The Valued Conference is “a resource for the church on sexual abuse and assault” in San Diego. On March 22-23, experts and advocates such as Rachael and Jacob Denhollander, Justin and Lindsey Holcomb, and Boz Tchjividjian will speak on understanding, preventing, identifying, and responding to sexual abuse. Fathom Mag columnist Abby Perry spoke with Adam Smith, a leader of Valued Conference and Associate Pastor of Redemption Church, about his hopes for the conference
Where did the idea for the Valued Conference come from?
Justin Holcomb is a friend of mine and of Nicholas Davis, the Pastor of Redemption Church. About a year ago, before the Brett Kavanaugh hearings or any of that, we talked to Justin about the fact that we wanted to do something in response to sexual abuse but didn’t know what that could or should be as one little couple-year-old church plant in a corner of the country. Rather than spend a whole bunch of money just on ourselves, we thought we could maybe rally the troops and try to do something others could benefit from as well.
Boz [Tchjividjian] is a friend of Justin’s and mine, so he came to mind immediately. The Denhollanders and Holcombs were glad for an opportunity to work together, and some churches provided the initial funding we needed to get going. People like Mary DeMuth reached out and offered to participate.
We didn’t expect the national conversation on sexual abuse to become so huge this year. So far, people from 18 states, 3 countries, and 90 churches plan to join us at the conference.
What topics will be covered?
We want to open up the issue [of sexual assault] and identify how important it is, and how much it matters to the church. The church isn’t just a quiet observer on the sidelines of a cultural phenomenon. We have the gospel. We have the victory and the ultimate renewal of all things that only Christ brings.
The church has been given to us as a family–as a place of love, support, and binding up the wounds of the hurting as we care for them now and proclaim to them the message of grace, hope, and promise in Christ. We don’t just want to lament the problem and refer people to counselors, even we should do both of those things. We also want churches to be an active part of destigmatizing abuse and recognizing that abuse is not rare. It is almost certainly in every congregation.
Our first night will focus a lot on identifying the problem. Pastors and ministry leaders from Southern California—not necessarily big, celebrity names but people who are capable, knowledgeable, and compassionate on the topic—will invite the conversation into our churches. We want the Valued Conference to welcome the conversation locally.
The second day, we’ll get deep into the heart of the issue and offer breakout sessions on topics like walking through abuse with a loved one or how to protect our children. The final session will emphasize practical steps people can take. We can’t solve everything, but we also want to leave people not just with information, but action.
I love the name of the conference—Valued—and the corresponding theme verse—"Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows" (Matthew 10:31).
Jesus references sparrows, which were the most insignificant, cheapest commodity for food, as imagery that highlights how valuable people really are in comparison to what’s not considered valuable. I think this particularly speaks to people who feel like they're not valuable. They need to know how God looks at them.
We want people to know that they’re valued and that others are as well. We didn’t, and don’t, have a plan to make the conference some big, branded thing. For now, we’re just getting through and trying to serve, and we wanted to find a word that resonated and added meaning to people’s perspectives of themselves and of others.
And maybe, too, it was a bit derivative of Rachael Denhollander’s question, “How much is a little girl worth?”
How have people responded as you’ve articulated the need for this conference specifically within the church?
There’s a whole spectrum. People argue with me about abuse statistics. There are a few events where we’ve tried to have an exhibit booth and been told no because this topic is “controversial.”
But then there are people flying in from all over the country who have heard some of the speakers and found their words to be a healing balm. A few individuals have donated in really generous ways—people we didn’t even know or ask—which is such a blessing and gives us so much hope. This conversation is still new in many ways and there aren’t big organizations or systems to deal with it. Hopefully, people will see that this is worthwhile, maybe feel less afraid of the conversation, and start contributing.
What specific parts of the conversation around abuse and assault are on your mind as the conference gets closer?
We’re a couple of little churches who want to help get the conversation into more churches. And we’re very aware that we’re not going to solve the issue. We want to be careful of celebrity and conference culture, in which it’s easy to believe that putting a few big names together solves the problem.
A thing that has really hit me this last year is how prevalent the need for this conversation is. The hurt, the pain, is so deep and so wide. I can’t say that I’m the biggest expert on the topic. This conference is birthed out of a few and others and I saying that we need more understanding.
Another huge element of this conversation is the topic of leadership. We’re called to lead like Jesus—the one who walked with sinners and bound up the wounds of the hurting—not to have our hearts in a place of fear. We’re too often trying to hold something together instead of being something together.
A huge part of the resistance to this conversation seems to be fear that survivors and advocates who have left the church are laying siege to her by pointing out areas where she has failed. Shouldn’t our response be, “How devastating that these people cannot find any safety in the church,” not “This is an army coming to destroy us?”
Yes. It should bring us to ashes, not to arms.
The Valued Conference somewhat emerged from projects that Justin, Michael and I were doing in Africa and India on the topic of shame outside of America. Maybe, as we move forward, we can start to see how Christians in other contexts have something to add to this conversation—both in terms of abuse itself and in terms of the American Evangelical tendency to protect our churches. That’s a conversation I’d love to invite at some point in the future.
People often respond to the topic of sexual abuse and assault with “Well, what do you want me to do right now?” I’ve experienced similar responses and even felt them within myself when talking about race issues. We’re often reticent to lament and to have an imagination about injustice or to linger with it.
It’s become obvious to me as we’ve talked with potential speakers and churches about participating in the conference that there’s mistrust, hurt, and uncertainty about whether or not this is a conversation they’re ready to enter, seemingly because there are so many layers and complexities when you combine racial oppression and sexual abuse. Minorities have not been traditionally believed or valued. So why would they have confidence entering a majority culture conversation on a topic this sensitive and vulnerable?
I feel that desire to fix everything right now rising up in me. But this is a part of the conversation white people have to sit with. Maybe we need to spend time proving ourselves trustworthy. I really appreciate the way you see this year’s Valued Conference as imperfect and just the beginning.
We’re very cognizant that we are not the end game. We’re trying to invite others into the conversation, help them feel comfortable with it, and take the next steps—whatever they look like.
You’ve mentioned the desire for a more global conversation as well as an emphasis on how People of Color in America experience abuse, assault, and the dialogue around them. What else would you like to see in future conversations?
One thing that came up early in our planning that we realized we weren’t ready to address is the issue of pastors who have experienced abuse. It’s a real issue. I don’t want to create skepticism between people and their pastors, which is part of why we didn’t take this topic on yet. We could have had a breakout session on this, but no one is going to show up to that. They can’t. It’s not safe for pastors.
That’s gutting and completely accurate.
Right. I think it’s a conversation that will have to happen a bit further down the line.
How can people who won’t be able to make it out to San Diego participate in the Valued Conference?
Crossway Publishing has sponsored live-streaming of the conference that you can access at ValuedConference.com. A recording will be available eventually as well. We know that there are churches, committees, and children’s ministry teams getting together to watch it.
We just want it to be available to people. That’s the whole point of this whole thing.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.