I had never been to a Christian women’s conference before I attended my first IF: Gathering live stream at my church in 2018, so I really didn’t know what to expect. I wasn’t familiar with any of the speakers. I took some notes from the videos, and enjoyed the table talk sessions, but left unsure of what the exact takeaway was. Was I missing something? I left being told to “step into my calling,” but I didn’t know what that meant. In fact, I didn’t really know anything about IF at the time; few people did.
The first year the entire conference was shrouded in mystery; you had to hear about it through blogs and social media, and the speaker’s list was kept secret until the event. Apparently, the tickets for the first in-person conference sold out in 42 minutes.1“‘IF:Gathering’ Of Evangelical Women Focuses On Social Justice In Austin, Texas,” The Huffington Post, February 13, 2014, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/if-gathering-evangelical-women_n_4776930.
After talking with our Mama Bear team, I realized none of us really know much about IF, despite this being its tenth year. Their websites are beautiful. Their marketing is captivating. Their messaging is on point, but we want to know what they’re selling. What do they believe? What is the message? Who are the speakers? What is their mission?
If you’re going to follow a movement, you should probably know who you’re following and what you’re being discipled into.
After some background, we can ROAR together through the IF: Gathering so you can know what to expect if you’re considering attending (pun totally intended).
What the Heck is the IF: Gathering?
IF: Gathering is an increasingly prominent women’s discipleship ministry founded by Jennie Allen. She is a NY Times Best-Selling author of several Christian books. IF is most well known for their annual Texas weekends loaded with popular speakers and worship leaders.
IF: Gathering also has several different arms of ministry: IF: Local, IF: Equip, IF Table, IF: TV, IF: Lead, and IF: Pray. Each of the IF ministry branches serves a slightly different function, but they are all part of the founder’s mission to make disciples and unleash them into the world.2Ifgathering.com/our-vision/ According to the website, through these ministries (and technology), IF has reached over 1 million women in 179 countries for Jesus since 2014.
IF: Local’s mission is “Together, we’re reclaiming discipleship as God’s means to change the world.” Local is more focused on gathering women where they already are (in the local church or community groups) and equipping them to have an impact. “We want to give them what they need to come around tables and to eat together, dream together, hope together, and lift up each other’s heads, and remember the story we’re a part of,” says Allen in a promotional video.
IF started when Allen heard the Lord saying, “Gather and equip your generation.” a few years before the first conference. (**Side note: to be fair, Mama Bear Apologetics had a pretty dramatic calling when we first started. It wasn’t a voice in the sky, but it might as well have been.)
So why is it called IF anyway?
The name comes from this idea, “If God is real, then what?”
Allen says, “If God is real, then we want more than anything to live like it. We want to be a part of this epic story, even if it is in the smallest of ways. Every one of our souls aches to be a part of something bigger than ourselves. We just have to remember that we already are.”
Allen is also very passionate about the Bible as shown with IF’s partnership with illumiNations “a collective impact alliance of Bible translation partners and resource partners working together to eradicate Bible poverty in this generation.”3
IF also has quite the list of sponsors and speakers each year. Some of the prominent past speakers include Jen Hatmaker,3Although Jen Hatmaker spoke for IF in the past, she no longer does. Jennie Allen wrote about this here: https://churchleaders.com/news/289924-the-founder-of-ifgathering-responds-to-jen-hatmakers-position-on-same-sex-marriage-jennie-allen.html. Sarah Bessey, Christine Caine, Lauren Chandler, Francis Chan, Latasha Morisson, Lysa TerKeurst, Priscilla Shirer, and even Joni Eareckson Tada. We will talk more about the speakers in the next installment. Not all of these speakers are currently part of IF. These are just some of the most familiar names.
With some basic background on the IF: Gathering, let’s ROAR through what we know together.
R – Recognize the Message
Because the IF: Gathering is a multi-year event stretching back ten years, they’ve shared a lot of messages, but we’ll just review what’s stressed repeatedly. And we agree with most of them!
