As Beth Moore walks onto the convention center stage, the crowd erupts into screams and cheers. Several snap pictures with their cameras and cell phones. It's the largest crowd the Springfield, Illinois, venue has hosted, topping Elton John's appearance over a decade ago. More than 8,000 women, from teenagers to senior citizens, have traveled from 30 states and shelled out $60 each to watch Moore open her Bible live and in person.
"Anybody just need a fresh dose of Jesus?" Moore yells. The crowd roars back.
Over 658,000 women have attended Moore's Living Proof Live conferences, and millions more have read her books. Her most recent, So Long, Insecurity: You've Been a Bad Friend to Us, reached the number two slot on The New York Times advice bestseller list shortly after its February release. Meanwhile, women in churches of all denominational stripes are discussing Scripture together using video clips of Moore's teaching as study guides.
Her stories about her big hair and self-tanner keep her audience in stitches—and also reveal her unmistakable rootedness in Southern Baptist culture. But her call to study the Bible seriously, as well as dramatic stories from her own life—sexual abuse as a child, a recent hysterectomy, giving her adopted son back to his birth mother—have earned Moore a following well beyond both Baptist and Southern communities.
"Baptists tend to be in silos and tend not to overlap with other denominations, but Moore is able to cross over to different pockets of evangelicalism," says Michael Lindsay, a sociologist at Rice University in Houston. "She has a tremendous appeal in that she has this homespun sensibility, yet there's a polished, savvy teaching style."
At Home in Houston
In recent years, Moore has spoken not just on the Bible but also on psychological issues like addiction and depression. At her ministry's headquarters in the wooded suburbs of Houston, Moore explains why her latest campaign focuses on insecurity in Christian women.
"I'm telling you, it is the number one issue I see in us right now," she says, her large eyes locked on mine. "My very addictive personality and all sorts of strongholds are a thing of the past for me. Yet at the root of every single one of those issues was insecurity, something I had battled since childhood."
Amazon.com, the Times bestseller list, and others put many of her books in the self-help category, but Moore, 53, says she's just trying to reflect the Bible's attention to the whole human self, psychological issues and all.
"We keep compartmentalizing when the whole spirit, soul, and body belong to the Lord," she says with her hand on her Bible. "He is the soul-ologist."
For example, Moore says, her own insecurity largely stemmed from the sexual abuse she experienced as a child.
"Any time something huge like that has happened to you, there really is not a lot of gray for people like us," Moore says. "I have to have a daily, vibrant relationship with Jesus in order to survive that process toward healing."
The abuse, which Moore references regularly in her work, came from outside the immediate family, but Moore is as deliberately nebulous about describing it in interviews as she is in books and videos.
"I have found, especially in the area of sexual abuse, details do not really bless and edify. I try as hard as I know how to keep my reader relating on a broad level so I don't lead her someplace where she thinks that's the only thing that could cause insecurity," Moore tells Christianity Today. "I also owe my family some safety and my extended family some safety, so I am careful to stay vague." (Her office has said that the family did not turn the offender over to police.)
Her efforts to relate on a broad level have worked dramatically, says Mary McCormack, who has led several Beth Moore Bible studies as the women's ministry director at Westerly Road Church in Princeton, New Jersey.
"She's authentic and unpretentious, and women sense that right away. She doesn't talk down or act as if she has things all together," McCormack says."She is very up-front with her past abuse, and many women feel uniquely understood by her and are drawn to how God healed her."
When I arrived at Moore's ministry headquarters, I was ushered into a conference room filled with donuts and candles. Pillows were scattered on the ground, and a tissue box and Tootsie Rolls sat on top of a small refrigerator in the corner in the room where Moore led some of her focus groups for So Long, Insecurity.
It was not easy to get there. Just as Moore's stories are at once personal and private, Moore in person is intensely friendly—and closely protected by assistants who allow very few media interviews. After several interview requests from CT, her assistants allocated one hour to discuss her latest book and ask a few questions about her personal life. Each question had to be submitted and approved beforehand, I was told, or Moore would not do the interview. Follow-up interview requests were declined. I was permitted to see the ground level of her ministry, where workers package and ship study materials. But Moore's third-floor office, where she writes in the company of her dog, was off limits.
Living Proof Ministries is relatively small compared with the ministries of women of similar notoriety. Its total revenue in 2008, $3.8 million, is dwarfed by Joyce Meyer Ministries' ($112 million) and Kay Arthur's Precept Ministries' ($12.9 million) in the same year. (Meyer's ministry says its top priorities are evangelism and social outreach; Arthur's ministry mainly supplies resources for women to study the Bible inductively on their own; Moore's ministry is grounded in her unique gift of teaching.) Living Proof employs only 16 people, including Moore's two daughters and son-in-law.
"I think she does a really good job of sharing but not sharing too much," Amanda Jones, 30, says of her mother. "There have been a few times where we thought, Oh we shared a little too much there, so we're going to try to reel it back in." Jones's own posts on the Living Proof blog, which sometimes include pictures of her two children, are vetted by ministry staff.
