Now in its 10th year, this remarkable conference at a Rockford church inspires women around the world to make a difference through their faith in God.
Women contribute to the world in more ways than words can describe. When 3,000 of them take time away from daily life to focus on ways that God can work through their lives even more powerfully, the result is electrifying.
That’s exactly what happened when Rockford First celebrated its 10th anniversary of the Original women’s conference at Rockford First Church, 5950 Spring Creek Road, in April. The event featured local and world-renowned speakers and musicians who inspired the women and helped them to see themselves through God’s eyes. The impact is felt at home and around the world, as attendees do their part to help hurting, helpless and hopeless people.
“The growth of Original tells us that women are hungry to be encouraged to make a difference,” says Jen DeWeerdt, co-pastor of Rockford First with husband Jeremy. “The conference is not just about what women can get for themselves, but what they can do with their lives. We love giving women a chance to take themselves out of their everyday routines and take time to invest in themselves. We want what we do for them to be life giving.”
“Looking at the bigger picture, there are things happening globally that we can do something about,” says Elisabeth Willard, administrative assistant at Rockford First. “Because we’re creative, equipped, and have more than enough, we can make a difference around the world.”
DeWeerdt founded the women’s conference in 2007. At first she focused on ministering to young women who struggle with their identity. The conference was opened to women of all ages the following year and has grown by about 20 percent each year since.
“Original has become more than an event. It’s a lifestyle and a movement,” DeWeerdt says. “Women fall into a lot of traps. They’re always comparing themselves with other women, feeling they’re not good enough, and feeling guilty about holding themselves back from doing more with their lives. When women realize God has a purpose for each one of our lives, it changes the way we live.”
The conference name is a nod to our God-given “original” design to live purposeful, centered, passionate, true and original lives, as spelled out in Galatians 5:25-26: “If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.”
Staging such a large conference is no small effort. About 45 staff members and 400 volunteers work to plan and produce each year’s event. The conference has outgrown the church and will be held next year, April 27-29, at the BMO Harris Bank Center in downtown Rockford. Attendance could more than double; about 1,500 people have already registered. Along with DeWeerdt and Willard, Lisa Seaton, creative director at Rockford First, is heavily involved and is also an event speaker.
Willard has participated in all 10 conferencs and knows first-hand what happens when a large group of Christian women join together for a cause.
“All conference attendees say it’s unexplainable, that you just have to be there and experience it for yourself to understand how God shows up in such a personal way, and yet there is something for everyone,” says Willard. “There’s just something special that happens when women decide to set time aside for something specific like this and come with the expectation that God is going to meet up with each one of us in a special way. The Biblical book Jeremiah tells us in chapter 29, verse 13, that one of God’s promises is, ‘You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.’
“Everyone walks out encouraged, uplifted and feeling better-equipped to live out their everyday lives. They feel refreshed and renewed – you can’t put a price on that. There’s enough negativity in the world vying for our attention, so to invest in ourselves and have a positive impact on the world is well worth the time spent.”
The conference also appeals to women’s need for one another.
“Women are motivated by relationships and being connected with others, it’s just how we are wired,” says Willard. “Everyone wants to feel they matter and that there are people in their lives who matter to them. It’s huge.”
Original is not only about one weekend of worship and teaching. The community of attendees can stay connected all year long. When the weekend is over, many of them begin organizing the next conference and meet at various times of the year for “snapshots” of Original. A blog keeps people informed as plans take shape.
In January 2017, an eight-week study called “Be That Girl” will be taught by Charlotte Gambill on video and will focus on the lives of women in the Bible. The study is open to women everywhere and will be in the format of small groups with table leaders.
Gambill is a well-known author, speaker, and co-pastor with husband Steve of Life Church in England, and was a guest speaker at this year’s Original conference. She’ll return in 2017 as a presenter along with award-winning singer/songwriter Natalie Grant.
Women also gather five times per year on a Friday night at Rockford First for worship, fellowship, and learning.
“We want to continually feed our women positive messages and offer them a place to gather with other women who are hungry to grow in their relationships with God,” says DeWeerdt. “We want women to experience being refueled and filled up so they can go back to their everyday lives feeling encouraged and challenged by the Word.”
And once they’re filled up, they’re expected to give back. After all, “to whom much is given, much will be expected.”
“We have a saying around this church that ‘generous hands are never empty,’” says Willard. “Until people understand the power of that belief, and their heart is sold on its truth, they can’t begin to understand how life-changing it is to live that way.”
Locally, the church identifies organizations that need help and focuses on giving to those groups during the conference and at other church events.
At this year’s conference, the church partnered with God Behind Bars, a prison ministry headquartered in Henderson, Nev. Since 2009, the ministry has joined forces with churches across the country to transform the lives of prison inmates and their families, in an effort to help reduce the percentage of people returning to prison within a few years of their release.
Last year, money was raised to buy school uniforms for homeless and needy elementary students in the Rockford area.
Missionaries around the world are sponsored by Rockford First, and conference attendees and others are encouraged to raise funds for several organizations: Mercy Multiplied, Reese’s Rainbow, Zoe International, SHE Rescue House and Compassion International.
• Mercy Multiplied, Nashville, Tenn., was founded by Nancy Alcorn, who spoke at this year’s conference. Her ministry offers a free, faith-based residential program for troubled women ages 13-28, giving them an opportunity to transform their lives through Christ’s love and teachings.
• The mission of Reese’s Rainbow is to advocate for orphans with Down’s syndrome and other special needs, connecting them with loving families and raising money for adoptive grants. The program was started by Andrea Roberts, mother of a Down’s syndrome child. She began an outreach program serving families with special needs children at Northside Hospital in Atlanta. The ministry has expanded to include promoting international adoption of children with special needs. Now in its 10th year, the program has helped more than 1,600 children.
• The goal of Zoe International is to rescue children from human trafficking. It’s estimated there are 21 million victims of human trafficking worldwide; the organization works to prevent human trafficking, rescue victims, and bring them to safe houses to help them heal and have a better future. The organization was founded by California couple Michael and Carol Hart, in response to learning about modern day slavery. They sold everything they had, set up headquarters in Santa Clarita, Calif., and moved to Thailand to help children and teach the Gospel of Christ. So far, more than 115 children have been helped through Zoe International.
• The SHE Rescue House in Cambodia reaches out to young girls who have been exploited and trafficked. Founded by Mark and Leigh Ramsey, pastors of Citipointe Church in Australia, the “It’s Not Ok” project supports a home where girls can find safety and work toward living a better life.
• Compassion International, headquartered in Colorado Springs, Colo., rescues children from all forms of abuse and exploitation. It asks sponsors to “adopt” a child by meeting his or her everyday living expenses. Rockford First has committed to helping children with physical, spiritual, social and economic needs in Burkina Faso, Africa.