Making The Most Of A Conference
On occasion — though in Australia our options are vastly limited in comparison to followers of The Way in America, yet vastly greater to believers in most other parts of the world — I enjoy attending a conference. I have experienced conferences from pew and pulpit, and both have views that are somewhat strange. I freely admit to loving the conference experience, yet in reflection, they often present a false experience that exists outside the realm of normal Christian life and discipleship.
Most conferences echo, in part, functions and experiences found usually in local church gatherings, albeit on a much larger scale than most experience in the weekly rhythms of ministry and life. A crowd assembles who share a corporate hold on central truths springing from the gospel, a band erupts with shouts of praise and believers are called to worship with their gaze directed toward the excellencies of Christ, then gifted communicators open the Word and unfold the mystery of the gospel for the building up of all gathered and the encouragement of the mission we are on.
But how do we protect ourselves from the allure of the ‘conference drug’ where spiritual junkies run from ‘the best conference I’ve ever been to’, to the next ‘best conference I’ve ever been to’? How should one make the most of these encouraging yet sporadic experiences? Here are a few suggestions:
Remain deeply committed to your local church
The best way to make the most of external conferences is to be deeply committed to the ongoing everyday work of your local church. In case it is not clear, let me state it with obvious clarity, a conference will not accomplish the work of the commission left to the church. The world will not be reached with the gospel because of conferences. We were not tasked with going into all the world and running great conferences. Your local church, as pitiful as it may appear in the eyes of the world and any who may use the metrics of success largely accepted, is in fact an outpost of the kingdom of God. Though the music ministry of your church may consist of your Gran on the organ and your cousin on percussion (which happens to be a Tamborine), the songs you sing are the songs of the eternal worth of the King. Though the preaching may not be live-streamed around the world, nor have social media snippets being Tweeted with a predetermined hashtag, it is the heralding of the good news of the Kingdom and the supernatural means through which the dead are raised in Christ, and clay conformed to the image of Jesus. ‘Church’ is not what you do in-between conferences. Double down on what you do in the everyday spaces of ministry, and see a conference as a way of enriching and informing the place where miracles that matter happen.
Where possible, take a team
Even if that is just two. Like a passing breeze that carries the scent of far away blossoms, or the blazing clouds that are kindled by the sinking sun, the enjoyment and lessons of a conference fade quickly from memory. Sharing the experience with others is a sure way to lengthen the joy and deepen the lessons; reminding each other of the moment carries it forward long after it is gone. Carefully selected conferences can be matched to those you are mentoring and discipling, enriching your toolkit with resources and conversation that can be held beyond transit into the months ahead.
Attend with the intention of serving
Conferences create environments of consumerism — fight hard against that trend. While many blessings flow from the stage and pulpit, many greater treasures yet may be found littered among the crowd that gathers. The times I have stepped out from under my Elvin cloak (sorry, I’ve been reading too much Tolkien lately) have been the times I have benefited most — as I’ve asked to hear people’s stories, as I’ve sat close by a lone figure isolated in the crowd, or gathered with strangers as they prayed with a bruised saint. When the heart seeks to elevate the needs of others above its own, if our selfish desire to be ‘topped up’ can be quelled, then (as always), God meets us in ways unseen and the Spirit moves in paths unheralded.
The headlining speaker goes to the toilet too
I once had the uncomfortable experience of using the bathroom and standing beside a man I’d only ever seen or heard on the internet. We briefly smiled and nodded to each other guardedly, never once breaking the secret code men share when they must use a public bathroom facility. We both walked to the sink to wash our hands, quietly acknowledging that this was not the place to begin a conversation, then walked together out into the hall where we paused to have a brief and polite conversation. Here’s my point, you are best served at a conference when you accept beforehand, that no matter the public profile of the preachers present, they are normal people with normal fears, normal failures, and a normal faith. It is not wrong to stand in line to meet them, though asking them to sign your Bible is a bit weird, and I have often enjoyed brief conversations with men who I had only ever admired from afar. Just as Paul encouraged others to follow him as he followed Christ, there are those today whom God has given to the church as remarkable examples of faithfulness in word and deed. But you will not be more acceptable to Jesus because you met Matt Chandler, or shook the hand of John Piper, or had a coffee with Jared Wilson (sorry Jared). You will be best served by a conference when it ceases to be simply the place to have all your ‘fan boy’ dreams come true, and becomes a place where God speaks through his Word and the glory of his treasure leaks out through the cracks of broken men and women he chooses to use.
Conferences are a catalyst
Even while attending the conference, begin sketching out a plan for how this will impact your life and ministry once you return home. Many seem to live in the valley between the mountains, longing for the next spiritual high. Conferences are a catalyst, an often explosive moment in time that arrests, sometimes steering, sometimes propelling, but they are never the destination. Consider what may be improved, what may be changed, what may be strengthened in light of the encouragement and instruction gained while away, then, by God’s grace, set your plan in place and work with all the might granted in Christ to serve your church with what you have received.