Her mother's openness about her struggles—and those of her family—is what makes her appealing to so many women, Jones says. And such references—like Moore discussing in 2001's Feathers from My Nest her daughter Melissa's eating disorder—are not causes for concern, says Jones. "I don't ever sit there and shake and feel afraid that she's going to share something crazy about our family that I don't want anyone to know," she says. "I feel comfortable with her judgment on what to share and what to keep private."
Moore describes herself as "fiercely and unapologetically private" about the topic of adopting a son for seven years and then returning him to his birth mother. Other than sharing his name (Michael), she offers few details in her talks, books, and interviews, other than to say that the boy had developed "alarming behaviors" and that his birth mother had "resurfaced, strongly desiring to reclaim her son" (Things Pondered). "I find myself wanting to say to my reader, who has become like a friend through the years, 'May I share this without being expected to share much more?'" she wrote in Feathers from My Nest. She called the experience "complicated," but says she references the story in her public ministry because other women may have had similar experiences that left them brokenhearted.
"It was an immensely painful time in my life, but if on the other side of it, God's Word and his Spirit equip me to be able to turn around and minister to a woman, then it's of value," Moore tells CT. "We all deal with feelings of failure. It ranks right up there."
In short, for Moore privacy is as important to authenticity as honesty is. Being the same person onstage and at home means acknowledging the existence and general shape of her struggles—but she works to leave her fans at the door of her home. It's one of the key lessons she practices with husband Keith Moore, who recently retired from the home-service business he owned with his father.
"Authenticity is really, really high on Keith's list, and he has a very low tolerance for bull," she says. "I could not stomach the thought of going out there and serving fake and not having the reality and the authenticity of a real life at home."
Keith, whom Moore married in 1978 after they graduated from Texas State University-San Marcos, does not usually travel with Moore on speaking engagements. But she insists on maintaining a regular schedule, traveling every other Friday night and coming home the next night.
"We walk the dogs together and eat out together all the time and lie on the floor with pillows and watch TV," Moore says. "My man demanded attention and he got it, and my man demanded a normal home life and he got it."
Several people who have worked closely with Moore say she remains the same person she is onstage, whether on the road or at First Baptist of Houston, where she leads a Tuesday night Bible study.
"The intensity does settle, but she's that same full-of-life person all the time," says Travis Cottrell, who leads the music at Living Proof conferences. "She walks through heartache and sickness, and she is completely vulnerable and transparent."
Warming up the crowd in Springfield, Moore walks through the audience, picking up a little boy, who gives her a frightened look. "He has never seen a nose this big," she says in a thick Texas accent, drawing laughter.
Before she begins, she addresses the few men in the crowd. A Southern Baptist, Moore emphasizes that her ministry is intended for women.
"The gentlemen who had such courage to come into this place tonight, into this estrogen fest if you will ever find one in your entire life: we are so blessed to have you," Moore says. "I do not desire to have any kind of authority over you."
She spends the first 15 minutes setting the stage for her Bible study, giving anecdotes from her childhood. She was born on an Army base in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and raised in Arkadelphia, Arkansas, where her father managed the local movie theater. She tells the crowd about her love for movies, how she has seen Remember the Titans at least 40 times.
Getting serious, she transitions into her Bible lesson on John the Baptist, asking the women to turn in their Bibles with her as she flips through the pages with her French-tipped fingernails.
Most of the women keep their pens in hand to take notes on the pink conference pamphlets, an example of how Moore's ministry expressly targets women. She tells the audience about how she has prayed for a "loved one" to recover from alcoholism.
"God manipulates things that are going on in my life so I will share them with you, because he knows there will be a corporate gathering of people who need to hear the same thing," Moore says. "I beg you in Jesus' name, if you have prayed and you have prayed earnestly, do not give up."
A Path Toward Ministry
"I didn't have a fireworks moment for my salvation," Moore tells CT. "I had a falling in love with Jesus in Sunday school when I was a very young child." But she did have an altar call moment. In high school, Moore had planned to become a lawyer, but one summer while leading a group of sixth-grade girls at camp, she received what she considers a call from God. "I had no words, nothing but a sense," she says. "God took a very troubled young woman and made sure that she understood."
She walked down the aisle of her church, committing herself to ministry.
"I'm not a big mystical person. The reason I don't share this very often is because callings come in all sorts of ways," Moore tells CT. "All of us are called, and I don't want people to think it's supposed to feel like that."
In 1982, she joined First Baptist and began teaching aerobics classes at the church. She also attended a local Bible class led by businessman Buddy Walters, and began to research the Bible to find her own insights. The Bible study she launched in First Baptist's chapel eventually moved to the 4,000-seat sanctuary, where some 2,000 attended weekly. In 1994, a friend wrote a check to "Living Proof Ministries." Moore took it to the bank and began running the nonprofit. Soon thereafter, she became the cornerstone author for the Southern Baptist Convention's LifeWay Christian Resources.
