The Year of Jen Hatmaker
The Texas evangelical leader landed herself in hot water over comments about the LGBTQ community. But the blowback prompted a bigger discussion: What does it mean to be an evangelical today?
Jen Hatmaker seems like someone you might know in real life. She regularly posts on Instagram about her parenting fails, what shows she binge-watches on Netflix, and her new favorite accessory. But mostly, she lets you in on the nitty gritty of her daily life. Last December, she posted a picture of herself in a t-shirt, flannel shirt, leggings, and boots. “I went to Target like this. I am obviously not afraid of competing patterns or yesterday’s makeup,” she wrote in the caption. “Also, please enjoy my unmade bed. Also, I am about to take a nap.”
Hatmaker isn’t just a social media personality. The mother of five—her three oldest are biological and her two youngest are adopted from Ethiopia—is an author of twelve books, a national speaker, and the host of an HGTV show documenting the renovation of her house in Buda. Through her writing and speaking engagements, she has become a leader in the evangelical community. Her husband is the pastor at Austin New Church, a small congregation that the couple founded and still leads together.
But Hatmaker’s humor, candidness, and raw slice-of-life glimpses are far from what we have grown to expect from religious leaders. She is not Instagramming from a pulpit. Her husband, children, and kitchen look just like yours. At least, that’s the story her comment section tells.
“You get it. Love your words. Thanks, Jen.”
“Did you sneak into my house?”
“Jen, you don’t know me, I have no children and probably shouldn’t relate to this but you crack me up, say things I think, and in my head we are friends.”
“Hey, friend-in-my-head, have you caught up to the latest episode of This Is Us yet? Waiting for your thoughts.”
Comment after comment depicts Hatmaker as the best friend you wish you had. This imaginary friendship can turn sour, though, when the fantasy doesn’t match up with reality.
In the evangelical community, Hatmaker has often been criticized for her vague stance on certain social issues and willingness to question traditional messaging from churches. The writer, who typically relies on an overall message of love rather than specific directives, addressed that history in 2013. In a blog post, she explained that a large church, citing her history of questioning church practices, had retracted its invitation to have her speak. What Hatmaker saw as asking hard questions and challenging her faith, others saw as a refusal to adhere to mainstream evangelical Biblical views. “So if anyone wants to venture out to the margins, past familiar boundaries, through sanctioned Christian staples, beyond guilt-by-association fears, outside traditional approval—I’ll be here with my people, with Jesus, making others crazy and getting uninvited from things,” Hatmaker concluded in the post.
Hatmaker made good on the promise to shake things up in an interview with Religion News Service in October of last year. Although the article covered many things, it quickly gained attention for Hatmaker’s stance on gay marriage. While she had long welcomed the LGBTQ community and challenged Christians to adopt a more loving stance toward it, she had never clearly stated her interpretation of the Bible’s take on gay marriage.
When asked if she thought an LGBTQ relationship can be holy, Hatmaker responded: “I do. And my views here are tender. This is a very nuanced conversation, and it’s hard to nail down in one sitting. I’ve seen too much pain and rejection at the intersection of the gay community and the church. Every believer that witnesses that much overwhelming sorrow should be tender enough to do some hard work here.”
LifeWay, a Christian bookstore chain, stopped selling her books. Christian blogs churned out content. National media picked up the story. Her comment section was a heated mix of supporters and haters, a far cry from the usual love of her imaginary friends. It would be a year before Hatmaker, who retreated to the sidelines after intense blowback, would reemerge fully. The woman who had been pushing boundaries for years had, in the eyes of many of her followers, finally gone too far.
But Hatmaker’s statements—as evidenced by the swift and severe blowback—revealed much more than her personal views on gay marriage. They shed light on the culture of Christianity and provoked a question that is tender for many right now: How do you love and respect someone with whom you passionately disagree? And for the people who agreed with Hatmaker, another question, one that had the potential to change so much for so many, began to surface: What does it mean to be an evangelical Christian when the label is so closely tied to politics?
