The True Value of IF:Gathering, or What I Wish I Had Known Before I Planned a IF:Local Gathering.
This morning, as I was making breakfast for my children, proofreading an email, and trying to order all of the details that come with planning a large event when a thought cut through the chaos and and stopped me in my tracks.
This thought isn't novel, it isn't even a new thought for me. I know it from my days as a Young Life leader, and I probably even taught about it. All of a sudden within the context of planning a local watching party for the IF:Gathering here in Boston, I could see I missed the point last year. I could understand how we were left feeling unsatisfied and what needed to be different this year.
For those of you who came to IF:Boston I need to say, I missed the mark and I am so sorry. For those of you who are currently planning, if this helps you I am so glad.
It turns out this is kind of long, so thanks for bearing with me. Here it is:
It isn't about the event, or even about IF and their tools. It is about getting people together, and helping them to have great conversations about God, and start living life together.
It isn't radical, is it? But in some ways it really is.
Two years ago I came across the IF:Gathering through the blogs of Ann Voskamp and Jen Hatmaker (read what they wrote way back in 2013 here and here). Then I clicked on the IF:Gathering website to see what this IF:Gathering was. I found a beautiful site, and a bit of mystery. I couldn't tell what it was exactly, or what was going to happen, but I needed to be a part of it. This site and the blogs stirred something up inside of me that has been so hard to put into words. They put fire in my belly. and tears in my eyes.
The simplest way I can say it is that they spoke my inner longings for faith that really mattered, and the opportunity to have a life that made a difference. It wasn't about being right, or good, or nice, or having all the answers. It wasn't fancy, or comfortable, or entertaining. They were offering a time to get together with other women, and create a new kind of thing. Embarrassedly they might have even said they were creating a movement, but I know they had no idea what they were creating, or more accurately what God was creating.
As I tried to communicate to other people about what this was I was a little stumped. I could say that it was a group of women. They wanted to be real and serious about following Jesus. That took really knowing Him and what the Bible actually said, not just thinking you did. I knew it was something different and fresh. What I had that was most concrete was a list of the women who had written books, blogged, and taken photographs that spoke to me. It was easy to boil it down to wanting to be in the audience when these great women all took action together. I knew inside it was more than just that.
I needed to find a way to get to Austin in February 2014 and I convinced a few friends that they should go. As some of you know, the tickets went on sale and the internet was nearly broken as women across the country pounded on their computer keys and incessantly hit their reload buttons. I couldn't believe that not only were there women that were speaking the words I longed to hear, and even more amazingly there were women across the country- even around the world- who were wanting these same mysterious things too. The details were so cloudy, I didn't know what I was walking into but I knew it was special.
My time at that first IF:Gathering was great. I heard words I needed to hear. (For me it boiled down into getting back into the game and not just pretending I was.) I met women that I am still friends with, and got to know the ones that came with me even better. I didn't just want to be in the audience, but when I had made the event about the women on the stage it was hard to see how to really be involved.
When I came home it was hard. Some of it was just life circumstances; the hits just kept coming. An even heavier burden came because I felt like couldn't really explain adequately what I had experienced, I wanted to be a part, and I was left with a longing.
If I am being really honest, I was left with envy.
In my mind I had made my experience at the IF:Gathering all about those women on the stage, and the women who seemed like they were great friends and doing life together to create IF. I was dissatisfied that I wasn't part of those relationships. Each time that I shared about the conference with someone who asked about my time in Austin, it was so much easier to talk about the great speakers on the stage and how nice it was to get away. I didn't even try to explain the other things. Little by little my experience was poisoned by my envy. I had totally forgotten all the great women that I share my life with who actually live in my town, and that I didn't need new dream friendships; I needed to invest in the ones I had. They were women like me who wanted to be part of the team.
Months rolled by and I had decided that I just couldn't be a part of the IF:Gathering. Life was hard and I had a growing sense of weariness that made it feel like I was walking upstream.
As it came time to register for the IF:Gathering in Austin though I was gripped with FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) and I asked a few friends if they would like to watch at my house. I started to picture a fun girls weekend away watching with a few close friends. At the same time, I was secretly hoping that God was going to do something special and I was going to go to Austin and become best friends with those women on the stage. (It sounds silly doesn't it?)
