Friday, May 16, 2008

the place of conferences in contemporary church life

What is it with larger, newer churches and conferences?

In the mail has just appeared my invitation to participate in some new thing that God is doing in New Zealand. And the vessel is some newer, larger church, via their conference, loaded with overseas speakers, who will bless me.

It’s my second this week. Which got me fascinated by the motive and the desired end point.

Is it because other churches have done it, so it’s sort of like a badge of honour, a mark of arrival?
Is it a marketing tool, hoping to raise the profile of their church?
Is it a recruitment device, luring other Christians who might then stay because the music is better?
Is it because God is more present in larger numbers and so in some spiritual way such events are useful?

I don’t want this post to become a bagging of larger churches. Instead, I am genuinely curious as to why a church would put advertising money and energy into this type of thing. Any ideas?

Posted by steve at 04:11 PM


  1. Probably for the same reason that I attend the events that I do: the larger event gives me a rare opportunity to experience the body of Christ beyond more broadly than the local congregation.

    Narrow parochialism and resistance to change in a smaller congregation (previously) had given me a negative reason to participate in these events. I could imagine that in a similar way growth, diversity, and innovation gives others a positive reason.

    My concern is, though, that as these events proliferate and create niche markets, they lose their ‘ecumenical’ quality, with fanboys and groupies going to boutique conferences (whether emergent, seeker-sensitive or pissed-off and Reformed) according to their existing loyalties and tastes. Perhaps World Youth Day may be of more value to some emergents than the Forge Festival (much as I’d be happy to go to either!).

    I honestly don’t know why so many churches decide to create so much work for themselves, but I’m (mostly) glad they do.

    Comment by Cam — May 16, 2008 @ 5:25 pm

  2. Thanks Cam. What strikes me is that these are events run by 1 church. So it does not feel ecumenical in any sense. And this is what makes it interesting sociologically – the rise of a number of sole churches running sole events. I think it is a “sign of the times” and are trying to tease out what that is.

    appreciate your perspectives,


    Comment by steve — May 16, 2008 @ 5:31 pm

  3. My ongoing irritation is that I can’t go to anything like this because I care for my disabled son, so anything overnight, or even outside school hours, is off limits. This means I’m effectively being disadvantaged in ministry by association with a disabled person as his carer.
    This does freak me out with frustration when there are good events on I would want to go to, not just for the speakers but most importantly for the networking opportunities which can really enhance the quality of the work I and others are doing down here. It would be elegant if some way around this was found using the net. I’m impressed by the quality of the Shapevine site, and also the fully interactive live classrooms that are now possible.OK so it’s still a little creaky,but it’s clearly technically possible.

    Comment by Eleanor Burne-Jones — May 16, 2008 @ 6:55 pm

  4. There is a disturbing tendency for the institutional church to commoditize everything. Don’t get me wrong, I have been to these conferences and have derived some benefit from them. But they are becoming cliche, like everything else we tend to put our hands on. Are we becoming distracted by all the trinkets?

    Comment by Alex Seidel — May 16, 2008 @ 7:27 pm

  5. Alex, thanks. when i read “There is a disturbing tendency for the institutional church to commoditize everything”;

    I wanted to add; “There is a disturbing tendency for [our contemporary culture] to commoditize everything.” We are awash with trinkets and bling.

    (Which does have links to my previous post, on emerging church selling out),


    Comment by steve — May 16, 2008 @ 7:59 pm

  6. All the reasons you suggest in your blog post are applicable, Steve. A major value of any larger gathering is the opportunity to connect with other people in a situation similar to your own. So there is that value, provided the event can be afforded by people in smaller churches. And I’m always asking myself, “How with this better help me minister in my own local situation to the benefit of those with whom I am involved?”
    That question is important as a matter of stewardship of both the financial cost and the time involved.
    One senior manager in the dairy industry told me that he evaluated opportunities for conferences by asking “What percentage of the time I am there will I be gaining new insights and information?” He said that he has an expectation of something in the order of 75% of the time….
    It’s a good issue to be raising.

    Comment by Chris — May 17, 2008 @ 7:21 am

  7. It’s not very – punk – is it?

    Not in the sense of wearing safety pins and gobbing at speakers (although I fear one would be sorely tempted) but in the sense of being grounded, being local, being small, being real.

    God after all comes on a plane from America

    Comment by James — May 17, 2008 @ 10:15 am

  8. – i think it is partly because of our conception of ‘success’ in the church – to run a conference says something about the stage we think we might have reached – we want in on the life of a ‘successful’ church or ministry, so we want to be like them – which means running a conference because that’s what they do right ?!

    – also i think it is partly because we don’t really have the ability to risk learning and communicating in an alternative way in the church – i would love it if there were churches that were brave enough to quietly invite small groups of people to come and see the ‘being grounded, being local, being small, being real’ as james puts it – but we don’t really value that kind of organic (rather than academic) pattern of interaction – there is a lot of research about ‘training’ and conferences and that style of learning that suggests that small, relational coaching and mentoring partnership opportunities are much more effective in terms of transformative learning – i think we are really poor relationally in the church, so it is no surprise to me that people choose to learn ‘at a distance’ by absorbing information and stories from people they are not really in long term relationship with (however encouraging they say they find that) – sometimes, i think that hinders real learning because we don’t really seem to have the courage to enter into learning partnerships with our peers where there is some expectation of demonstrating our understanding, learning and growing into maturity through a closer positive learning partnership

    – i have been looking recently at the role of humility in learning – and it seems far easier for people to just go and listen and meet people briefly and feel that their existing ideas are bolstered, affirmed and validated from afar – but learning that brings real change, through a real relationship and transformative partnership, takes a humble attitude and a willingness to open ourselves up to truly new ideas, which maybe conflict with our existing ones – transformative learning means coming to a kind of crisis as we humbly put our ideas aside and actively change our patterns of thinking and behaving – we need to do that in the context of a supportive relationship because it is risky – i think a lot of these conferences actually perpetuate ‘poor’ learning and patterns of comfort, support and ‘encouragement’ that are disadvantageous to transformation and change

    Comment by julie — May 17, 2008 @ 10:59 am

  9. excellent insights Julie. thankyou.

    I like what you said about small, relational mentoring. One of my disappointments here at Opawa has been that we have been offering, for 9 months now, a scholarship for someone to learn with us in areas of missional church planting. ie rather than run a conference, come and do time with us. and noone has taken it up. Which I find interesting.

    We’ve advertised it on my blog and at our local Bible College. Do I do my classy advertising like I get in the mail? Or is it, as you say, that mostly we want passive learning experiences.


    Comment by steve — May 17, 2008 @ 11:46 am

  10. actually i will email you the name of a friend who would be great in that kind of partnership and who wants to visit australia/new zealand for a while – peace, julie

    Comment by julie — May 18, 2008 @ 5:56 am

  11. Hi Steve,

    This question has been dwelling with me for a while and I have finally rationalised it to a way that I understand. These conferences are the replacement for the old “lets go on a camp” that is possible when a church is smaller and more able to focus on relationships. The idea is to take the impact of the weekend away and commoditise it into a different form.

    At least that is my current thinking.

    Comment by David Morgan — May 29, 2008 @ 11:57 am

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