Defining an Evangelical
Sandra Glahn, a professor at Dallas Theological Seminary, author, and a member of the Evangelical Press Association can pinpoint another time when she noticed Christian culture facing an identity crisis. In Copy Editor, a publication she read when she worked as an editor, there was a regular column highlighting words that had a changed meaning in popular culture. She remembers seeing the word Christian in the column. The old definition was someone who follows the teachings of Christ. The new definition? A member of a right-wing political party. If that column existed today, surely the word evangelical would be in it.
Evangelicalism is often misrepresented and misunderstood, so much so that even people who claim the label might have a difficult time offering a concise definition. It comes from the Greek word for “good news,” and, at its core, the movement seeks to share the message of the Christian Bible, specifically the gospel—the story of Jesus found in the first four books of the New Testament. The movement can be traced back to Martin Luther’s reformation and beyond, back to Catholics in Medieval Christendom who wanted reform in the church and a strict adherence to the Bible’s teachings. During Luther’s reformation and the beginning of protestantism, an evangelical was a reformer who wanted to break with some of the Catholic Church’s practices, which they felt had corrupted over time.
It wasn’t until the Second Great Awakening—a spiritual revival that swept through the United States in the nineteenth century—that the term began to take on a new identity. During that period, evangelicalism came to symbolize a commitment to missionary work and social reform. As the country marched toward westward expansion, evangelicals went with it to claim the wild frontier for Christ. But Christianizing the Wild West was not for the faint of heart, and many prominent theologically educated leaders chose to stay put with their congregations, leaving the missionary work to passionate, but not always theologically-educated, men. As the movement settled, the effect of these missionaries was evident; the Christian community did not necessarily look that different from the world around it.
As materialism and outside influences crept into the church, a new movement stepped in: fundamentalism. Initially, fundamentalists, as the name suggests, sought to return to the fundamentals of Christianity. Over time, however, the movement became synonymous with legalism, racism, naiveté, and anti-intellectualism in popular culture. That sparked a new wave of evangelicalism, which took the country by storm in the mid-twentieth century. Evangelicals like Billy Graham led Christians back to the core of the movement to seek social justice and missions work.
But after the 2016 presidential election, evangelicalism is once again facing a crisis of faith. Similar to the fundamentalist movement, evangelicalism has taken on a political tone, sometimes being used in the same sentence as “alt-right.” But are people who identify as evangelicals truly guilty of being what mainstream culture deems as racist, sexist, homophobic—or has the term been hijacked?
“The word evangelical can be stolen and taken unfair advantage of,” said Ray C. Ortlund Jr. in a speech on the history of the movement at a conference hosted by The Gospel Coalition. Partly, the label is easy to misconstrue because of the relative freedom of the word. Descriptively, its definition can point to its history, its stereotypes, its perception in this culture. The prescriptive piece is what is often missed. Because to be evangelical is not to be white, or a Republican, or conservative, or to even wear the label of Christian. The label cuts to the very core of a person’s beliefs, the heart of their personal theology.
The National Association of Evangelicals proposes four tenets to fit the descriptor. To claim it, a person must hold the Bible as the highest authority for their beliefs; put a special emphasis on encouraging people to accept Jesus Christ as their savior; trust that Jesus’s crucifixion is the only way to be free of sin; and believe that the only way to eternal salvation is through Jesus. Based on these qualifications, evangelicalism is not a denomination, but rather a commitment to valuing and prioritizing core Biblical truths over rituals and works. That’s why Vice President Mike Pence can describe himself as an evangelical Catholic, even though the term evangelical is often associated with protestantism.
The conversations about what evangelicals believe have seeped outside of religion and into politics. According to Pew Research, 81 percent of “white, born-again/evangelical Christians” voted for Trump last November. Evangelicals typically vote Republican—Ronald Reagan’s “moral majority” culturally married the party with evangelicalism in the 1980s—but this election season left many undecided. Many evangelical leaders remained silent, choosing not to comment on either party’s candidate. Others only added to the confusion by making divisive statements or pushing their own agendas rather than relying on Biblical counsel.