As the tickets went on sale, and women across the world really broke the internet this time jockeying for tickets I was right there hitting the refresh button, feeling completely conflicted by it, but secretly hoping that I would get a ticket as a sign that God needed me to be there as part of that team in Austin.
What transpired was no ticket for me, and instead I had girlfriends who had a vision for so much more for the city of Boston than I did. Out the door went a quiet girls weekend and instead I found myself planning an event for a much larger group of women. I was so out of my depth and worried about all the details. Pieces fell into place, people who really knew what they were doing showed up and made it happen and most of all, God provided in ways that I couldn't have done on my own. I found myself with over 150 women joining me to watch the IF:Gathering. The room was beautiful, there were plans to make it special. I felt like we had done it.
There was a moment when I was on the stage and looked around the room and I got a little teary because I was there with some of my favorite people in the room. I didn't need to be in Austin to be where it was at, but instead I had such a gift of doing life with these friends and women who could be friends.
But, sometimes I am a slow learner and missed the point.
God was so faithful, and I have heard a lot of stories about how women were so glad that they were there and God used IF to do real work in their lives. At the same I was left knowing that something wasn't quite right. I also heard about many times there were women were left feeling like it wasn't their thing, and it wasn't their people. It made me so sad.
I will be the first to tell you that I believe in God using a bunch of different tools, and I know that not everyone needs to like the same thing. I can also say that I think part of it was really my fault.
I had created an event that was all about the women we were watching on the stage.
Even thought it wasn't my intention, I had created an event that was all about the women we were watching on the stage. I was missing the amazing group of women who were right in front of my face. They didn't need a winsome speaker, they needed someone to invite them to more, and to a community to do it with.
I'm afraid many ladies came away with only evaluating the speakers, the lunch, the music and all the other details. It is how I started evaluating the event too. I had minimized how important they were, and had missed what an opportunity it was just to be together.
For the most part, I think we all missed what could have been.
I hadn't given these women the time to have conversations that revealed they and the women sitting among them were the real point of the weekend. I hadn't been brave enough to gently insist that they use the conversation cards during the time they had instead of just chatting. I had created a forced march through the content. We became consumers instead of our own part of the team.
When I only evaluated it based on how people enjoyed the event, all the effort was just too much. Life was hectic enough, and I don't just plan events for fun. I think it made me feel sad (and others too) because I subconsciously felt like an outsider watching an event far away or at best an objective viewer. It just didn't feel worth it. The criticism and feedback from those that attended was so hard to take in part because I felt it acutely too.
I tried to quit this thing called the IF:Gathering and walk away. What I just couldn't shake though was what got me involved in the first place. The promise of community that was real, and raw, and thought what we did really mattered. Women who wanted to know and be known. Women who wanted to really know what the Bible said, and who Jesus was and follow him no matter where he went.
I had experienced this in my own life using the tools that the IF:Gathering offered. The habit I formed of reading my Bible daily, and regularly meeting with friends through an IF:Table transformed me in a truly deep way. The times that I actually attended IF sponsored events were rich because of the women I spent time with. They were ready to be real from the moment you met them, and have been consistent friends.
It isn't that IF really novel, or something super creative. I probably already knew that tools they created were good and the right thing to do. I just wasn't doing it on my own. I needed someone to show me how and keep reminding me. I needed people to tell me that this wasn't just a nice thing to do, but it would change everything.
What surprised me was they were right. It was so much more than just a nice thing to do, or even the right thing. It was interesting, and fun. It made me so happy and alive. These small things had a ripple effect and changed other parts of me too. I wanted to share this with my community.
I am convinced that this is what can change everything.
So here I am, once again planning the big event, but what I know this time is that it isn't what really matters. It will be different this time.
Maybe it is Ann Voskamp, Jennie Allen, Christine Cain, Jen Hatmaker, or one of the other godly skilled women who will grace the stage in Austin, that get women to sign up and walk into the room. Maybe it will be the cozy room, and the delicious food that they rave about. Maybe we will find fun ways to surprise them and show them how special they are. But I am convinced that it is the very women in that room where you and I are watching that will change our lives and keep us coming back. I don't want to miss that opportunity.