The Church and Christian Conferences

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.


6 Replies to “The Church and Christian Conferences”

  1. I caught this post I guess at the same time you posted it, so I’ll be the eager first to respond. I agree with everything you’ve said and am excited to see what the response of others will be. Since I’m already writing, let me take some time and share my thoughts on how I approach all of this.

    I love conferences and it’s not only because I’ve been to Passion and it was cool. As a pastors kid, I grew up in several churches with several contexts. From country traditional to city traditional to small town big church to small church big town. I’ve been in a lot of places and I’ve seen a lot of things, both good and bad. I learned in my teens that I enjoy people watching, I enjoy watching people interact with each other and respond to various situations. It’s fascinating to me. That of course, translated to doing this in churches and pondering the mindset behind that action/reaction. I’ve been to a FUGE camp almost every year going on 13 years if you include going as a student and as a leader. I am familiar with the large room worship with like hearted strangers.

    That’s why when I went to Passion in 2007, I wasn’t expecting much. I honestly went because I knew Chris Tomlin and David Crowder. I had heard of John Piper, but never listened to him. That was about it. What happened in those 4 days, I’ll never forget. God took my heart which was a freshmen in college who joined a fraternity and was starting down a path of disappointment, and twisted that heart back to the Word of God. It was a message by Francis Chan that brought me back and it was in that message that I felt the Lord leading me to a lifetime in ministry. That feeling was confirmed through conversations, prayer, scripture reading, and a successful summer internship with supportive witnesses. I’ve gone to Passion every year since then, except for this year. God used that moment to shape my life and bump me in the direction that He wanted me to go.

    I written too much, but I just wanted to share that. I love conferences for all the reasons you gave and more. I know that our hearts are idol factories and we can make idols of men like Piper, Chandler, and Giglio. Our hearts can even make idols over conference atmospheres wishing it for our local church. However, I think the person who attends a conference like Passion, like T4G, like the Gospel Coalition and more will need to guard their own heart and draw the line for when enough is enough. I do not think it is wrong to dream that your church could one day be as engaging/energetic as a conference might be. But with that dreaming, as you said, have the understanding that worship is done in every context everywhere, not just when it’s exciting or energetic. I do not think it is wrong to have high respect for men and women that God has gifted with the ability to teach passionate biblical truth. However with that respect, guard your heart to make sure that Jesus Christ and the Word of God is your all sufficient source, not a man or woman. I do think spiritual growth can happen at conferences/camps and God can speak mightily in those moments. I agree with you whole-heartedly that most spiritual growth is done away from conferences/camps and that those events are short-lived mountain top experiences and the rest of life is spent on the journey or in the valley.

    Ok, for real, I’m done this time. Great post, I love conferences. I love the local church. I love GBC and I love you. Thanks for leading us to the cross!

  2. I have been part of the leadership at a conference and also a visitor at several. I think your points are spot on but I especially identified with #2 of the benefits. Conferences are like a sabbatical to me and have helped me regroup.

    Way off topic, but did you ever follow up on the Wright/Piper justification debate? You said you would follow up but I am unable to locate another blog post on the topic.

  3. Oh Drew, you are so sweet. I agree with all you say and Philip too. Since I or we have seen so much about hero worship on the media, I am deeply concerned of the hero worship image. So I hold back. My brother wants me to go to a church in Louisville where they are very expressive in their worship. He’s not a member there but says I will love it. Love worshipping with my brother. I want to go there and raise my hand comfortably worshipping my savior. I yearn to go to church with my girlfriends to unite in our worship. I loved it when we went to Beth Moore together.

    I have to agree that we really grow the most in our valley. I search for something new and refreshing to write to my husband. I was looking at one of his bibles and found Psalm 103:1-8. The third verse I said thank you Lord. This hunt is my most important reading.
    I have to share with him even though I an suppose to be taking care of me at his absence.

    I thank you guys for making think. Love you like brothers. Bo

  4. Interesting article and I can’t find much with which I disagree. I would like, however, to add some personal observations. Most of the conferences I have attended have been secular, centered around my work interests. Since I worked in the the technology field, I have attended many Gartner Group conferences and some sponsored by professional groups. About the only faith based conferences I have attended were the Promise Keeper events.

    These events started with a laudable goal of urging and teaching men to be better husbands and fathers. The problem I observed was that as these events grew in popularity, they seemed to lose focus. They seemed to strive to make each bigger and better than the last. It costs big money to put on a big conference, more than be covered by registration fees. Thus sponsors were sought. Sponsors seeing the marketing opportunity of so many targeted people in one place. The conferences became over commercialized.

    As you pointed out, well known speakers and bands are booked. In the case of bands, it seems that they are performing for the entertainment value rather than trying to assist in worship.

    Beyond a doubt, these conferences provide an emotional mountain top experience, but I don’t know how well they prepare one for the valleys. There is a danger of one only feeling fulfilled on the mountain top.

    I listed what I perceive to be negatives first. On the positive side is the networking opportunity with peers from geographical areas, the ability to have workshops where one can learn from experienced leaders, and being able to share experiences and ideas with our home churches.

    Bottom line, I see value in conferences, but also pitfalls that should be avoided.

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