Wednesday, April 20, 2011

How to avoid sinning in our mega-conferences...

So Carl Trueman is a bit of a cynic. This is not to criticize the man. I count Carl as a friend. What is more, Carl is the first to acknowlege his tendency toward cynicism. He is a Brit after all and our friends from across the pond consider cynicism to be a virtue. Still, Carl is fun over lunch and a pint and because of his accent sounds smart reading a phone book. Also he uses words like "tosh" which makes me smile.

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.

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.
What do you think?

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.


mozart said...

Dr. Trueman appears to have our American culture of celebrity nailed, doesn't he? Why is it we give more honor/recognition to megachurch pastors/writers instead of Pastor Joe Schmoe who labors hard and faithfully at a small church?

Todd Pruitt said...

Well, I think the key is to honor well those who have been faithful whether they are well known or not. I honor John Piper and D.A. Carson for instance because of their impact on so many (me included). Obviously, we cannot honor someone we don't know. However, churches who are blessed with faithful (and unknown) pastors should show them "double honor" as the Scriptures command.

mozart said...

Pastor Pruitt,

I hear what you say, but Dr. Trueman's suggestion that we market conferences on content instead of speakers seems to be a pretty sensible recommendation, don't you think?

Todd Pruitt said...

I would suggest that it ought to be both. In other words, you wouldn't want to come to a conference on how to interpret sanscrit and find out I was one of the speakers.

As a pastor, the money I spend to attend conferences comes to me by the good people of my church. I want to make sure I spend that money (and my time for that matter) wisely. If I chose to attend a conference for pastors in which the featured speakers were people I knew nothing about I would be running the risk of wasting both time and money.

On the other hand, I know if Mahaney, Piper, or Trueman are speaking it will be well worth it.

Carl is a friend of mine and someone for whom I have a high opinion. He will be filling the pulpit for me soon (as he has in the past). I have no idea what he will be preaching. I am not even going to ask him. I don't need to. What I do know is that it will be a faithfully prepared sermon that will bless the people of my church. I know this because I trust Carl. He has a proven track record.

I am having lunch with him soon and will ask him if he would attend a conference in which the speakers were unknown to him.

Would you?