The split plays out in very public ways. In February, even after President Donald Trump had assumed office, one hundred prominent evangelicals—pastors, authors, professors—took out an ad in the Washington Post to denounce his ban on refugee’s from seven majority Muslim countries. World Relief, the evangelical ministry behind the ad, reported that more than 500 additional evangelical leaders later added their signatures. According to Pew Research, though, 78 percent of white evangelical Protestants supported the temporary ban. And if you search “evangelicals” and “Betsy DeVos,” a slew of articles pop up explaining why evangelicals are speaking out against Trump’s secretary of education. Yet, DeVos has been a member of Mars Hill Church, a nondenominational church that is well-known in the evangelical community.
It is within this confusing mess of beliefs, doctrines, and interpretations that confusion on what it means to be an evangelical is forming. The evangelical landscape of the country is coming to a crossroads: either the identity of the movement will have to be altered, or the name will be cast aside altogether.
The Role of Texas Women
Women have always been a part of evangelicalism, but their efforts and presence within the movement are only now becoming visible, thanks to social media and blogging. And on these new platforms, Texas women in particular seem to be using their voices.
Beth Moore, the founder of Living Proof Ministries in Houston and the author of over twenty books and Bible studies, is more likely to tweet about her grandchildren or share encouragement than offer political opinions. But last October, she posted a series of tweets calling out Christians for what she saw as the acceptance of the objectification and abuse of women. While never mentioning names, it was clear her comments were directed toward Trump. Four days later, she followed up on her original statements, tweeting she did not endorse either candidate but felt the need to speak up for “sexually abused women who feel voiceless.” “To expect me not to speak up in their behalf,” she added, “is like expecting a dog not to bark.”
Vicki Courtney, an Austin-based author and speaker, also commented on Trump, a move she called out of character. In a blog post, she encouraged parents to have conversations with their children about the sexualization and objectification of women. Courtney said she did not vote for either candidate and never publicly supported one, nor did she encourage her followers to vote a certain way. In past elections, she claimed, she would not have necessarily expected or encouraged Christian leaders to comment. But during the 2016 election, she couldn’t remain silent. “I’ve come to the conclusion that my higher goal was to encourage Christians to be critical thinkers who could filter their personal positions, political positions, through God’s standards set forth in the Bible rather than blindly following the default Republican formula we’ve grown accustomed to over the years,” she said.
Hatmaker joined Moore and Courtney in their criticisms of the then-presidential candidate. Amid the news of leaked audio in which Trump bragged about sexually assaulting a woman, Hatmaker tweeted, “This is disgusting. We will not forget. Nor will we forget the Christian leaders that betrayed their sisters in Christ for power.”
Glahn—who has watched the evolution of evangelicalism—said she has noticed an increase in female students at Dallas Theological Seminary, where she teaches. Currently, 36.8 percent of the student body is female, whereas Glahn can remember when it was closer to 15 percent. She credits this growth to millennials being global thinkers who have encountered a lot of different theology at a young age. The average age for marriage has also gone up, offering many women more choice in their career paths and education. But most importantly, women today are growing up with role models. Glahn said she didn’t remember having anyone to emulate growing up, but now girls see women like Hatmaker, Jennie Allen, Priscilla Shirer, Jen Wilkin, Moore—all Texan women who are leaders, authors, speakers, and household names throughout the nation.
Jamie Ivey, the host of a popular podcast “The Happy Hour,” has similarly noticed an increase of female leadership, who are exercising “voices that are valid,” in her church, Austin Stone. Although those voices might have always been there, she agrees with Glahn that in many churches, they are just now being given the weight they deserve.
A gap remains, though, in how women are perceived in the church at large. Many have called out evangelical men for knowing the names of prominent male authors and preachers, but not knowing the equivalent female leaders. Everyone is expected to know Tim Keller, but men might not know who Jen Hatmaker is. So when a controversy like hers arises, there is a lack of understanding of the vast impact it can have on half of a congregation. And the blowback did have its effects on evangelical women, who often seemed to be held accountable for their peer in ministry’s actions.