- If God is real, then our lives should be focused totally on Him, living radically for Him.
- We should be in our Bibles daily and deeply.
- IF wants to be part of equipping women to live out their purpose, making disciples.
- Discipleship is how the world will change.
- We can be part of changing the world through good works.
O – Offer discernment
In true Mama Bear spirit, we encourage you to be discerning whenever you encounter a movement or a message (even ours) that claims to be Christian. Nothing–Christian label or not–is all safe. Just because they mention Jesus or the gospel, we can’t get complacent and check our discernment at the door.
Discernment is like a mental muscle. We need to practice it to stay sharp.
“But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.” Hebrews 5:14 ESV
That is why we wanted to help you chew and spit through the IF: Gathering, holding fast to what is good and discarding what is not.
Truth #1 – God is real, so we should live radically for Him. Agreed!
We love that IF is full of women who are passionate about Jesus, God, and discipleship. What better message for us to unite around? And the message is wrapped in the flesh of story. Many shared beautiful testimonies about how Jesus stepped into hearts and lives to radically transform them. I’ll admit, I cried more than once.
Truth #2 Be in your Bible – YES!
Reading the Bible daily is one of the most important habits any Christian can cultivate. Learning how to understand it takes time and dedication, but it’s so worth it. We definitely want more people in their Bibles!
This is why IF’s partnership with illumiNations 12 Verse Challenge is so inspiring. The world’s most important Bible translators and publishers have come together to make sure that every person on the planet has access to a copy of the Bible in their own language by 2033. (I had no idea 3700 people groups still do not have access to any Scripture in their language.)
However, we would love to see IF speakers more clearly demonstrate how to correctly interpret and understand the Bible. Verses are sometimes taken out of context or read through a modern lens.
The Bible was written for us, but not to us. Understanding each passage in context both literarily and historically is important. I was sometimes concerned that speakers read too much extra-biblical perspective into the text that was not intended by the author.
Truth #3 – We should be about making disciples and equipping them to follow Christ. Hey, this is one of our primary goals too!
Matthew 28:19-20 is known as the Great Commission – that we are to go into all the world and make disciples, teaching them to follow what Jesus has commanded.
IF does a great job of encouraging every Christian to remember that this world is not ultimately about us. And IF emphasizes how crucial fellowship and discipleship are for uplifting each other to remain faithful in difficult times. Literally, a million women have tuned in to hear about Jesus, to learn how to follow Him, and to live in Titus 2 relationships.
In whatever way that IF: Gathering is truly equipping women to live knowing that God exists, we’re here for it!
Truth #4 – Changing the world is an outcome of being changed, but not the purpose of discipleship
Disciples will live in counter-cultural ways that may change the world as an outpouring of the Holy Spirit’s work of sanctification in our lives. (Hello, William Wilberforce anyone?)
And we’re not sure we disagree with IF here, but we’d love to see more clarity on what Allen means when she says, discipleship is “how Jesus said the world would change.”
Is she referencing a specific Bible passage? What does she mean by changing the world? The passage from Matthew doesn’t seem to speak about changing the world but changing people through discipleship.
One reason this triggers our discernment meters here is out of caution that we are not focused more on this present world than the eternal kingdom of God. Some progressive belief systems believe a just and peaceful human society is the whole message Jesus really came to preach, so we want you to be aware of those kinds of beliefs.
Truth #5 We are to do good works.
Ephesians 2:10 reads, “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”
But we would also like to see clarity on what they mean by good works. I’ve seen self-identified Christians be on both sides of the abortion issue, LGBTQ issues, or political issues, all believing they are doing God’s work.
Attendees should learn the biblical relationship between faith, good works, and discipleship. They need to learn how to understand our purpose as image-bearers of God. If they don’t get solid direction in these areas, they could miss the real gospel altogether.
Because we want to be part of building up ministries, we want to argue for a healthier approach and make some constructive suggestions.
