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Monster Truck Rally or Holy Spirit Barbie Party? A Missouri Megachurch Offers Both

By Bob Smietana
barbie james river women's
A monster truck opens the recent James River Stronger Men’s Conference, left, and a still from the Designed for Life women’s conference promo video. (Video screen grabs)

The legions of dudes who crowded into the Great Southern Bank Arena in Springfield, Missouri, for the recent Stronger Men’s Conference, sponsored by a Pentecostal megachurch, were treated to a monster truck, a boxing match, pyrotechnics and a standoff between a pair of celebrity pastors.

Women who attend James River Church’s women’s annual conference later this year, by contrast, will get what looks like a Holy Spirit Barbie party.

promo for the men’s conference begins with images of a roaring motorcycle, a wrestling match and a shouting preacher pacing across the stage like a lion, urging men to get ready to fight. The promo for the women’s video begins with the image of a pink record player, followed by the voice of the late televangelist Kathryn Kuhlman, urging women to give their worship to God — then breaks to scenes of joyful women dressed in stylish pink, dancing with joy as balloons and confetti fall from the sky.

The two conferences reveal both the showmanship of charismatic megachurch worship and the rival messages given to men and women. Men are warriors filled with fire and vinegar, while women are icons of femininity — dressed to the nines and concerned with building a happy home for their husbands.

The James River Stronger Men’s Conference made national headlines recently and launched viral videos over the inclusion of an act by Alex Magala, an acrobat and sword swallower who has appeared on “America’s Got Talent” and has had a side hustle as a dancer at clubs.

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alex magala dancer james river
Alex Magala, an acrobat and sword swallower, performs at the James River Stronger Men’s Conference in Springfield, Mo., in April 2024. (Video screen grab)

After Magala’s performance at the conference, Mark Driscoll, the former pastor of Seattle’s Mars Hill Church who has reinvented himself as a Pentecostal preacher in Arizona, denounced Magala from the stage, saying his performance was homoerotic and a sign of pagan worship and a “Jezebel spirit.” (Jezebel is the name of a biblical queen and the enemy of the prophet Elijah whose name is often invoked to denounce someone as a temptress.)

In response, James River pastor John Lindell kicked Driscoll off the stage.

“You are done,” Lindell said. The two later appeared to mend fences during the conference but any truce was short-lived, with the church sending the media links to a video of Lindell calling Driscoll to repent. As of Wednesday (April 24), the link is no longer public but clips of the call to repentance are still posted on YouTube.com.

A spokesperson for the church did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

lindell driscoll
Last week, James River Church Senior Pastor John Lindell (left) preached a sermon urging disgraced preacher Mark Driscoll to repent. (Video screengrab)

The dust-up between Lindell and Driscoll had all the earmarks of a pro-wrestling-style feud, leading to speculation that it had been staged — an accusation fueled by Driscoll promoting his book, “New Days, Old Demons,” which warns that an “evil Jezebel spirit is destroying America,” after the conference. 

Driscoll, who once paid his way onto the New York Times bestseller list and crashed a John MacArthur conference to promote another of his books, is known for his preaching about hypermasculinity and his willingness to criticize fellow pastors.

Scholar and author Jessica Johnson is among those who are skeptical of the controversy over Driscoll’s appearance at the Stronger Men’s Conference.

“Knowing that Driscoll is the promotional master that he is, it just had very much a wrestling kind of feel to it — where the whole thing was staged,” said Johnson, author of “Biblical Porn,” a study of Driscoll’s former evangelical empire at the now-defunct Mars Hill Church in Seattle.

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Pastor Mark Driscoll preaches on “How to Overcome the Jezebel Spirit.” (Video screen grab)

Johnson said the gendered conferences at James River Church reflect a theology where men are aggressive and in charge and women are both joyful and submissive. She found the promo for the women more disturbing than the spectacle of the men’s conference because it sent the message that women’s only role is to worship and be female — while leaving all the leadership to the men.

“I mean, what were these women doing other than dancing?” she said.

Dan Mathewson, a professor of religion at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina, said that despite its resemblance to pro wrestling, Driscoll’s behavior at Stronger Men was likely not an act.

“That’s Driscoll being Driscoll,” said Mathewson — who had a side gig as a masked wrestler named Mr. Canada while studying the ties between religion and wrestling. “That’s just who he is.”

