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.