It’s happened a few times. I’ve sat in a conference meant for pastors or church planters and sensed that something’s off. The information is true and practical, but it just doesn’t seem like it has lasting value.
I get frustrated in conferences like these. I get frustrated with the conference, and I also get frustrated with myself.
It seems that conferences can be theologically rich but impractical, or else they can be practical but with little theological depth. I keep wondering: Can we not hold a conference that’s theologically driven but pastorally applicable? I hope so. In fact, I’ve attended a few over the years, including one this year. But they’re the exception.
Here’s my wish list for a conference for pastors and church planters.
Begin and end with the gospel. Every conference raises the flag of some cause and calls people to give their lives to advance its mission. I’m increasingly convinced that if we’re going to raise up servants to devote their lives to pastoral ministry and church planting, it won’t be because we’re raising the flag of those ministries. It will be because we’re raising the flag of the gospel. I’m amazed how little this happens. I show up hungry for the gospel at every conference I attend. Take us to the gospel and all that it means. It’s what we need most.
Use liturgy. This is where I lose some of you. If I could, I’d make every conference planner read Mike Cosper’s Rhythms of Grace, or chapter four of James K.A. Smith’s You Are What You Love. Robust congregational singing is an important part of our corporate worship, but we’re shortchanging ourselves — and God — if that’s all we do. Read Scripture. Lead us to declare the faith. Allow us to confess our sins. Allow room for silence and response. Help us to engage in corporate worship in all of its facets, not just one.
Be careful who you put up front. Conferences bring in big-name speakers for a couple of reasons. First: they’re big names for a reason. They usually deliver the goods. Second: people will attend to hear the big names. But I’m increasingly convinced that we need to look for the people who are not well known who can also deliver the goods. The faithful, gifted pastor of a church of 150 also has something to offer, and we need to hear from that pastor.
Open the Bible. Open it not as a springboard, but as an authority for our faith and practice. If we believed this statement by Jonathan Leeman — “God’s Word, working through God’s Spirit, is God’s primary instrument for growing God’s church” — then we’d use our Bibles a lot more in conferences. Really use them.
Stop being only practical or only theological. Let’s blend theology and practice. Let’s show what theology in the service of the church looks like.
Kill pragmatism. What will really help us serve God better? The implied answer in most conference is that we need better strategies and tactics. These are important, but they simply don’t go deep enough. We need more. We need nothing less than a move of the Holy Spirit.
Hudson Taylor once spoke to a large crowd at Carnegie Hall in New York City:
We have given too much attention to methods, and to machinery, and to resources, and too little to the Source of Power; the filling with the Holy Ghost. This, I think you will agree with me, is the great weakness, has been the great weakness of our service in the past, and unless remedied will be the great weakness in the future.
I want a conference with less attention to methods, machinery, and resources, and more attention to the Holy Spirit. Without him our work will flail and our conferences will fall somewhere in the spectrum between harmful and forgettable.
This is my wish list for conferences. It’s also my prayer list. If you’re attending a conference anytime soon, I hope you’ll make it your prayer list too.