USMB women are among the hundreds nationwide and around the world preparing to host women from their congregations and communities for IF:Gathering 2018, a unique simulcast conference to be held Feb. 9-10.
IF:Gathering, founded in 2013, is the brainchild of Jennie Allen, a pastor’s wife and author from Austin, Texas. The vision of IF:Gathering is to work across denominational lines to gather, equip and unleash women to be disciples who make disciples by providing tools and resources that local church leaders can use to serve women in their communities. Local groups that gather to participate via live-stream are called IF:Locals.
A livestream conference that brings nationally recognized speakers to local venues is a great fit for the situation in which Rachel Baker, women’s ministry leader at South Mountain Community Church (SMCC)—West Jordan Campus, finds herself.
While Baker sees IF:Gathering as an effective way to reach Mormon women, the conference is also a discipleship tool for Christian women.
Preparing Christian women to live on mission in their neighborhoods and places of work is a challenge in an environment that offers little discipleship opportunities for Christian women. “I’ve been waiting for something like this my whole life,” an 80-year-old woman told Baker after attending the 2017 SMCC IF:Local.
“Utah is such an unusual place to do ministry,” says Baker, who moved to Utah two years ago with her husband Kile, who is the SMCC-West Jordan campus pastor. The couple came to Utah after ministering in Southern California and Colorado.
“Women in other places seem to have a lot more at their fingertips,” says Baker. “There were so many things available to us [in California and Colorado], and we came to Utah, and there is nothing for women here.”
Connected to the larger body of Christ
Being part of large women’s gatherings have shaped Baker’s understanding of God and his people and is something she wanted the 40-plus women who attended last year’s SMCC West Jordan IF:Local to experience themselves.
“It’s so neat to commune with the larger body of Christ and to realize that God’s church is not isolated”, Baker says. “We are all connected to each other. We’re part of this web, and I think the women here in Utah had no idea that we are part of this beautiful large church,” she says.
The opportunity to gather as the body of Christ across denominational lines is what motivated Sara Wichert, of Hillsboro (Kansas) MB Church, to work with women from other churches to host a community-wide IF:Local in 2016 and again in 2017. This year, the planning team involves seven members representing six churches.
Wichert’s first experience hosting an IF:Local was in 2015 when she and a friend invited about 20 women to their homes to view the live-stream event. The intimate gathering was such a positive experience for the group that Wichert began planning to recruit additional Hillsboro women to host IF:Locals in their homes in 2016.
Prayers prompt community-wide gatherings
As she prayed about it, “God specifically said, ‘You need unity. You have eight churches in this community of 3,000 people and you need unity,’” Wichert says. “God very specifically said this is going to be community-wide and you’re going to gather one person from each church (for the planning team.)”
When Wichert contacted the local pastors, they were supportive of a community-wide event and suggested women in their congregations who might be interested in serving on the planning team. The first Hillsboro IF:Local planning team included representatives from seven churches and organizers reserved a space on the Tabor College campus that would accommodate 80 attendees. When 165 women pre-registered, the planning team found a larger meeting space on the campus.
Gathering with women who don’t worship together regularly on Sunday mornings continues to be important for the Hillsboro team.
“Our hope is that through this weekend, our community of women are encouraged to love God more and then to go out and love other,” she says. “One of my favorite parts of our time together has been gathering with like-minded believers across generations and denominations.”
The IF:Local planning team in Garden City, Kansas, is also comprised of women from a variety of churches. The Garden City IF:Local is spearheaded by Kerry Unruh of New Life Church. Last year when the planners found themselves without a location for the IF event, Unruh approached Garden Valley Church, the USMB church in the community, about hosting the gathering.
“I prayed and prayed and God led me to Garden Valley,” says Unruh by email. “God very clearly said, ‘It’s not about one church. It’s about my people. Move it (IF:Gathering) around.’ So, in obedience I’ve been trying to do that.”
Lesa Ensz, whose husband is the Garden Valley pastor and who is on the community planning team, says women appreciate attending a local conference.
“There was great fellowship, worship and encouragement,” she says in her email to the CL. About 100 women attended the 2017 IF:Local Garden City.
Just do it!
