The Conference Shaking Up America’s Evangelicals

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Lauren Carroll / AP

Woman lifts her hand in praise.

On Wednesday evening, 30 of America’s most influential evangelicals met on the patio of Marlow’s Tavern outside Atlanta for a private dinner. Shelley Giglio of Passion Ministries, Jason Russell of Invisible Children, Rebekah Lyons of Q Ideas, and dozens of others were in town to speak at Catalyst Atlanta, an annual Christian conference to inspire the next generation of leadership. They met to catch up with old friends, make new ones, and brainstorm possible future endeavors together.

The man who convened everyone is Brad Lomenick, the founder of the conference and a man who has a vision to equip Christian leaders to become agents of positive change. Catalyst started 14 years ago, and now Lomenick leads a giant operation: 13,000 people attend the conference, 600 others volunteer, and a core staff of 15 runs the event.

Catalyst, Lomenick says, is a-denominational and a-political, neither Republican nor Democrat. “We want to bring in folks who aren’t necessarily in our Christian subculture, in our bubble,” he says, estimating that attendees are probably 60% Republican and 40% Democratic, and come from all types of churches, from Pentecostal to Episcopal to Methodist. Too often, he continues, Christians are known as hypocritical, judgmental, anti-homosexual. “We are all these antis, versus the pro,” Lomenick says. “We are trying to say, we are about Jesus, we are about leadership, we are about the big-c Church.”

The purpose of Catalyst is two-fold. First, people come from all over the country to learn how to become better leaders. License plates in the parking lot represent Pennsylvania, Alabama, California, Texas, and Tennessee. Suzanna Yoder, 31 and a missionary in southeast Asia, comes to “get pumped up about where I am headed.” Donna Smith, 46 and from North Carolina, likes to connect with speakers and get new ideas for her non-denominational church and non-profit dance ministry.  David Lee, an engineer and lay minister from Austin, comes to get new ideas on how to engage culture as Christians.

The second purpose is more behind-the-scenes, and it takes place at the smaller gatherings like Wednesday’s dinner. “At the same time thousands of leaders coming together, there are maybe 100, 200, a smaller number, of what I would consider to be friends of ours that we try to be intentional about connecting them,” Lomenick explains. “We have been able to slowly, intentionally build a good network of friends that we prefer, that we want to see succeed, and try to just be intentional about gathering them together.”

The now-famous TOMS shoes and Charity Water partnership started through one of these behind-the-scenes interactions. Lomenick invited both Scott Harrison, Charity Water’s founder, and Blake Mycoskie, TOMS founder, to speak on a Catalyst event panel in 2011. “Those are two examples of friends that we put on the platform, but what happened as they were here, was they started to get connected to the people who were here backstage, behind the scenes, at dinners,” Lomenick says.

That’s exactly the kind of influence Lomenick wants the new generation of change agents, who he calls “catalysts,” to have. “I’ve always thought that the best way I can steward [influence] as a leader is to give it away, to get out of the way and let other step up on it and tell their stories,” he says. “Create an environment where it is safe, it is fun, they can all see each other maybe once a year, make sure there are connections, and let it go.”

Catalyst has many signature elements of an evangelical, hipster, millennial conference. There’s a Chick-fil-A truck is in the parking lot, and a barista making lattes backstage. Worship bands from megachurches like Atlanta’s North Point Community Church lead the thousands in song. In the green room, speakers put their arms around one another to pray before their panels begin.

But not all the speakers and conversations are ones the outside world might expect—Newark mayor and US Senate candidate Cory Booker is addressing the crowd Friday morning via video. Russell Crowe appeared onscreen as the star of the upcoming Hollywood film Noah. Andy Stanley, pastor of North Point Community Church, told the crowd the story of how President Barack Obama wrote him a thank you note for preaching on inauguration morning last January. “Can you even imagine how much that meant to this white, upper-middle class overly-taxed Republican boy from North Carolina?,” Stanley said. The audience applauded.