Argue for a healthier approach
When we argue for a healthier approach, we want to take the good that we’re seeing and make it even better!
Suggestion #1: Dig deeper into the “If God is real” section
As apologists, we LOVE the premise “If God is real… then what?” We want more ministries trying to open the minds of people who aren’t sure what they believe! We just wish IF gave them something a little more solid to close on. IF focuses on the “then what” part while not equipping women with answers for the most important part: is God real?
What a missed opportunity! The most important question anyone can ask themselves is, “Does God exist, and if so, which God is the real one?” How truly powerful this conference could be if the women left equipped knowing not only that God does exist, but that we can be reasonably certain that it is the Christian God of the Bible.
We would love to see the women attending equipped with apologetic answers about how we can know God is real, but this question doesn’t seem to get answered. (We know it’s not an apologetics ministry, but as apologists, we see the need every day for women to be equipped in this way. Perhaps the ministry could platform some apologists in future gatherings?)
The “then what” (radically living out our beliefs) would be even more powerful with women who are confident that what they believe is true. That is the kind of belief that the Apostles had, the kind of belief that affects not just this life, but eternity.
Suggestion #2: More Scripture and solid theological instruction.
We need more solid Christian teachers, not just motivational speakers. Some of the IF presentations I heard were excellent, peppered with good, down-to-earth, and even some Godly wisdom. For example, one of the talks about nutrition focused on having a solid identity in Christ that fulfills the aching in our souls because our weight or appearance never will. Some of the talks about discipleship had tangible suggestions about how to find a discipleship relationship and what that should look like.
However, many of the IF talks, while inspiring, were too focused on us and emotionalism4See the Mama Bear Apologetics book chapter 10 on Emotionalism. and how to live some grand adventure rather than teaching women how to be more deeply rooted in the Scriptures. We’re all for timely encouragement, but we also need solid theology.
Suggestion #3: Define your terms clearly and often
Definitions matter and clarity is kindness. Always assume some people in your audience have never heard any of the words we’ve mentioned above clearly defined. When teaching apologetics, we clearly explain how we define our terms and why we define them that way.
Good teachers do this often with important concepts. And nothing is more important than how we understand God, Jesus, the Gospel, and God’s purpose for our lives. With so many diverse speakers from different denominations and perspectives, clarity on these things is crucial before we can unify around the message.
If an attendee has accurate definitions of Christian tenets already, then great! She may leave the conference being encouraged to preach the true Jesus and share the true gospel. This is why one person could attend and see all sorts of red flags while another person leaves hugely edified.
But what about those who came with questions, doubts, or a background of bad theology? Were they given a solid explanation of the gospel? Did they meet the real Jesus? Do they know what they are supposedly being discipled into?
Allen herself has made some curious statements about Jesus.
On her website, Allen writes,
“Jesus is the friend you have always craved. He is the smile you would be looking for in a room because He isn’t worried about the messes in your life. He is more interested in talking, being, knowing, helping, freeing, serving, empowering, and releasing. That’s who He is, and as you go with Him over time, that relationship will grow.”
While I love how inviting this is, we never want to win people to an unclear version of Jesus because our real Savior is so, so good.
Jesus does desire a close relationship with each of us that satisfies the core longing of our souls, but is He not worried about the messes in our lives? This is a Mama Bear pet peeve; we’re not “messy,” we’re sinful. Our sin doesn’t stop Him from loving us, but He doesn’t leave us in it. It was big enough deal for him to die to save us from it.
And is Jesus more interested in being, empowering, and releasing? Whenever you see statements like this, stop and ask yourself what the speaker means. Being what? Empowering us to do what? Releasing what? Not only are these terms vague, but they are potentially troubling. We will talk more in our next installment about why we need to be wary about vague terminology.
That’s who He is? If I had no idea who Jesus is, this paragraph would leave me more confused than I started.
Now for the stuff that raises a red flag.
Red Flag #1 Many speakers hold concerning views on some crucial doctrines.