"Beth runs on a lot of adrenaline—she would probably say she runs on Starbucks. She's wound up tight, all to the glory of God," says James Robison, who hosts Moore on his Life Today broadcast every Wednesday. "There's no end to how far she can take her teaching."
If you search "Beth Moore" in Google News, you are less likely to find interviews and profiles than dozens of listings for Bible studies at local churches. Over the years, Moore has developed various video curricula, such as ones on her most popular study, Breaking Free and the Book of Daniel. The kits, which include DVDS and a leader's guide, run at around $200.
The women at Valley Baptist Church met for eight weeks earlier in 2010 in the church's sanctuary in Appleton, Wisconsin, armed with cups of coffee, leather-bound Bibles, and their marked-up studies on the Book of Esther. In the study, Moore refers to verses from the Bible and asks questions about her readers' personal lives.
"What differences has Jesus made in your life that are outward signs of your new identity as a member of the royal priesthood?" the leader, Jan Fiedler, asks the 15 women gathered, reading through the study questions.
"During our four miscarriages, we had a peace about it," Karridi Kelly says, holding a baby on her shoulder. "The Lord takes things that are bad and uses them for good."
An hour-long video of Moore follows the discussion, and the women laugh and murmur as Moore talks about cooking dinner, sewing a button, and coloring her own hair.
Of course, not every woman connects with Moore. Many find it difficult to get used to Moore's Southern personality or find her feminine approach off-putting.
"I haven't read anything I thought was heretical, but I've steered away from her studies more because of my personality," says Michelle Novenson, who recently participated in the Stepping Up Bible study at Westerly Road Church. "She weaves away from the text a little too much for me, and she's a little too 'just for women.'"
But in Alabama, it's difficult to avoid Moore, says Leslie Wiggins, who has completed eight of Moore's Bible studies, read thirteen of her books, and reviewed several of them for Discerning Reader, a Reformed website. Wiggins worries that women whose main engagement with Scripture is through Moore's Bible studies will give the same weight to her teachings as to the Bible itself.
"She has written in a couple of her books that God himself fed her the words as she wrote them, as though they were direct messages from him—though she will qualify that by saying that she didn't hear an audible voice," Wiggins says. "She can take one word from any verse, share something neat she discovered in a study of that word, and then make the verse say anything she wants it to say."
Nevertheless, Wiggins has some praise for Moore. "[She can] drive at women's hearts and hurts, their deepest desires for worth, love, and significance," says Wiggins, who believes Moore is increasingly becoming a role model. "She is definitely a trendsetter when it comes to the hairstyles and fashion choices of Christian women."
Moore's popularity seems to have few denominational limits, with Bible studies and consumers across the theological spectrum. Reactions, however, are mixed.
"Her enthusiasm is infectious," says Thea Leunk, who led the women at the church she pastors, Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, through Moore's Living Beyond Yourself, a study based on the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians.
Leunk says that Moore "does a very good job of making the Bible practical and bringing it to an every day, 'you can do this.' That's the hook that she provides to get people to study the Bible."
But Bible study is more than application, says Leunk, who found the fill-in-the-blank workbook simplistic. Moore occasionally cites a theologian or a Greek lexical aid, but "you're not being a serious student of how it fits in the Galatian church or why Paul was writing the letter," Leunk says. Still, she acknowledges, Moore's approach is not unusual among popular Bible teachers.
"A lot of people are looking for a Bible study where they can say, 'I learned something about myself, I learned how to deal with my mother-in-law,'" Leunk says. "There's definitely this pop-psychology aspect to what she does that's found in evangelical Christianity."
Such criticism misunderstands the movement and Moore, says Joe Stowell, the former president of Moody Bible Institute and now the president of Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids. He believes Moore's approach is not mere trendy psychology.
"Whatever she says about insecurity or depression or self-pity all has biblical basis," Stowell says. "She meets me at the point of my struggle. She leads me to Scripture and to Christ. There's a very special balance that God has given her."
In the evangelical spectrum, Stowell says, if Billy Graham functions as an evangelist, Rick Warren as a pastor, and John Piper as a teacher, then Moore serves as an exhorter.
"An exhorter is calling you enthusiastically to grow with Jesus," he says. "If you look at the life of Jesus, he calmed the seas before he taught his disciples about faith. He healed the lame, and then he taught them about the power of God."
Sarah Pulliam Bailey is online editor for Christianity Today.
Copyright © 2010 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Halee Grey Scott wrote a companion piece for the Christianity Today on the theology of Beth Moore.
Previous articles related to Beth Moore from CT and its sister publications include:
Excerpt: So Long, Insecurity | It's time we got our dignity back. (May 26, 2010)
Passion Takes It Higher | The most influential annual gathering of young evangelicals plans to go global. (March 23, 2007)
Beth's Passion | Bible study teacher Beth Moore is on fire for God. Here's how you can be, too. (Today's Christian Woman, September/October 2005)
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