— Fourth Church (@FourthChicago) September 30, 2016
CHICAGO (Outlook) Some of the 1,110 who came are immersed in the work of their churches. Some have been profoundly hurt by the church, yet hold tight to their Christian identity. Some truly, deeply love the church. Whatever their stories, they came to hear others tell of how God speaks to them through the Christian faith, even in times of doubt, challenge and struggle.
The Why Christian conference is the brainchild of Nadia Bolz-Weber, author and Lutheran pastor from Colorado, and Rachel Held Evans, author and blogger from Tennessee. Meeting for the second annual conference, held this year at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago Sept. 30-Oct. 1, the event invited participants to soak in testimony and embrace the questions (and the answers) around why they remain in the family of God. Participants packed the church’s vast sanctuary to hear 30-minute talks by presenters who shared their testimonies and told vulnerable stories about why they are Christians.
— Amy Bogenschuetz (@amyphs) September 30, 2016
Bolz-Weber opened the dialogues with a discussion on “the truth about sheep” and her dependency on the God, the shepherd. “The truth about sheep is that I don’t want to be one,” she said, noting that perhaps she would like to be a wolf or the shepherd. She said her tendency is to want to go her own way. “I still struggle with needing God’s help,” she admitted. Being humans in need of God often seems like a failing, she noted, “but it’s not.”
Why is Bolz-Weber a Christian? “This faith allows for God to be God and for us to be they that belong to God. … The jagged edges of our humanity are actually what connect us to God and to each other.”
Held Evans shared her story of being a Christian as emanating from the way her parents shepherded and accepted her. She also lifted up a youth pastor who yielded his time so she could share her gift of preaching during youth group time – in a church that didn’t recognize the leadership of women.
A new mother, Held Evans said that has recently been thinking about Jesus as a baby. “God was once totally dependent on others for nourishment and love,” was dependent on a broken community. “Even God,” she said, “was born into a dysfunctional family of faith.” Being reminded of that, she concluded, “the story of Jesus is still the story I’m willing to risk being wrong about.”
Just like the first Why Christian Conference held last October in Minneapolis, this year’s event sold out four months in advance – with no marketing but social media. By a show of participant hands, the majority of attendees represented mainline denominations: Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian. Other larger groups included Catholics, nondenominationals and Mennonites.
According to Jim Chaffee, managing director of the Why Christian Conferences, most of the attendees are followers Bolz-Weber and Held Evans, following them on social media and reading their books and Held Evans’ blog. Chaffee said that the goals of the event are twofold. First, the emphasis is on testimony. The talks are all driven by story. Second, Bolz-Weber and Held Evans invite speakers who are “unknowns.” They want to give a voice to those with a profound story and a reason to have a platform, but who have not yet gained national recognition. “That is really the heart of Rachel and Nadia,” he said.
Onleilove Alston was one of the voices introduced at this conference. A writer and founder of The Prophetic Whirlwind (an organization that promotes understanding black spiritual heritage), Alston shared her story of being homeless in New York before entering foster care after being taken from her mother by a social service worker. “I know the gospel is good new for the poor,” she proclaimed, “because I was poor when I heard it and it was good news to me!”
She said, “God cared so much about orphans like me that God made commandments for our care.” She concluded saying, “Why am I a Christian? Because God is not white. When I reached out to God 20 years ago as a black foster child, God embraced me.” But she wasn’t quite finished. She then invited participants to come forward for an altering call – “where God meets us and alters our lives” yet again.
— Dana Wirth Sparks (@danawsparks) September 30, 2016