Jennie Allen, founder of the popular IF:Gathering movement in Austin, wrote a blog post addressing Hatmaker’s statements on behalf of her ministry. She wrote that each time she had attempted to craft a response, she cried herself to sleep, “physically exhausted trying to put down words that might be used to drive a relational wedge between me and someone I love.” In a similar fashion, Ivey, a personal friend of Hatmaker, began a blog post by saying she and her husband had “written, deleted, edited, abandoned” many drafts attempting to comment on the situation. Her husband leads worship at the Austin Stone, and as church leaders, she wrote, they couldn’t assume an “agree-to-disagree posture,” ultimately concluding that accepting a same-sex marriage as holy took a “degree of bending and distorting the original languages and contexts of the Old and New Testament.”
Hatmaker also had friends who stood up for her. Nichole Nordeman, a Christian singer from Dallas, not only tweeted out support but responded to a video criticizing Hatmaker with a lengthy comment defending her friend.
Regardless of belief, these women who responded did so out of a place of grief—grief for their friend who was hurting, grief over the potential loss of friendship, grief for a community of women at war over differing beliefs.
Courtney first started her ministry for women in 1997, and though she hasn’t spoken to Hatmaker in several years, she is familiar with her ministry and has worked with her in the past. While Courtney doesn’t agree theologically with Hatmaker’s statements, she has been affected in a deeply personal way by her message of love for the LGBTQ community. Courtney expresses appreciation for the attention Hatmaker has called to the stereotype—one that often rings true—that Christians have not loved the gay community well. Courtney does not usually address cultural topics in her books and talks, but was challenged by Hatmaker’s example because, as she put it, Courtney has “skin in this game.” Her father is gay.
After her father first came out to her, he sent her an email. “He desperately hoped we could continue to have a relationship,” Courtney said. “And that was heartbreaking to me that my father would ever have to say that. And I saw then…there is a very real stereotype that as Christians we have been unloving to the gay community so much so that my own father wondered if I would continue to have a relationship.” Not only do Courtney and her father still have a positive relationship to this day, but her husband and three adult children have also actively affirmed his continued place in their family. What Courtney has found natural—to love her father despite disagreement on theology—many have found anything but.
Like many groups in the country right now, evangelicals can be easily divided over issues like gay marriage and abortion. Both sides cannot fathom how the other could support a candidate or policy so seemingly contrary to their shared Biblical values. One side questions how anyone could support abortion or support a candidate favoring abortion only to be countered with accusations of not being pro-life past birth. Glahn’s advice with this gap in understanding is simple: “Have dinner with a diverse group of people and shut up and listen.”
It is amidst this push and pull of opinions and disagreements that an evolution is taking place. Evangelicals are taking sides. Some are following Glahn’s advice and Courtney’s example, listening and trying to understand, while clinging to their original convictions and beliefs. But others are barreling forward, testing the limits of this label.
“We’re marching in to a post-Christian era.” said writer, speaker, and Bible teacher Jen Wilkin. “I think sooner or later even the great nation of Texas will succumb.”
On April 14, Hatmaker broke her blogging silence. Almost nine months to the day after her last post, she offered her first in-depth response to six months of backlash from the Christian community.
Back in November, she and her husband both initially responded on Facebook to the outpouring of love and hate following her interview. Hatmaker continued to post just as regularly on all platforms of social media—employing her usual mix of funny, sweet, and serious. There was a slight edge to some of her posts; she was a bit bolder and a bit more defensive, unafraid to share her opinions. Then again, she never has been.