Mathewson, who keeps his sequined red and white mask in his office, said the James River conferences reveal the importance of Pentecostal and charismatic religion in American life. He worries that no one pays attention to churches like James River until something crazy happens.

Spectacle, he said, is a normal part of their world.

“The energy in American Christianity right now is in this corner of evangelicalism,” he said. “The stories you read in the news are about the decline of American Christianity, which is true in mainline Christianity, and even evangelicalism. But when something like this happens, everyone wonders, ‘What just happened?’”

Mike Prince, a former Assemblies of God youth pastor, worries that is a bad thing. Prince said he attended the Stronger Men’s Conference from 2017 to 2019 after his wife signed him up for the event — she’d attended the women’s conference for years.

Prince described the event as a circus, designed to make sure that no one was ever bored. But at some point, he said, the event overshadowed the message.

“If you want to reach the lost,” he said, “the whole distraction from the spectacle does exactly the opposite. The spectacle completely overshadows the truth you’re trying to get people to hear.”

james river barbie women's
Attendees at the 2022 James River Designed for Life women’s conference at Great Southern Bank Arena in Springfield, Mo. (Video screen grab)

Evangelical author and Bible teacher Hannah Anderson sees something more in the James River Designed for Life women’s conference than meets the eye. The video for the conference — much like the recent “Barbie” summer blockbuster movie that satirized gender roles — may be about empowering women, not limiting them, she argued.

“It looks like a promo for a Barbie movie,” said Anderson. “Everything is very soft and feminine and happy and emotional. But Barbie is also an icon of empowerment for women in the world. And as I watched the promo, it felt more like, here, women are being empowered to know their true selves through knowing God.”

Anderson pointed out that James River Church, which hosts both conferences, is an Assemblies of God congregation with a female co-pastor and has featured women preachers in the past — unlike other evangelical churches, like those of the Southern Baptist Convention, which bans women pastors. Rather than being shunted into the background, women at churches like James River share the spotlight, said Anderson, and can be empowered as leaders.

“Women are showing up remarkably empowered through their spirituality and their giftedness,” she said. “And they are taking up space in the room.”

Katie McCoy, director of women’s ministry for the Baptist General Convention of Texas, said there is nothing wrong with promoting a conference for women in a way that seems fun or aesthetically pleasing.

“But it should be the icing on the cake and not your meat and potatoes,” she said.

Author of “To Be a Woman,” McCoy said she understands why conferences for men and women are marketed differently. But both, she said, should focus on spiritual growth rather than a performance that overshadows the core message of Christianity.

“We have been brought from death to life,” she said. “We have something that is transforming us from the inside out by the Holy Spirit living. Is that boring? Is the resurrection just kind of passé?”

james river women's barbie
Thousands attend the 2022 James River Designed for Life women’s conference at Great Southern Bank Arena in Springfield, Mo. (Video screen grab)

McCoy said that conferences often ask women to consume Christian content and experiences, rather than growing spiritually. The idea is to make spirituality easy, rather than something that requires effort and commitment. Unfortunately, she said, that can send a message that Christian discipleship isn’t worth the effort.

When she asks women what they think of when they hear the words “women’s ministry,” words like spiritual growth or learning about the Bible don’t come to mind first.

“My favorite answer is, ‘Strong perfume and casseroles,’” she said.

McCoy said some conferences have moved away from a consumer model of women’s ministry to one focused on learning and empowering women to participate in church.

“Women are looking for a place to contribute,” she said. “And one of the tragedies is that they don’t always find it within their local church.”

Bob SmietanaBob Smietana is a national reporter for Religion News Service.

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2 Responses

  1. It’s almost like this church is marketing toys to children rather than discipleship to mature Christian men and women.

  2. “McCoy said that conferences often ask women to consume Christian content and experiences, rather than growing spiritually.”

    It seems that much of evangelicalism, and especially megachurch culture, asks people to consume Christian content and experiences, rather than growing spiritually. This issue appears to be much, much more pervasive than just consuming a women’s conference. Christian radio/TV/streaming, megachurch services, conferences, and Christian merchandise (clothing, jewelry, books, etc.) all appear to be designed to encourage “Christian” consumerism rather than spiritual growth.

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