According to Christianity Today, as a spiritual blogger, speaker and author, I’m part of a “crisis in the church.” I agree there’s a crisis, but I disagree on what exactly that crisis entails.
What gives Christian bloggers and writers like me (or Jen Hatmaker, or Beth Moore, or Christine Caine) the right to teach and write books and blogs about spiritual life? This is the question posed by Tish Harrison Warren, in her article, “Who’s In Charge of the Christian Blogosphere?” The article, the first in a Christianity Today series called #AmplifyWomen, has served as a lightning rod in, well, the Christian blogosphere, and spurred lively Twitter discussion.
What makes this response hard to write is that I know Tish, and I respect her. But in this instance, I disagree with her. And I don’t have to ask someone who is “in charge” of me if it’s okay if I make that disagreement public. Because freedom of speech, and that pesky lack of oversight. I’ve respectfully told Tish that I see things differently.
The author is herself a spiritual writer and blogger, but also, an Anglican priest and co-rector (with her husband) of a church. She states in the article, “In this new cyber age, authority comes not from the church or the academic guild but from popularity.” She labels this a “crisis of authority, especially for women.” Why is it only a crisis for women? There are plenty of Christian men blogging and writing.Here’s the thing: change in the church has often come without the approval of the traditional church or the academy. From The Great Awakening, to the rise of mega churches, many movements of God challenged the status quo. Why is this now a crisis, particularly for women?
Because she is in a denomination that apparently celebrates her gifts and allows her to be a priest, Warren may not be able to see the struggle of women in other traditions who are denied those opportunities. The people “in charge” in her world affirm her leadership. (Although I don’t know whether they provide oversight for her blogging and writing). They have given her the authority to be not just a leader but a priest. Yes, she is subject to their oversight theologically, but no one is telling her “no, you can’t teach because you’re a woman.”
Many of the people pushing back against this article (and there are a lot of them) are, conversely, in a faith tradition that will not allow women to use their gifts of leading and teaching. The real crisis is not that they have a lack of oversight, but too many restrictions.
Warren’s denomination, conversely, gives her authority to teach, administer the sacraments, and so forth—rights not given to women in many other denominations or contexts. That is a position of privilege. All of us are blind to our own privilege. To ask why women don’t serve within the authority and structure of the church is a bit tone deaf. The people “in charge” of many Christian women have told them to sit down, be quiet, or go change some diapers in the nursery.
The popularity of the recent #thingsonlyChristianwomenhear conversation on Twitter, in which women reported on sexism in the church, shows why women leaders are speaking in conventional halls instead of church basements, and why women are following them. They’ve been denied a seat at the table or an opportunity within the church to lead. They’ve endured sexism or even harassment. They have something to say, and nowhere to say it.
Just as women who bump into a glass ceiling in the corporate world leave to start businesses (at a rate five times higher than men), women in the church bump into a stained glass ceiling and leave to start entrepreneurial ministries. I believe they’re motivated not by ambition, but by a sense of calling.
Women are tired of being told “no” when they are certain that the Holy Spirit is saying yes. Warren’s article is just another “no.” What gives writers and bloggers the right to speak, she asks. Maybe, I don’t know–the Holy Spirit, which blows where it will? I would argue that the growing ministry of women speakers and bloggers is a movement of the Holy Spirit which ought not be quenched.
The article mentions how Jen Hatmaker changed her mind on the LGBT issue—and cites that as one reason for needing oversight. First, as Jen would say, for the love! Can we let Jen alone? She’s not the only one who has changed her mind on this issue. I know I have—and not from being led astray by Jen or any other Christian blogger. I’ve read books by authors like Matthew Vines and Justin Lee. And I’ve had discussions with gay friends, studied the Scriptures again. I’ve prayed about it and sense that God is calling the church to compassion and kindness on this issue—we have centuries of damage to undo. He’s using bloggers and speakers like Jen and others to do bring about change. But I think Jen’s change of heart on this issue, like mine, was brought about by the Holy Spirit.
While a few have succeeded in building a large platform, there are plenty of spiritual bloggers who toil on, writing and speaking to much smaller audiences. A huge platform is not a given—it happens for a number of reasons, and I think the Holy Spirit is one of them. For centuries, the church has repressed women, denying them a seat at the table, a place to use their gifts. Today, we are again seeing the fulfillment of prophesy:
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your old men will dream dreams,
your young men will see visions.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days.” (Joel 2:28-29)
Certainly, women can serve in “women’s ministries” in their church, in many conservative and traditional denominations. But I’m sorry, for many women, the whole “church women’s ministry” thing just makes us roll our eyes—and makes our daughters shrug and walk away. Daytime events featuring tea and crafts, and maybe an inspirational speaker, serve only a sliver of the women in any given church—the ones without a full-time job, who happen to like tea and craft. Most of the women I know are tired of tea parties and crafts, or wonder, what does that have to do with living out my calling and following after Jesus? Nothing against tea (although I’m a coffee girl myself) or crafts (although I’m awful at them). But “women’s ministries” traditionally offered what could charitably be called light, frivolous events. Women want more spiritual depth, and deeper connection.
So why aren’t churches offering that? Maybe, it’s because women are simply denied the right to lead. Women leaders are tired of being told “no” by the church simply because of their gender.
Into the void of women’s ministry step the women’s conventions and stadium events the article mentions. Why have they succeeded? In part, people love events. The Women of Faith conferences, and the men’s Promisekeepers before that—and even things like Billy Graham crusades before that. Big stadium events are exciting, fun, and an effective way to reach a lot of people with a message.
While content is important, community is crucial. The Belong Tour’s success (which features Jen Hatmaker and Shauna Niequist, among others) is in part because of the “popularity” of the speakers—perhaps. But their strategy for filling stadiums is brilliant—and meets a felt need. They encourage women to invite five friends, who each invite one friend. Then, as they say on their website, “Boom!” you’ve got a group of ten, you are the group leader, and you get free admission to the event. Women don’t just want to go to an event, they want to go with their friends. They want to lead, but they want to wade in slowly because they’ve been denied that opportunity in the past in their church. Events like The Belong Tour or IF: Gathering provide that sense of community and connection.
Spiritual bloggers (and their comment sections) also provide a place of community, a place where women can connect with others and never even have to do a craft or sip tea if they don’t want to. An exhausted mom of young kids who feels lonely finds other moms in the same boat to encourage and reassure her, simply by opening her laptop during naptime.
In the article, Warren states, “From the comfort of their living rooms, lay people suddenly became household names, wielding influence over tens of thousands of followers.” As a Christian author and speaker, I can tell you, this was not my experience. Despite working hard at it for more than a decade, I did not acquire “tens of thousands” of followers. Most authors and bloggers have a small readership, but write because they feel called to do so.
So how did Jen Hatmaker and others like her arise? In part, because of the influence they already had, (or got from a television show) and in part, because of the Holy Spirit. In part, because they fearlessly built ministries, working hard to do so. God is blessing their efforts—and it’s not been an easy road.
If a man plants a new church or ministry, and it grows into a large, influential organization, people often remark that the Spirit must be moving, God must be blessing their efforts. When women lead and have influence, why is it suspect?
God is speaking through these women, even about controversial things, because the church needs to know that the way it has dealt with race, with LGBT people, and with women must change. Through these brave women, God is calling us not to greater restriction, but greater freedom.