But this blog post was different. Gone were any walls, any snark or sass, any sappy emotion. Entitled “My Saddest Good Friday in Memory: When Treasured Things are Dead,” this post was raw, straight from a cracked, bleeding heart. “This year, I deeply experienced being on the wrong side of religion, and it was soul-crushing,” she wrote. “I suffered the rejection, the fury, the distancing, the punishment, and sometimes worst of all, the silence. I experienced betrayal from people I thought loved us. I felt the cold winds of disapproval and the devastating sting of gossip. I received mocking group texts about me, accidentally sent to me; “Oh, we were just laughing WITH you!” they said upon discovery, an empty, fake, cowardly response. It was a tsunami of terror. One hundred things died. Some of them are still dead. Some are struggling for life but I don’t know if they will make it.”
The response was immediate and overwhelmingly positive. The comment section proved Hatmaker was not alone—many commented that they, too, were tired of bending to the “Christian Machine” that Hatmaker said rejected her. Glennon Doyle, a self-described “Christian mommy blogger” who shocked the world when she married soccer phenom Abby Wambach in May, posted a note on Instagram. “You can imagine that I know some of what Jen’s felt this year,” she wrote. “It is one thing for people to tell you that they hate you, it is far another for people to tell you that God hates you.”
The following day, Beth Moore tweeted a screenshot of a text conversation with Hatmaker. “As we platformers consider some things that need crucifying with Christ I vote personal branding,” Moore tweeted. “It’s gross. Text convo w/a friend this AM.”
That tweet sparked a lengthy conversation, mainly between female evangelical leaders, that spanned the Easter weekend. The original tweet had 66 replies, with multiple spinoff conversations on branding and the Christian community. But ending the conversation was a comment from the woman who started it all: “That thing when you come back from Family Night and find 3837284 tweets in your feed. OH MY STARS, YOU GUYS,” Hatmaker tweeted.
She was back. She approached her followers and friends with her broken heart, and they offered it back to her whole. After reading her outpouring of support, she posted on Facebook that while she had felt unsure of her next step, she knew then what to do. She had found her fellow wounded warriors and she was ready to jump back in the game.
And it seemed that there was plenty to do, as evangelicalism continued to pop up in headlines.
In June, The Southern Baptist Convention gathered for its annual meeting and voted to condemn the “alt-right,” provoking fiery debates on Twitter.
In celebration of July 4, a Baptist church in Dallas debuted the song, “Make America Great Again.” It, too, made the internet rounds. The Gospel Coalition, an online evangelical resource, published an article condemning the role of American patriotism within the church.
But Hatmaker has not been as vocal lately on political issues. She has been busy with a dream vacation to Europe, college tours with her daughter, and the launch of her new book, Of Mess and Moxie, which was released on August 8. She has also been podcasting, already several episodes in on her new venture, “For The Love.” She’s once again doing interviews, dropping in on podcasts, and promoting her new book. The old Hatmaker seems to be back, but her tenderness from this past year still surfaces here and there.
In her appearance on New York Times best-selling author Shauna Niequist’s podcast, Hatmaker said the spiritual practice she is most turning toward in this season is rest. Her social media presence reflects this. In an Instagram post on June 28, she wrote, “Because sometimes you’ve done all you can do and obviously more work is still there (it always is), but at some point you have to lay it down for the day and transition into the fresh air with the humans you live with.” The picture is her lying in a hammock, a book on her lap.
This summer, she appeared as a guest on the podcast Holy Heretics, where she talked about her evolution of faith that has led her to right now. This podcast is Hatmaker at her best: fiery, passionate, convicted, kind, questioning. While the conversation took many turns (“What does it mean to question your faith?” “Is God a he, a she, or maybe something else altogether?”), it focused on Hatmaker’s turning point in her faith. For the first half of her life, she described everything around her as the same. She grew up Southern Baptist, attended a small Christian university, then her husband became a pastor of an affluent, predominantly white church in Austin. Everyone looked the same, believed the same thing, had a similar life. But then something changed. For the first time in her life, Hatmaker began to ask hard questions, wrestle with hard things. With her husband, she harshly examined her life and found it wanting. So they left their comfortable church to start a new one; they left the comfort of homogeneity and sought out people with different beliefs and different lifestyles. She continued to push and dared to question. And this past year, she paid the price.
