Catalyst. Drive. Thrive. Connect. ARC. T4G. C3. D6. Orange.
Energy drinks? Herbal supplements? No these are the names of conferences, semi-randomly chosen from a very, very long list. Maybe it’s just another evidence of the aging process taking hold in my life, but it seems that the multiplication of Christian conferences is accelerating, and as I’ve watched this phenomenon grow over a number of years, I’ve often thought that we need a theology of conferencing to guide our participation. This article is an attempt to get us thinking in that direction.
Now, lest we get off on the wrong foot, let me begin by saying that conferences can be a good thing in the life of a pastor or layperson. Many people (myself included) find encouragement and equipping for ministry and the Christian life as a whole by attending conferences. But these events also contain possible pitfalls to avoid. I’ll suggest three.
Looking to a famous teacher as a standard by which you judge your (or your pastor’s) ministry. Alongside the growth of the internet, it seems to me that the proliferation of conferences and the increase in pastors with celebrity status are directly connected, even self-reinforcing phenomena. And when Christians admire celebrity pastors, it’s easy for them to become disillusioned with their own ministry (as a pastor) or with their pastor (as a layperson).
Treating a conference as an escape from the pressures of ministry. The fatigue that comes from pastoral ministry can be profound, and pastors (and their wives!) need times of holistic refreshment. A good conference experience can provide the re-energizing that a shepherd needs, or it can just add to the fatigue. Also, a conference can be an opportunity to simply vent to sympathetic fellow ministers about how difficult your ministry is, rather than soaking in the equipping opportunities the conference contains and building plans to face the difficulties afresh when you return home.
Using a conference as an extra week of vacation rather than an equipping opportunity. If you’re a pastor, and your church is paying for you to attend a conference, they (hopefully) aren’t counting this as part of your allowed vacation. That means you’re “on the clock,” and that conference is supposed to expand or deepen your equipping for service to Christ in that local church. But the temptation to treat this out-of-town time as downtime can be strong. The result can be a wasted opportunity through poor stewardship.
We need a good dose of biblical ecclesiology (doctrine of the church) to help us participate in conferences in a way that is fruitful for Christ’s kingdom. Rather than reviewing them abstractly, I like to suggest a few applications of those doctrines:
Why are you attending this conference? If you need a vacation, is this really the best way to spend vacation time? Will it be restful (assuming that’s the goal of your vacationing)? Are you going in order to learn from some great pulpiteers or thought leaders? What benefit do you hope to gain for your local labors in Jesus’ church? Are you discouraged and seeking to be lifted up? None of these are bad goals, but to accomplish them, you must prepare in advance and intentionally direct your participation in such a way as to reach your goal by God’s grace. Which session topics might be most helpful for the specific ministry challenges or personal weaknesses you hope to address? Plan your schedule around those sessions. Pray that God will help you guard your heart against mere admiration of celebrities and the false standards that can subtly arise in your mind as a result.
Also, if the conference offers a packed schedule, plan to skip some sessions in order to rest or hang out with other participants. If possible, plan ahead for a few key conversations with people you can look to for advice and encouragement. Pray that the Holy Spirit would help you guard against unproductive venting and seek genuine encouragement through honest vulnerability with someone who can help. In short, your participation in the conference must be intentional in order to be fruitful.
Don’t go to a conference with the attitude that you’re just there to soak it in. There will be many hurting and needy people around you. Seek opportunities to encourage someone else, even if you’re one of those hurting and needy people yourself. God’s Spirit is at work when his people are gathered, and even if you’re at the conference to “take a break,” you’re not on break from being a channel of Christ’s love. Let Jesus love someone else through you, even if you never see them again after this conference.
Please remember: going to a conference—especially if it’s on a large church campus—is a bit like going to Disney World: it’s impactful, memorable, and fun, but it’s not real life. It’s easy to go home wishing that real life could be like that wonderful experience you just had at ABC Megachurch, but it won’t be. And to be honest, life at ABC Megachurch isn’t like that, either. It’s still a local church with all the problems your church has, because it’s a church of redeemed sinners led by redeemed sinners. Take away lessons from the conference that might bear fruit in your own context, and be ready to adapt them accordingly.
Which brings us to the preaching or teaching. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to attend a conference so that you can hear Matt Chandler or Francis Chan or John MacArthur or Tim Keller or Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth. It’s surely a blessing to be moved by God’s Word through the ministry of uniquely gifted communicators. But your goal in listening to them should not be merely to imitate their style. The goal in listening to a beloved teacher should not be to become like that teacher but to become more like Jesus. And nothing will discourage you or your local church family more than trying to be someone else. You should listen to Matt Chandler teach on holiness, not to learn to teach like Matt Chandler but “to be holy as the Lord your God is holy.” It seems obvious when I write it here, but from what I’ve seen in 15 years of ministry, it needs to be said.
Simply put: if a conference experience doesn’t produce some kind of fruit for your local church ministry (whether you’re a pastor or layperson), then it was a waste of time and money. At conference time we need to remember that nearly all ministry is local ministry. It is done among people who are learning to one-another each other: teaching, admonishing, encouraging, praying with, laughing and crying with, forgiving, loving one another. If a conference can help you do those things (and help others do them) better, and you participate with that intentionality, then go and be blessed.
DEFENSIVE SIDENOTE: this post is not aimed at any particular conference. The fact that I’m posting it during the Sheperds Conference is the result of delays created by a busy ministry life, pure and simple. My Evernote system shows that I started writing this more than six weeks ago.