The silent disco — women with wireless headphones on, dancing their hearts out to the same upbeat playlist — was new this year.

The church merch — with nearly as many types of branded hoodies, T-shirts and jackets as at a Taylor Swift concert — sold out within hours.

And during her 14th year of hosting Sparkle, River Valley Church's annual women's conference, the Rev. Becca Ketterling shared a nickname she recently acquired: "I am officially Lolli," she told a room of about 1,000 women, a photo of her grandson on the giant screens at the church's Apple Valley campus. "And Rob [her husband and fellow pastor] is Pop," she said. "Is he not the cutest thing you've ever seen in your life?"

It has been quite a ride for Ketterling, who grew up in Fergus Falls, Minn., wanting to be an accountant. Her Sparkle conference for Christian women has become the biggest event that River Valley Church hosts each year. With slates of speakers, events running back-to-back over three days, and choreographed music and dance performances, Sparkle rivals Christmas at River Valley, one of Minnesota's largest churches.

The influence of Ketterling and other Pentecostal women pastors (River Valley is Assemblies of God) is on the rise at a time when other evangelical denominations, like the Southern Baptists, are doubling down on the idea that only men have biblical authority.

Ketterling, who is saddened by the fight over women in evangelical church leadership, said there's no debate about the issue in her denomination. Women have been preaching in the Assemblies of God since it was founded in 1914.

"This is deeply rooted in our theology. This is a part of our DNA," said Joy Qualls, an associate dean at Biola University and the author of "God Forgive Us for Being Women: Rhetoric, Theology and the Pentecostal Tradition."

"It's different than the messages of, like, 'girl power' and those kinds of things," said Qualls. "This is truly about the work of the Holy Spirit to advance the Kingdom of God through whomever God chooses, and it falls as equally on women as it does on men."

Even so, the number of female Assemblies of God pastors was relatively small for decades until it began to climb steadily in the 1990s. The church issued a position paper affirming women's leadership role and citing biblical passages in 2010. Now, a record 28% of pastors in the international denomination are women, according to an Assemblies of God report.

Large women's conferences like Sparkle and a similar Missouri event called "Designed for Life" focus more on uniting and celebrating women in their faith and less on training them for leadership, Qualls said. They're still important, though, because they show women leaders in their element.

"I'm so grateful for women like Becca, and the space that they are creating, to serve women, to encourage women and to empower women. You don't always have to have a training seminar in order for women to find their call. That can happen in any space," said Qualls.

From cubicle to pulpit

Ketterling, whose family was Lutheran, did not plan to become a church leader. She majored in accounting at St. Cloud State and worked for Delta Dental during the years after her husband first founded River Valley in 1995 and held early services in an elementary school.

The church now has almost 10,000 members, 10 locations in the United States, one in Africa and two more locations set to open — in Lakeville and in Vancouver, British Columbia — in 2024.

"I'm a very shy, introverted person and did not ever want to be onstage," she said.

That changed in 2005, when she attended a church conference in Australia and, as she tells it, God called her to speak.

"This older woman got up and she was speaking to us. Her husband had been a pastor for many years, and her voice was shaking. She was very nervous," Ketterling said. "And God just said, 'If she can do it, you can do it.'"

Ketterling left number-crunching behind six months later, became ordained and, within a few years, had the idea to start a women's conference at her church. She hosted the first Sparkle in 2009, and developed sisterhood groups, with about 1,000 women meeting weekly at River Valley's campuses.

"I kind of went kicking and screaming, not wanting to do it, but the Lord just gave me a heart for the women," she said. "My motto is: Do it afraid. So that's kind of just how I've always led — being honest with people, that's what they want, and just being transparent and saying, 'You know what, I don't really know what I'm doing. But I want to help us all grow in our faith.' "

Sparkle, held every fall, brings the concept of a church revival firmly into 2023: There's high-energy music and dance performances, professionally shot video testimonials from women and guest speakers like Tennessee pastor (and friend of Justin Bieber) Nathan Finochio, who took the stage wearing a trucker hat and read Bible passages from an app on his phone.

The conference has its own Instagram account (@sparkle_mn), several glam selfie backdrop setups and a Sparkle boutique with local clothing and craft vendors. Everyone in attendance this year received a white leather-bound journal as a gift.

When she shared her message at Sparkle 2023, Ketterling walked out onstage wearing workout weights on her wrists and waist, slowly shedding them as she talked about casting off burdens like feeling shame about the past or feeling anxious and overwhelmed. She told the women that if they were able to feel a little more lightness during the conference, they should be able to hold onto that feeling even after they go home.

"Why would we put these back on? Why would we pick these back up?" she said, lifting the weights. "It's easy when we're in this atmosphere of faith and belief to lay these things down. But then when Monday comes, we're just gonna pick them right back up again," she said. "No! We're going to stop that cycle in Jesus' name. You are free. You are free."

This year, they held two Sparkle conference sessions back-to-back, with about 2,100 attending over all three days, Ketterling said. Tickets for 2024 are already on sale and start at $109.

Sarah McPherson, who is from Vermillion and was at Sparkle 2023 for the first time with her mom, had already purchased tickets to next year's event before the day was through.

"It's exciting to be in a group of women and really address the reality of what women carry," she said. She identified with the idea of letting go of unnecessary burdens and said she was inspired just to be with so many other women who were invested in their faith.

For Ketterling, that's what the annual gathering is all about. And that's why she came up with the name Sparkle, which is a nod to Matthew 5:16, not fancy clothes or jewelry.

"Sparkle, to me, is more 'let your light shine,"' she said.