Can Jesus Give Women a New Voice?

(A little lengthy and misses a few cylinders but worth a scan or even a read)

It’s 7 p.m. on a Friday, and across New York City, happy hours are winding down and group chats are lighting up. Outside the Kings Theatre in Flatbush, Brooklyn, hundreds of young women are standing in line. They look like the women you’d see on any Brooklyn-bound subway: white, black, Asian, and Latinx, wearing boilersuits with Vans, cropped wide-leg pants with pointy-toe mules, tracksuits emblazoned with logos. A few are dressed festively, or festival-y, in flower crowns and colorful wigs. Some have been standing here for hours, sacrificing the entire day for a seat close to the stage, spirits undampened by the cold April drizzle. They’ve come for Colour, a two-day conference dedicated to placing value upon “everyday women of all ages, backgrounds, and cultures,” put on by the evangelical megachurch Hillsong. Inside, the ornate French Renaissance theater has been transformed into a 2019 vision of feminine self-love. A sculpture of old TVs and faux flowers serves as a backdrop for selfies; a pamper booth offers makeup touch-ups and dry shampoo samples. There’s a shop selling spiritual self-help books, Bibles, and T-shirts that say, “Choose Empathy.” Filing into their seats, two young women are talking about someone in gushy, breathless tones. “I’m just so in love with him,” one says. She’s wearing a tiara. “I know, me too,” her friend replies. “I’m obsessed.” I don’t even have to ask whom they’re talking about. I’ve been attending Hillsong services for the past few months, so I already know. They’re talking about Jesus Christ. As far as icons of female empowerment go, you could do worse. In his day, Jesus preached a profoundly egalitarian worldview; the New Testament says that everyone—male, female, slave, master, rich, poor—is equal under God. But Christianity’s interpretation of the Bible over nearly two millennia of patriarchy has not, by and large, kept pace with women’s changing roles in society, and many American feminists finger conservative religious activism for our country’s current state of diminishing reproductive rights and oppression of the LGTBQ community. While many liberals consider Christianity to be a byword for misogyny, there’s an issue with that perception. Actually, there are more than 3,000 of them, and they’re sitting under the gilded ceiling of the Kings Theatre. Through many conversations over several weeks, I’ve come to understand that what these women are seeking is a sense of belonging and purpose that secular feminism doesn’t readily provide. Their theologies are individual and personal—some disagree with Hillsong’s stance that the Bible is “clear” on marriage being between a man and a woman—but each of them believes that Jesus Christ and his teachings can make the world kinder and more equitable for women. “My work friends think Hillsong is weird. They’re like, ‘What is it you do—go to a concert in a church?’ I tell them I’m not religious. I’m a Christian.” They are, for the most part, young, creative, and independent. They’re still in college, or embarking on cool careers. Many admit a fondness for drinking and looking cute on social media—but they also believe in God, marriage, and community. Hillsong doesn’t ask them to align their lifestyle with their faith. And, at Colour, they’re presented with something rare: a space to think about how to be both a good Christian woman and an empowered one. Alana Frazier, 33, describes herself as a fan of Hillsong, and she founded her faith-based apparel line, God Thinks I Am, with these women in mind. Her most recent lookbook features diverse models with Instagram-ready brows wearing tees that say,“Then, God Made Woman,” styled with high-waisted pants and minimalist sandals. “In 2019,” Frazier says, the Christian woman is “multifaceted and doesn’t subscribe to groupthink. She wants to be like her [favorite] celebrities and influencers. But at the same time, [she’s] saying, ‘Hey, I’m a real woman, I’m not perfect, but the one thing you need to know about me is I believe in God and I’m ready to tell the world.’ ” Few organizations are more visibly updating Christianity for the twenty- first century than Hillsong. Founded in Sydney in 1983, the church has ties to Australia’s conservative Pentecostal tradition, but has become influential around the world thanks to its deep coffers and chart-topping worship rock. Last year, the church announced it had “outgrown” denomination, and today it serves up broad-brush, feel-good Christianity while minimizing its more dated beliefs. Hillsong fills ballrooms in Los Angeles, New York, and London with the help of aspirational churchgoers such as Justin and Hailey Bieber, Kevin Durant, and Kylie and Kendall Jenner. Services are live-streamed; donations are collected via the church’s proprietary, Venmo-style app; and, unlike in some conservative Christian denominations, women can serve as pastors. Hillsong’s most visible female ambassador is Bobbie Houston, who