Local organizers see IF:Gathering as an accessible and affordable discipleship opportunity for the local church. Many of the USMB women interviewed for this article first heard about IF:Gathering from friends and family members, and they encourage others to host an IF:Local in their home, church or community.
“Do it!” says Stacey Canaday of Grace Community Church in Sanger, Calif. “It can be a large group or a small group. It can be elaborate or simple. It can be in a large hall or a living room. Jesus will meet us wherever and whenever we invite him into the conversation and IF:Gathering is a great tool to help start the conversation.”
Baker, of Utah, agrees. “Do it fearlessly. Just do it. Do it in your home; you don’t have to make it a big event.”
When IF:Local organizers were asked what they’ve learned about hosting this event, their comments focused on keeping it simple and adapting the event to their local context.
Live-stream or digital download
Local organizers have the option of using the IF:Gathering live-stream or purchasing the digital download. Of the five IF:Local planning team members interviewed by the CL, three are planning to watch the 2018 live-stream and two will be using the download, holding their IF:Local on another weekend.
The SMCC West Jordan IF:Local, which uses the download, further personalizes the event by using their own worship leader and a vocalist. Last year, they used the IF:Gathering set list for their worship time and then repeated these same songs during their Sunday morning service.
“People felt like they were getting a three-day worship experience,” says Baker.
For Baker and the SMCC-West Jordan planning team there is “lots of wisdom in going with the recorded sessions.” One reason Baker prefers this approach is that it gives local organizers the opportunity to emotionally process what speakers share before they lead the IF:Local.
It also lets their local planning team preview each presentation, which Baker says is important when doing ministry in the Mormon culture. Words that are familiar to other audiences can be unfamiliar or understood differently in Utah.
“We have to practice a deep level of discernment here,” says Baker, who commends IF:Gathering for their speakers.
Wichert, of Hillsboro, and Lisa Clubb, who is on the IF:Local planning team for Buhler (Kansas) MB Church, agree that the live stream can provide technical challenges, but both women have found attendees to be understanding of that possibility.
“If you have technical difficulties, the ladies are very understanding, and its nothing to stress over,” Clubb says.
“Be flexible,” says Wichert. “Internet connections and live feeds are finicky at times. We have never lost connection, but once or twice its been slow.”
The Hillsboro IF:Local team adds an extra 30 minutes to their Friday night schedule because the live IF:Gathering in Austin, Texas, doesn’t always follow the published schedule. No one usually minds when an event ends sooner than expected, says Wichert. Saturday morning the Hillsboro IF:Local starts an hour later than the Austin conference, which allows the organizers to further tailor the event for their local audience.
Both Wichert and Baker say they let attendees know that they can view online any segments omitted by the IF:Local.
Provide good information
Organizers encourage those who are new to hosting IF:Gathering events to provide good information on what to expect.
“There are a lot of women who don’t know what it’s all about,” says Clubb, of Buhler. “I’d recommend lots of advertising with good info on what to expect.”
Baker says, “People didn’t know what we were talking about, and we kept saying, ‘Just come.’ The majority came without really knowing what to expect. Everybody got something out of it. It is accessible and that’s why I love IF. It’s accessible to women of all ages, seasons of life and backgrounds.”
Keep it affordable
The low cost is an attractive feature of IF:Gathering. Local participants who register on the national IF:Gathering website are not charged a set participation fee. That approach trickles down to the IF:Locals as well.
Depending on whether or not an IF:Local is financially supported by a local church, many IF:Locals have a modest suggested participation fee that often includes at least one meal. The livestream IF:Gathering begins Friday evening and concludes late Saturday afternoon, so most IF:Locals provide Saturday lunch. Some IF:Locals also provide snacks or invite participants to bring refreshments to share.
“We’re trying to be more creative for 2018 and to create a hospitality team and work with local vendors that might consider supporting us so that we don’t have to charge as much and maybe not at all,” says Baker of Utah. “We’re going to try to make it affordable for everybody in the community.”
Keep it simple
Organizers also encourage simplicity and flexibility.
“There are a lot of ladies who really go full out with décor and take-home bags, but really, simple is best,” says Clubb of Buhler.
“If your turnout isn’t as big as you’d hoped, always remember God is in control and the ladies who need to hear what’s being said will be there,” she says. “And if it grows bigger than you expected, God has that under control too.”
