Jennie Allen won’t tell you that following God is easy or comes without questions. It’s a struggle she’s experienced her whole life, but, she says, it’s worth it.
The Austin mother of four has written two books and two study guides for women struggling with where God fits into their lives. Her latest, “Restless,” came out last month.
There is something in the message of her relatable struggle that is bringing together women from different Christian denominations to discuss the question: If God is real, then what?
The IF: Gathering, based on that question, sold out the Austin Music Hall for Feb. 7-8: 1,200 tickets in 42 minutes. More women from around the country are forming their own IF: local groups to watch the webcast of the event and interact with one another.
The IF: Gathering is meant to be a place where women can come together for community while allowing for personal reflection and growth surrounding their relationship with God.
Called to lead, reluctantly
Allen, 37, never saw herself as a leader. In fact, she still isn’t the person most comfortable standing in front of a room full of people.
Yet, husband Zac always felt called to lead. After they both went to seminary in Dallas from 2002 to 2005, Zac Allen knew he wanted to form a church. They moved to Austin to form Austin Bible Fellowship, which began in their living room.
They didn’t push the church, she says. They just met people and told them what they were doing. Within a few months they had about 40 people meeting regularly. It grew by word of mouth, eventually merging with Austin Stone Community Church in 2011.
Jennie Allen was never the one to take the stage while Zac Allen was leading. In fact, she sat in the back row. “I was really scared to use my gifts,” she says. “I wouldn’t put myself out there. I was very controlled and careful.”
Two years into the church, she started a women’s Bible study in her living room. She realized, she says, “I’ve got to get over myself and stop apologizing for using my gifts.”
The Bible study group helped her realize that she wasn’t the only one who felt stuck, like she had to put on a facade of perfection, when inside she was in turmoil, unable to sleep. She was honest with the group about how she was feeling, then these other women who looked like they all had it together said they felt the same way: Stuck.
She got mad. Women shouldn’t be feeling this way, she says. She started working on her first Bible study program for women and called it “Stuck.”
“I’m a believer that I’m to be free and set other people free,” she says.
Her husband sent her to a writer’s conference, and she came home with a deal for two books and multiple Bible studies.
Writing her truth
Suddenly Allen, who is mother to Conner, 14, Kate, 12, Caroline, 8, and Cooper, 6, was now having to fit creating and leading Bible studies and writing books into motherhood.
“I knew I had a lot to say,” she says. “But it was a big risk. I never aspired to that.”
The first book, “Anything,” leads readers through the Allen’s process of adopting Cooper from Rwanda. One night they prayed: God, we will do anything. Anything.
And by doing anything, that might mean giving up everything and surrendering to let God lead them where they need to go.
They looked at an empty bed in their house of three children and thought they should fill it. Eventually, they found the answer in an orphanage in Rwanda, where 3-year-old Cooper was living.
Her new book, “Restless,” feels like a continuation of the work of “Anything,” but it’s much more hands-on. Tucked between the story of Allen’s life is a journal that takes you through the threads of your life — the people, places, gifts, passions and suffering — to find the purpose of what you are supposed to do.
For her, loving God means accepting that she was meant to lead, even though it is a struggle. “Every day I step into the thing I’m called to do. … and it’s not going to be perfect.”
A true leap of faith
The gathering, which was Allen’s vision, began with 70 female leaders from across Christendom meeting to see if they could put aside their differences to create this event. “I was terrified,” she says, because they are so very different in their beliefs.
They discovered how to be there for one another when they don’t agree with one another. “I watched the walls fall down,” she says. “It was very powerful … we lay our swords down and we came to the table.”
There was something about sitting across the table and sharing a meal that helped break down those walls. “Women do that very well,” she says.
The group of 70, which includes 15 core leaders, found common ground and respect when they didn’t worry about protecting their individual beliefs. “We’re not sacrificing or compromising our truth to love each other.”
And so, with few details, the group, which is mostly women ages 30 to 50, put out the IF: Gathering on social media and it sold out. They didn’t set a price for admission, but just asked women to give how they could. “We realized how loud our voices were,” Allen says. “We all spoke out and said this is what we came to do.”
The gathering becoming so popular so quickly is nerve-wracking because the group didn’t get to grow into the success. “Yet there was this sense that something special is about to happen,” she says.
Over the two days, the attendees, who are mostly women, will participate in thought-provoking exercises. There will be time and space for their own thoughts as well as group discussions. On Feb. 7, the women will share a meal in small groups at restaurants throughout downtown. They will have conversation cards to start the discussion.
The entire event will be a time for women to focus on what is holding them back, Allen says. There will be time for dreaming and considering big questions. She wants it to be a safe place to find God and their purpose.
The gathering is also asking women to consider creating a woman-to-woman connection with women they don’t know through Food for the Hungry, which helps women in Bolivia learn how to garden to improve the nourishment they give their children.
Not all the answers at once
Allen has written about her struggles in many ways, but that doesn’t mean she’s figured everything out. As a parent, she knows she’s probably messing up her children.
With her teenage son, she says, “We’re in process,” meaning things aren’t always easy.
Yet, she welcomes the challenge. She wants her children to question, even question God. “God is big enough,” she says. “He’ll get to them in their own way. I don’t fear rebellion. I expect it. I would be a lot more afraid if they were just doing it by rote.”
God is also big enough, she says, when she finds contradictions in the Bible that she can’t explain, such as God is sovereign yet people have free will.
“It is a mystery,” she says. “I believe it to be true, but I will understand it better one day.”
“The thing that drives me…,” she says, “I want to spend my life well. It’s a beautiful life and I want to live it well. That means loving people well and fully without agenda; loving God.”
When: Feb. 7-8 Austin Music Hall
Tickets: The event is sold out, but you can go online to ifgathering.com to form a local group and follow along by webcast.