COMMENTARY | Anne Lim
Thursday 9 June 2016
Women’s Christian conferences are growing apace, attracting thousands of women eager to have a girls’ day out with Christian friends to praise God and hear teaching by women for women.
Anne Lim visits two very different women’s conferences in Sydney, the Pentecostal movement’s Colour, staged by Hillsong in March, followed in May by EQUIP, run by a group of women from more conservative denominations.
Colour is an arena spectacular! The enormous scale of the event is the first thing that strikes me as I enter the Hillsong Convention Centre at Baulkham Hills in Sydney.
It’s like a rock concert, with the lights down low, musicians hopping around the stage like pop stars against a psychedelic backdrop, and the capacity crowd of 4000 on their feet, swaying to the beat.
I’m immediately stirred by the vibrating rock buzz that seems to combine the fun of a concert with a heart-thumping exaltation of Jesus. It’s a winning combination of our need to praise and a sense of being in a community of women who are loved, forgiven, right with God.
This year Colour celebrated its 20th anniversary with four back-to-back, booked-out conferences over three days each.
Numbers have swollen from about 600 at the first event to 17,000 in Sydney and 46,000 internationally (USA, South Africa, Russia and the UK). Little wonder, then, that founder Pastor Bobbie Houston describes Colour as a “global movement” that seeks to equip and mobilise “everyday women” to make the world a better place.
As a Sydney Anglican (a more traditional form of evangelicalism), I’m not sure how to respond to the scale and style of Colour. The language is different from what I’m used to, especially Pastor Bobbie’s frequent flurries of “Hallelujah”, “Amen” and “Praise the Lord”!
But the formula is clearly is reaching a phenomenal number of women, many of whom show appreciation of the speakers in answering shouts of “Yeah!” and “Amen!”
I don’t warm to all of the speakers, but I do enjoy the talk by Christine Caine, founder of the A21 campaign to eliminate human trafficking.
Her theme is how to achieve the goal of life to know Christ and make him known across the planet. She is a passionate orator with the ability to pump up the emotional heat by showering the audience in torrents of words.
“There are multitudes that still need to know about Jesus,” she says.
Her theme is developing the patience to grasp God’s promises by “taking the long way around”, taking life step by step and little by little.
“God is preparing a place for us and preparing us for a place,” she says.
“The long way around with Jesus is a lot better than the short way without him.
“You don’t even know what God saved you from by taking you the long way round and giving it to you little by little. It’s for your good and his glory.”
Holly Wagner, founding and senior pastor of Oasis Church in Los Angeles, challenges her listeners to “think big”.
Stretching your tent is Holly’s key metaphor for her talk, which is based on Isaiah 54:2.
She mentions breast cancer and a “ridiculous lawsuit” as battles that have stretched her as well as a recent challenge to stage the first Christian event at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood (home of the Oscars).
“We must learn to use the word of God, which is our sword,” she says.
If we are to enlarge our tent, she says, we need the courage to leave our comfort zone and find the spiritual strength to take new ground, as Abraham did.
Holly’s focus on shaping an “amazing life” leaves me unmoved. But, then, I am a middle-class, tertiary educated woman living in a good marriage who finds it more enlarging to contemplate the opening words of The Purpose Driven Life: “It’s not about you.”
Yet I am sure there are a lot of women in the audience who are facing challenges who find Holly’s sermon both inspiring and encouraging.
A Bible Society colleague who attends Colour every year says she finds most of the speakers really engaging.
“I just find it really inspiring, encouraging, great atmosphere, a really positive worshipful time,” she says.
Many reformed evangelical churches rarely allow women to speak, so the annual EQUIP women conference provides a precious opportunity for women to sit under expository preaching (which tends to preach through books verse by verse) by other women.
EQUIP women is Australia’s largest conservative evangelical Bible teaching ministry for women, attracting about 2500 women to Rosehill Gardens Event Centre this year and an equal number who watched the conference remotely across Australia and New Zealand via live stream. It is a half-day conference held each May; the identical conference runs twice on the same day, once in the morning and then again in the afternoon/evening.
EQUIP may be smaller in scale than Colour but it seems to have just as large a proportion of young women in the crowd. In fact, it now also runs a parallel conference for teens.
The language is more familiar to me at EQUIP, which offers three Bible talks interspersed with music, interviews, videos and book reviews.
The MC is the elegant Isobel Lin, one of a group of friends, all graduates of the Ministry Training Strategy, who set up EQUIP in 1999 as a way of encouraging, teaching and training other women.
The organisers chose songs that reflect the theme of the talks, which this year was “Freed”, based on 1 Corinthians 8-10. Despite this laudable aim, the worship at EQUIP misses the mark for me, being neither a plain congregational style of singing nor a foot-tapping concert style that might attract a broader audience.
The song leader has a fabulous voice and the band creates a great sound, but the backing singers are inaudible and the songs seem aimed squarely at a reformed evangelical group, cutting off a broader group of Pentecostals and seekers.
For me the highlights of the day were the talks by maths lecturer Di Warren – one of the founding members of EQUIP – and Lesley Ramsay, an author and evangelist who has been in ministry for more than 40 years. I have enjoyed Di’s talks before but for me Lesley was a revelation. It was wonderful to share in the wisdom of an older woman who has a profound understanding of how women’s cherished personas – as the quiet one, the party girl or the sophisticate – can get in the way of talking to people about Jesus.
“If I don’t leave my comfort zone I am not standing with Jesus at that moment,” she says.
Quoting Paul’s teaching in 1 Cor 9:22 to be “all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some”, she elicits rueful laughs when she asks if any coffee snobs among us would be willing to drink a cup of Nescafe with a neighbour to keep a conversation going about Jesus.
After explaining how Paul gave up his rights to reward for his ministry because he wanted his life to be a paradigm of the gospel, she challenges us to consider what rights we are clinging to: a good salary, overseas travel, being able to live where we want, nice clothes, a good lifestyle, being close to family or a secure retirement?
“Are you willing to give up time to relax to get involved in evangelism with people from church?” she asks.
“Are you prepared to rethink your allocation of money to ensure you are supporting projects where people may be saved?”
She challenges us to imagine how our children will remember us. What will they say was our passion? Will they say Mum liked the house to look good? Mum always liked to dress well? Or she had a passion for telling people about Jesus?