Carl has not exactly hidden his feelings about the mega-conferences for pastors which have been popping up over the last number of years. Now, Carl's diagnosis of this largely American phenomenon may offend a few of my fellow yanks but don't take it personally. Carl, for all his qualities, still does not "get" American football so we ought to be patient with him.
Still, I must say that Carl's latest post at Ref21 has me thinking. He offers some rather radical ideas which probably ought not be radical. He looks at our conference going practices and wonders if we have not fallen into a Corinthian-like party spirit ("I am of Piper," "I am of Sproul," etc).
First, market conferences on the basis of content not speakers. Send a clear signal - from the design of the webpage to the wording of the fliers - that it is what is to be said, not who is saying it, that is important. Indeed, maybe one could be really radical: do not even let people know who is speaking; just tell them the titles of the talks. "Ah, but then no-one will come!", you say. Well, if that is true, then the case for saying that conferences are all about idolising celebrities would seem to be irrefutable. For me, I believe many people would still attend. They will want the encouragement and the fellowship and the battery recharging. If your organization has a reputation for excellence, people will know that you will have assembled a great team even if you do not tell them the names.What do you think?
Second, why always bring in the unrepresentative guys from the huge churches? Instead, bring in at least 50% of your speakers from churches of, say, 300 people or less. They do, after all, represent the majority of churches in the country. OK, nobody will ever have heard of them and, by worldly standards, they may look like failures and losers - but remember: you are not telling people who is speaking any way, so there is no need to worry about how to market this.
In fact, the great genius of the anonymity of the conference speakers frees you up to bring in nobodies. These nobodies, of course, will have experiences of pastoral ministry that really connect with most of the audience. I preach and sit on session in a church where I know everybody's name and I am aware of pretty much all the pastoral issues in the congregation. My preaching takes account of my audience in a way that the man preaching to an anonymous ten thousand does not. That man cannot answer the questions I want to ask about pastoral ministry because he simply does not have the categories to understand my world. In fact, the megapastor can probably not tell me anything I could not just as easily get from a book. The man struggling to get the church to make budget, counsel a couple in marriage difficulties, put together an order of worship each week, mediate between warring personalities in his congregation, preach twice on a Sunday, and be available for any pastoral crisis that might erupt - that man can speak directly to the experience and the world of most pastors of whom I am aware.
Third, do everything you can to make the speakers just people in the crowd. No special seats for them, no special dining arrangements. Just let them melt back into the masses once they have spoken.
Ok, we all know none of this is going to happen. But it should, if we are really serious about both providing good conferences for people to attend and not encouraging the celebrification of the church. And, of course, reflecting on why it won't happen might in itself be a very instructive exercise.
There is a friendly and thoughtful exchange on Carl's post HERE and HERE.
I agree with Carl's overall point that mega-conferences can unintentionally create a party spirit. I also believe that Thabiti's point about showing honor to those who have blessed us is biblical and therefore good. Carl, of course does not disagree with this and his warnings about the dangers are appropriate. Also, I am one who has been blessed to have attended all three of the Together for the Gospel conferences in Louisville. Those events for me have been like fresh air. I have been encouraged by the messages and in important ways also rebuked. In an indirect way the two churches I have served as pastor have been blessed by those well-known preachers and scholars from whom I have learned so much.
That said, I very much appreciate Carl's point about the "unkown" pastors who labor faithfully every week but are never sought after to speak at events. This has been true in my own experience. When I moved to Kansas in 1999 to pastor a new church with barely 100 people, I was basically invisible. However, when the church began to grow rapidly the invitations to speak at regional events came in. I don't fault the people who invited me. I just worry about our one-sided definition of success.