cofounded the church along with her husband, Brian Houston; together, they are the church’s global senior pastors. According to Bobbie’s 2016 book, The Sisterhood, the idea for Colour came directly from God, during a coed Hillsong conference in 1996. She heard God’s voice speaking to her: “Bobbie…Create a conference for women…a conference and environment for young women, but girded about with older women…and tell them…tell them that there is a God in heaven and a company of others who believe in them,” she wrote. Hillsong held its first women’s conference in a western suburb of Sydney in 1997, under the name Colour Your World. Today, Colour has expanded to London, Cape Town, New York, Los Angeles, and Kiev and is attended by nearly 50,000 women per year. A pamphlet promoting Colour 2019 (this year’s ticket price is $159) features women of varying ethnicities, naturally lit and believably happy. A rainbow wall hanging frames one girl’s Afro; another wears a shirt proclaiming, “Wage Peace.” Colour, the text says, is a “movement of women” who want “to change this world from the inside out.” This year’s theme, “Be Found in the New,” is taken from the Book of Revelation. But if you didn’t know that, the pamphlet could be an Urban Outfitters catalog or an Everlane lookbook—a sign of both Hillsong’s cultural fluency and marketers’ awareness of consumer fatigue. A new sofa or cute leggings are just the window dressing in a life of purpose—a way to transcend exhaustion, loneliness, and low self-esteem, and step into a world of our own making. Which, when you get right down to it, sounds a lot like religion. The number of young adults (18 to 29) who identify as religious “nones”—not affiliated with any religion—has nearly quadrupled in the last 30 years, from 10 percent in 1986 to 39 percent in 2016, according to the Public Religion Research Institute. And among those who are practicing Christians, about half are more reluctant to evangelize than earlier generations were; 47 percent believe it’s wrong to try to change other people’s religious beliefs, according to the faith research organization Barna Group. If I can believe in witches and magic rocks, why not Jesus Christ dying for our sins? But the Pew Research Center says that most millennials—like their parents and their grandparents—still believe in heaven. And 55 percent of them think about the meaning and purpose of life. Also of note: More than half are willing to accept astrology as a science, according to a National Science Foundation survey. That last fact rings especially true to me, a “none” who has been to sound baths, tarot card readers, psychics, and reiki healers. If I can believe in witches and magic rocks, why not Jesus Christ dying for our sins? Kinsey, 19, attended Colour last year in Los Angeles, when she was a student at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising. Kinsey, who has long auburn hair, with bangs that sometimes fall into her eyes, was raised in Texas by a Baptist mom and a Catholic dad, and attended a Lutheran school. She liked Hillsong’s lack of rules and routines, compared to other denominations. “You don’t have to be perfect walking in the door,” she says. “It’s a very ‘Come as you are’ community. Here’s God; He loves you anyway.” Seeing so many women come together at Colour, celebrating God and one another, was unlike anything she’d ever experienced. “The community is really why I stick with it,” she says. “You don’t get that a lot in the big city.” I know what she means. Everyone at Hillsong seems genuinely happy and open in a way I haven’t experienced since I was a small child, before social interactions came with asterisks and preambles. People smile, strike up a conversation, and ask if they can hug you. There’s something unfeminist about this “Jesus is my boyfriend” talk. As Maddox has written, “Men identify as co-leaders in the image of a passionate [male] God,” while women are taught to aspire to be “a male God’s desired ‘sweetheart.’ ” Worse, it assumes that the right kind of love is between a woman and a man. Hillsong maintains that it is not “anti-anyone,” but its enthusiasm for heterosexual marriage is to the pointed exclusion of any other kind of romantic partnership. According to Nicole, the future set designer, the idea that Jesus is your boyfriend has less to do with gender roles and more to do with faith itself. “It’s difficult to explain,” she says. “I just imagine He is right here beside me. Like, literally, beside me, supporting me and loving me through everything.” Centering God in relationships can be clarifying, according to Kinsey. Living in L.A., she says, it’s easy to get caught up in wanting attention and comparing yourself to other girls. “Hillsong keeps me grounded in God, knowing that He should be the center of all social situations and dating life,” she says. “It’s not about you. It’s not about the other person. You do everything for God.”

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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