Evidence of impact, growth
IF:Local organizers interviewed for this article cite numerous ways in which IF:Gathering has impacted women in their churches and communities. They’ve seen women who weren’t involved in local leadership come forward as Bible study leaders and volunteer to serve in other leadership positions. Local organizers have been told by participants that their faith has been deepened and that they value the meaningful relationships they have developed with other women.
This happens because of the unique environment that characterizes IF:Gathering, says Canaday, of Grace Community in Sanger, Calif.
IF:Gathering provides a “safe environment where women can have authentic conversations with one another, which leads to greater faith and deeper relationships,” she says.
The 2017 Grace Community IF:Gathering in 2017 drew a diverse group of about 50 women, including young adults and senior adults as well as women from the church’s English and Spanish congregations and from churches in neighboring Fresno, Canaday says.
“There was an overwhelming sense of community that developed over the table conversations during the conference,” she says. “Relationships were growing and there was so much acceptance and love among the ladies. It was a great reflection of Jesus’ unconditional love for us.”
Baker says the SMCC West Jordan IF:Local decided to “go big or go home this year.” Their dream is to see “this whole state come alive for Christ,” says Baker, “and I think IF:Gathering can be an avenue because it’s such an accessible and affordable way to help women understand that we are disciples making disciples.”
Baker says, “If you live in Utah and call yourself a Christian, you are called to ministry and what that looks like is different from the traditional understanding of ministry. The need for Christ in Utah is so great. IF:Gathering does not just connect women into this beautiful body of Christ, it empowers women to be disciples that make disciples, making disciples.”
MORE ABOUT IF:Gathering
The purpose of IF:Gathering is to create tools and provide community to women in the local church who desire to make disciples who make disciples. It is built around a question intended to appeal to the curious and the seeking: If God is real, then what? Or worded as a statement rather than a question: Because God is real, we need to live like it.
“It is an invitation to wrestle and to realize God’s very real-ness,” says Lisa Clubb, of Buhler (Kansas) MB Church. “It also signals that as his followers, we have a purpose and the way we live our lives is in response to him.”
The specific question that IF:Gathering 2018 will explore is: What if we followed God with perseverance instead of insecurity? The text for this year’s conference is the Apostle Paul’s letter to Timothy and Paul’s reminder of the power and responsibility of sharing the gospel.
“We want to give God away in the very places he’s put us, so we’re going to gather for the purpose of remembering why following God and making disciples matters,” says the IF:Gathering website, describing the 2018 conference as a reminder and a celebration that God moves through the “little things that nobody sees.”
IF:Gathering was founded by Jennie Allen, a wife, mother and author who lives in Austin, Texas, with the goal of serving local churches. She and her husband, Zac, are both graduates of Dallas Theological Seminary. Zac Allen has served as a local church pastor for 12 years and is the chair of the IF:Gathering board of directors.
“We strive to stay as ecumenical as possible, working across denominations to see the bigger picture of what God is doing among His people,” writes Zac in the IF:Gathering ministry packet.
IF:Gathering uses the Nicene Creed as it’s Confession of Faith.
Sara Wichert, Hillsboro, Kansas, has attended IF:Gathering training events and says local leaders are encouraged to adapt the conference as needed to accommodate the different Christian traditions of the churches in their communities.
In four years, IF:Gathering has reached more than 1.2 million women in 122 countries. Speakers include Allen, Jill Broscoe, Amena Brown, Shelley Giglio, Vivian Mabuni, Jo Saxton and Ann Voskamp.
IF:Gathering brings women together in homes with just a few friends, for retreats in churches and as cross-denominational groups in conference settings and are the centerpiece of the ministry.
IF:Gathering has also developed resources beyond the national conference. Of the additional resources available, USMB women interviewed for this article say that in the future they would like to initiate IF:Table, a discussion and Bible study that involves small groups of six women spending two hours together once a month and exploring four specific questions.
Connie Faber joined the magazine staff in 1994 and assumed the duties of editor in 2004. She has won awards from the Evangelical Press Association for her writing and editing. Faber is the co-author of Family Matters: Discovering the Mennonite Brethren. She and her husband, David, have two daughters, one son, one daughter-in-law, one son-in-law and one grandson. They are members of Ebenfeld MB Church in Hillsboro, Kansas.