While IF: Gathering.com uses the Nicene Creed as their primary statement of faith, some of the prominent speakers hold to some biblically unsound beliefs (like Word of Faith or New Apostolic Reformation), so we’re left wondering if they require speakers to hold to the statement of faith.
Also, since most people access the conference through videos or speakers, very few will even encounter the statement of faith, so it’s crucial speakers or conference materials clearly define the core beliefs of historic, biblical Christianity because we can’t unify as believers around unclear definitions of God or Jesus, especially when it comes to how we are called to live in light of the Gospel.
As I’ve attended the virtual conference a few different years, I’ve grown increasingly uncomfortable, struggling to put a finger on exactly what is troubling me. But as Natasha Crain and Alisa Childers just discussed in their most recent Unshaken Faith podcast, this is how attendees often feel when a Christian organization shifts focus or slides into progressivism. It’s subtle at first. Did I hear that correctly? They probably didn’t mean it like that. But before you know it, the slide is unmistakable.
But honestly, in between my first time attending and my last, what changed the most was me. I read the Bible multiple times, got involved in apologetics, and become more aware of different ideologies and doctrinal issues. I was able to recognize some troubling phrasing that hinted at speakers’ beliefs outside of their IF presentations.
We don’t want to tear down the work of fellow believers who believe they are doing what God called them to do. But as a ministry that “chews and spits,” we recognize the good but also point out things that may cause misunderstanding or confusion, especially when it has to do with the gospel. While some ministries might make a list of speakers to mark and avoid, we would rather critique arguments than people, so we will address how to discern these beliefs for yourself in the next installment.
R – Reinforce the Message Through Discussion, Discipleship, and Prayer
- When you and your children hear terms like “Jesus” “gospel” “unity” “God” or other biblical terms, ask them to pay attention to whether the speaker defined these terms, or if they have assumed that everyone understands what they mean. Then practice defining them together. Having theologically sound definitions handy in this culture is like having an escape route planned in a fire. Be prepared to take every thought captive
- When you are with other ladies and hear vague terms or Christian buzzwords coming from the speaker, ask those around you if they know what it means. Can they define it? If your IF: Gathering has table talk, use this as an opportunity to find out what everyone at the table means by gospel, discipleship, or Jesus, etc.
- Work with your kids and friends, practicing how to read the Bible in context, doing our best to understand each passage fully. Find verses that are regularly taken out of context. Ask your child to tell you what they think the verse means just by itself. Then go back to scripture and read it in context. Did the context change how they had originally interpreted the single verse? How did context change their interpretation? (FYI, Matthew 4:9 or Luke 4: 7i are great ones to start with!)
Nailing down issues with the IF: Gathering was really challenging. With hundreds of their videos on YouTube channel, there was so much to sift through, and I honestly saw a lot worth celebrating. Jennie Allen is a dynamic and passionate speaker. If we were certain we were on the same page about what we believe Jesus has called us to do, we’d be excited to join her.
But as one of my favorite quotes from Charles Spurgeon explains, “Discernment is not the ability to tell the difference between right and wrong; rather, it is telling the difference between right and almost right.”
IF: Gathering has a great mission, some impressive goals, and some really charismatic speakers, but we also saw some concerns that make us suggest you have your mind and heart prepped for discernment if you plan to attend.
Hopefully, our ROAR has helped you see how to recognize true messages and when something is almost right.
Please join us for part two of our series What to know before you go – IF: Gathering
Dear Heavenly Father,
We thank you for the work that you do among the diverse body of believers. Please grant me wisdom as I seek to grow in my faith and understanding. Help me recognize solid doctrine. May I have your eyes to see and ears to hear so that I may discern what is good and true from what is incorrect or false. Give me a humble and teachable spirit so that I continually grow as a follower of Jesus. Help me know how to make disciples and spread the true Gospel message.
In the name of Jesus, I ask these things,
By Jennifer DeFrates
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