Her new book begins in the middle of this mess. In the first chapter, Hatmaker takes us on a journey through her books, each representing a different stage in her life and faith. From humble beginnings to extreme undertakings (Her book 7 documents her family’s commitment to live a simpler life in which they only wore the same seven articles of clothing for a month and only ate seven foods), she walks through her life with the ease of a confident woman. It all leads up to this sentence: “You don’t have to be who you first were.”
This declaration not only sets up the entire book, but defines Hatmaker’s life. She has changed and evolved and questioned and pushed—and it has been messy. She seems to be writing not just to her readers, but to herself, as she continues, “You are far more than your worst day, your worst experience, your worst season, dear one. You are more than the sorriest decision you ever made. You are more than the darkest sorrow you’ve endured….Not only are you capable, you have full permission to move forward in strength and health.”
She also seems to be asking for space, asking for grace as she does move forward. In a chapter entitled, “Fangirl,” she begs her readers to stop fangirling over her. Freak out over Jesus, she writes, cheer on your friends, but stop putting Jen Hatmaker on a pedestal. She tells her readers what they have already found true this year: people disappoint, people change, people are confusing. “If you look to me as your spiritual plumb line, you will be gravely disappointed,” she wrote. “Sometimes my mess outpaces my moxie…”
“It is both a sober and absurd responsibility to lead people spiritually, and I take it very seriously,” she said in an email interview. “…but I will fail you because I will fail. I can’t spin enough plates. I’m not precious. I like wine and a few curse words. Sometimes I run my mouth. Fortunately, I was never meant to be anyone’s spiritual plumb line.”
Of Mess and Moxie encourages women to adopt this attitude. Giving yourself the permission to be who you are and to sometimes fail is the heart of the book. This is not some theologically heavy book laden with Biblical references. In fact, there are few. Instead, it is a collection of essays that let the reader step inside Hatmaker’s brain this year. Some of her chapters are heavy. She writes that, in the past year, her world has come undone. From veiled references to hard situations with her kids to the health of her parents to health scares of her own, she talks of deep pain. In the very next chapter, though, she will lament the struggle that is going to the grocery store, accompanied by quick, foolproof recipes when you’d rather binge Friday Night Lights than cook for your children. It is this mix of heavy and light, idealistic and realistic, that has drawn in her fangirls for years.
While she never explicitly addresses much of the pain of this past year, it is there. This is not the idealistic, comfortable Hatmaker of her first few books, nor is it the extreme justice warrior of her middle books. This is a woman, who much like her Texan peers, is stepping outside the boundaries to forge her own path, who is asking questions of others and of herself, and who is wading through the process of shedding an old identity. In an email, Hatmaker said she doesn’t see herself neatly fitting into any category but she will continue to stand up for what she believes to be right and true. She said the worst advice she’s received this year is to not be political or controversial because “that’s not what Christian leaders do.”
To this she is quick to retort, “There is a human being on the other end of every policy and issue, so if I am not prepared to speak up in this arena, I have no right being a leader.”
Over the summer, Hatmaker finally started to leave behind this year. In some ways, quite literally as she turned 43 on August 7. She has been in the trenches, her head barely above the mess, but now she has arrived to part two, the moxie.
“I am out of that dark season, and I have God, friends, my little South Austin faith community (Austin New Church), and my beautiful tribe to thank for that,” she said via email. “A mentor recently told me, ‘Jen, shake the dust from your feet and lead who you have.’ Well, that’s that. I will love the readers and listeners and friends I have. The glass is back to half full and I have work to do.”
On the last page, she leaves readers with these parting words, “So let’s go forth, moxie ladies, we have a world to love and a sisterhood to expand and we are just the girls for the job.”
Not only does this message reverberate with life and hope for Hatmaker, but feels like a charge for the women of Texas who dare to rock the boat, who dare to cast off the stereotypes and labels that were comfortable for so long. Texas women have tested their voices this year and found them strong and powerful. As evangelicalism continues to simmer and bubble, they will be the ones to rise up, ready to speak.