Summer 2019, it had been a wonderful week; the weather had been good (which is not always the case in Wales!); tired but happy, we parted from old friends saying, ‘See you again, same place next year.’ How wrong we were. The words of James chapter 4 verses 14 and 15 accuse us:
Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow… Instead, you ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.’
Three years later, and greatly chastened, we are finally at the end of a summer of conferences. It is a good time to reflect on the delights and the dangers of conference going.
A quick search for Christian conferences reveals a plethora of opportunities from Bible by the Beach to Word Alive where we can gather with other Christians. One website declares that ‘Christian local and national live events are very important for gathering, encouragement and teaching with like-minded people.’ So, what are the positive benefits of conferences?
Worship in a large gathering
There is something very precious about meeting together with many other Christians from different churches and backgrounds. For those of us who belong to small churches, it is good to worship with so many others. Many go home from a conference remembering the singing and the sense of joy in worship. Yet, it is not only singing, there is also the opportunity to sit under the preaching of the Word of God for several days in a row and to listen to preachers whom we may not get to hear in our own churches.
Fellowship that is wider than our local church
Whilst we value our own church fellowship, it is good to meet others who come from different traditions. It is often at a conference that we first meet evangelical Anglicans, Presbyterians, Pentecostals and many others who share the same love for the Saviour and the Word of God as we do. Prejudices can be broken down, and (at least for one week) we can sit next to one another and express the evangelical unity that our Lord Jesus prayed for in John 17 verse 21.
Time to relax
The summer months are often quieter in our churches, so getting away and having time to relax and chat with others is another delight. Those who have been serving the Lord in their local church amongst the young, the old and everyone in between, often find a conference to be a place where they can recharge, regroup and return ready to begin afresh in the autumn.
An opportunity to serve
Of course, not everyone is able to relax at a conference. There must be organisation, stewarding, speakers booked, children’s and young people’s groups led, a mountain of paperwork completed, first aiders appointed, music groups arranged, audio visual teams in action, exhibitors contacted, finances handled honourably and above all else, prayer offered. This means people must be approached and appointed to serve according to their gifts, abilities and willingness.
A conference is a great place to begin serving the Lord. It has been one of the training grounds used by the Lord to prepare his servants for a lifetime of service. The Lord Jesus said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive’ (Acts 20:35) and many have found conference a time to give and in doing so to receive great blessing.
Many of us can trace our salvation, that is our conscious awareness of coming to know the Lord Jesus Christ as our personal Saviour, to a conference or a camp. We may wonder why it is that the Lord uses these large gatherings away from our home church to bring people to salvation. Why is it that so much sowing of the gospel seed is done in the week-by-week work of the local church, but much harvest is seen at conferences and camps?
Perhaps it is for the same reason that the Lord Jesus took the two blind men into a house before he spoke to them and gave them physical sight in Matthew 9:27-30. He took them away from the hustle and bustle of the street, away from their normal environment, friends and family. He took them to a quiet place and then drew them to himself. Surely our response on hearing of conversions over the summer should be that the sower and the reaper are glad together! (John 4:36).
Space prevents me mentioning friendships made and renewed, minds challenged and refreshed, children enthused as they meet those of their own age who also go to church, missions given an opportunity to introduce themselves to a wider Christian group and many other benefits.
With so many delights can there be any dangers? Of course there are. We live in a fallen world, we are in a spiritual battle and we have an enemy. As Paul says, we are not unaware of his devices (2 Cor. 2:11).
The importance of the local church
Whilst it is good to gather with many Christians from other churches, we must be wary of making comparisons with the local church. Conference is not church. Times of worship in a conference cannot usually be replicated in a local church. The experience of being together with others for one week cannot be compared with rubbing shoulders with brothers and sisters we know for the other 51 weeks of the year. Attending a prayer meeting at a conference differs from the commitment needed to attend week after week interceding for one another. The danger is that whilst we delight in conference, we may unwittingly diminish the importance of our own local church, and therefore, fail to receive the great blessings of local fellowship.
The dangers of celebrity preachers
At a conference we get to hear preachers from all over the world whom we would not hear in our local church. Many conference preachers are also local pastors regularly preaching to the same congregation, but others are especially gifted to bring the Word of God to a large gathering. There is a danger that we make these men into celebrities, or even, God forbid, that we idolise them. This will do them and us no good whatsoever. It may also cause us to neglect the value of our own pastor-teacher.
The wise use of resources
One final danger: conferences are costly. It is expensive to hire large rooms, pay travelling costs and speakers’ fees, dress a stage, set up a sound system and subsidise volunteers. We must always be good stewards of the resources that the Lord has given us. Those who organise conferences must be sure it is a good use of money given by supporters.
It is also expensive to attend conferences. We who attend must be sure it is a good use of our personal finances and we must not forget that most Christians cannot afford to attend a conference but would love to. Perhaps a wise use of our resources may be to help someone else to attend?
One final word from A.W. Tozer:
We need the caution that much theology, much Bible teaching and many Bible conferences begin and end in themselves. They circle fully around themselves – but when everyone goes home, no one is any better than he was before.
That is certainly a great danger.
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