To put it mildly, Christian conferences have become a major player in the evangelical Christian community. In my world of Southern Baptist life, the prominent role of conferences is true on associational, state, and convention levels. The topics are virtually unlimited, including church planting, marriage, preaching, Sunday School, small groups, discipleship, church growth, worship, youth, leadership training, children’s ministry, senior adult ministry, pastors conferences, and that is just scratching the surface. As I write this article, one of the most famous and well attended conferences is taking place in Houston; the Passion Conference.
My intent with this article is to provide three reasons why Christian conferences are beneficial for the evangelical community and then provide three reasons why we should keep a watchful eye on them, or perhaps more accurately, on our own hearts.
I want to make clear my own personal opinion from the outset – I believe conferences are good things that can provide an edifying worship and discipleship experience. Although I limit myself to usually one conference every year or two, I believe they have something positive to offer.
Christian conferences are helpful because…
1. The quality of the preaching and teaching. Of course this varies on the leadership of each conference, but for the most part the major conferences bring in men and women who have demonstrated their giftedness in preaching and teaching. Among the Reformed camp, such as Desiring God, Ligonier, Together for the Gospel, and the Gospel Coalition, the insight and application of Scripture is proclaimed by those in whom we trust most. In the last several years, many of the conferences have rallied behind a specific theme and there is great benefit in hearing several speakers discuss their perspective on a particular topic. Without question, this is a primary benefit of attending a Christian conference.
2. The opportunity for refreshment and renewal. When I attend a conference I typically enjoy finding one that is out of my backyard. Conferences provide a much needed respite from our routine. This is one of the overlooked reasons why conference attenders feel so “alive” in their worship; they are removed from the stressors of life for a brief time and are able to focus more intently on the goodness of God. Every Christian I have known shares the need for refreshment in their spiritual life. Conferences are one option, and a good one.
3. We worship with like-hearted strangers. A picture of a Christian conference is sometimes jaw-dropping. Arenas that typically hold 19,000 screaming sports fans turn into a jam packed venue of praise from every tribe, tongue, and nation. Folks come from multiple states with multiple ethnicities. Christians come from different denominations and expressions of church life. Believers of all ages with a varied understanding of the gospel and their own faith are standing side by side. And yet all these strangers share one profound thing – the righteousness of Jesus Christ. That alone is worth the cost of admission.
…but we must be careful because…
1. We can misunderstand the relationship of a conference to the local church. A conference is not the local church and it isn’t supposed to be. The authority Christ has given the local church is not vested in a conference. The power of the church to bind on earth that which will be bound in heaven, and loose on earth that which will be loosed in heaven, the leadership of the elders and deacons, the voice of the congregation, fulfilling of the Great Commission, and a host of other commands are best understood in the context of the local gathered church. Where this becomes problematic is when we return home, stand with our brothers and sisters on Sunday mornings, and think, “ho-hum.” Why can’t church be more like the Passion Conference? That is the very question we must be careful to avoid, insofar as we want the same feel, the same atmosphere, the same worship band experience, the same kind of preaching, the same use of media, and so on. If our hands are in the air at Passion and in our pockets at our church, then we need to take another look at what really motivates us to express praise.
2. There is a real danger of worshiping the leader. Not one of my readers, I don’t think, would ever believe they were idolaters in the area of Christian hero worship. Placing a mere human being on a pedestal even near that of our Lord Jesus would be unthinkable. And yet, in the evangelical world, especially among Reformed Christians, this is a serious threat to our worship. God has gifted men and women with a varying “portion of faith” and we should be thankful for those who can articulate and present the gospel in a special way. I believe most of these world renown leaders feel the tension between proclaiming the word to as many who will listen and keeping their own status in its proper, humble place. That is a predicament most of us will never worry about, at least not on such a global scale. Christians must be aware of this tendency and it is fed to us even by those institutions we trust the most. For example, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary endlessly warns students of the dangers of hero worship. But then, when Piper or McArthur or another legend comes to the seminary, professors will post pictures of the chapel on Twitter and Facebook with the caption, “standing room only for John Piper.” It is very difficult to get away from the subtle message of, “mold yourself in the image of Piper in order to get standing room only tweets.” Conferences can heighten this sense of human worship and I am most concerned for the impact this will have on young ministers.
3. Conferences can induce a false sense of spiritual growth. I was a pastor for students for 13 years. I took a group to conferences and camps every one of those 13 years. I don’t think there was a single time when we didn’t come back and announce to the church the transformative effect of the conference. Me and the students were now going to fulfill the Great Commission all by ourselves, we were going to set the example for energetic, passionate worship on Sunday mornings, and we were determined to never go back to our old ways. Of course, we always did. Conferences will never, ever replace the daily reliance on Christ and the necessity of the spiritual disciplines for our growth. Christianity is not a game where the longer we stay in “energized mode” the more spiritually mature we are. The New Testament speaks of joy and victory in the most awkward of places, like in prisons and with thorns in our flesh. Spiritual growth happens in the day in, day out grind of life, where there are clothes that need folding and dishes that need washing and babies who need baths. It happens alongside our church family, some of whom we won’t like very much, but we love them dearly. When we begin to rely on spiritual highs associated with conference attendance, then the local church will become simply a way to pass the time until we can see Matt Redman and Mark Driscoll again. Thus, youth groups should most definitely attend conferences. Redman and Driscoll can be wonderful. But we must understand the role they play in our spiritual growth.