Tuesday, September 29, 2009

On Attending Conferences ...

I am probably not unusual, at least not in this sense; I like attending conferences. Some enjoy conferences where the material they will hear is all brand new and they will be exposed to ideas they have never heard or thought about before. I am not like that. I like attending conferences where I already know, believe, and agree with the information being presented. Such is the case each Spring when I attend the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology (PCRT), each Summer when I attend the Southern Baptist Convention, and other occasional conferences. This year, I have been blessed to attend the "Kingdom Perspective" conference on multicultural churches and the "God Exposed" conference on expository preaching. Next year I will attend the "Together for the Gospel" conference (instead of PCRT). I do not expect to hear anything at these events that is totally new, unfamiliar, or disagreeable to me. Some may wonder, "Why bother?" During a break at the God Exposed conference last weekend, I made a list of reasons why I attend conferences like this, where I am not likely to be challenged about any existing belief or practice or change my mind about anything as a result.

1) To be a steward of the deposit already placed within me.
I am deeply grateful for the education and experiences I have had in the last fifteen years of my life and ministry. I have been well-trained in expository preaching, systematic theology, pastoral ministry, church administration, and other subjects by some of the sharpest minds on those subjects alive today (and some who are not alive today sadly). While I know that none of us are perfect, and all of us have room to gain new insights and perspectives, I attend "agreeable conferences" as a steward of the information I believe others have deposited into my life. I do not despise the information, the time, and the godly examples others have imparted to me, so I attend these conferences.

2) To be reminded.
All of us are forgetful. All of us are inclined to move into the direction of bad habits and ideas. Christianity is not "new" and does not depend on "newness." A conference wherein I hear "old ideas" that are already familiar and agreeable to me does much to remind me of things I have forgotten, become dull to because of overfamiliarity, or relegated to places of lesser importance because of the tyranny of the new and the urgent.

3) To be reinforced.
The truths I hold sacred are truths that are under relentless and perpetual attack by forces all around me, inside and outside of the church. In a moment of weakness, I may willingly or ignorantly shift perspective or practice if I am not careful of who and what I am being influenced by. A conference where old and agreeable truths are imparted reinforces conviction and stabilizes us against cultural forces that would separate us from foundational moorings.

4) To be broadened.
I may exaggerate when I say I expect to learn nothing new. In fact, I hope I will! But not something "brand-new." Rather, I hope to encounter a new nuance, a new perspective, a new skill, or a new angle on the old truths that will enhance my grasp or dexterity with the information or practice. This broadening, I believe, occurs most effectively in a context of familiarity. In a context where the bulk of the information presented is unfamiliar or disagreeable, defensiveness and arrogance may prevent the absorption of new information. In a context of familiarity, one is able to see the logical connection between what one already believes and does and the new information imparted.

5) To be encouraged and/or comforted.
In the faithful task of preaching and pastoral ministry, one encounters much discouragement. Often there is a strong temptation to abandon the older ways for new and more creative ways. Perhaps more often, there is a strong pull toward depression, disillusionment, and despair. Surrounding oneself with likeminded people who are older, wiser, more well-seasoned and successful with the old principles and practices is refreshing, encouraging, and comforting. Following a conference of "familiarity", I am always revived, refreshed, and reignited with passion.

6) To develop relationships.
It is easy to think, in a context of discouragement, that one is all alone. Elijah was the most powerful man of God in his generation, but in the midst of dark days, he felt isolated and alone. God met his need by reminding him of a multitude that had not bowed to Baal. When I attend conferences where my principles, practices and priorities are championed, I am always greatly encouraged to know that I am not alone. Often I travel with likeminded brothers to these events, and the time spent together is a rich opportunity for fellowship and sharing of joys and sorrows. My closest friends in ministry (both pastors and laypeople) are those I have traveled with and spent countless hours with before and after sessions, over meals, and in late night conversation about struggles and successes. In addition, I have been greatly helped in my spiritual journey by meeting new people in these conferences, or reconnecting with acquaintances over a mutual interest in the conference subject. I recall my first trip to PCRT when I ran into an old acquaintance I hadn't seen in years in the men's room. I had shared many conversations with this brother in the past, but never about our mutual interest in the subject of that conference. The reconnection with one another, I think, was a great spark to renewed and strengthened fellowship between us.

So, when I go to a conference, I go not because I am convinced I am doing everything wrong and need a new handle or a new gadget to overhaul my spiritual life or ministry. I go to be reminded, reinforced, refreshed by ideas and practices I already hold dear. And these are the reasons why.

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