read by both men and women.”
For example, Ann Voskamp, ââwho spoke at the IF conference, is a farmer’s wife and 40-year-old mother of six in rural Ontario. Her New York Times bestseller, “One Thousand Gifts,” and her photo blog sprinkled with poetry and lyrical phrases have made her dear to evangelical women of many theological beliefs.
Another Canadian speaker, Sarah Bessey, describes herself as “too liberal for the conservatives, too conservative for the liberals”. Bessey, who wears piercings and tattoos, is the author of “Jesus Feminist”.
In other ways, the IF was similar to previous conferences. A mix of music, testimonies, preaching and teachings from speakers and musicians such as Caine and Lauren Chandler filled the Austin Music Hall stage. The group started an online devotion called IF: Equip.
âRarely does an event speak to so many different people who represent very different streams of evangelism,â Miller said.
There are many new initiatives for women aimed at guiding conversations about social justice or the role of women in the era of ‘Lean In’, the book on women’s leadership by Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook.
In November, Group Q, led by Gabe and Rebekah Lyons, hosted a conference on appeals.
Others include gatherings organized by the Gospel Coalition and Allume that draw high-following women on social media. Many groups target women, who make up 85 percent of all consumer purchases.
âOften times, Christian products or events are specifically aimed at the stay-at-home mom,â said Alli Worthington, Nashville-based business coach and consultant who attended the IF conference. “They’re all forgetting the different roles that women play in their lives.”