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COVID-19 and the Future of the Christian Conference

COVID 19 and the Future of the Christian Conference

Christians have long valued conferences. In the past few decades, as travel has become easier and less expensive, Christians have valued large national conferences where thousands or tens of thousands gather to worship, learn, and fellowship together. The story of the “New Calvinism” could not possibly be told apart from the rise and impact of these events. Yet conferences were among the early casualties of the COVID-19 pandemic. Together for the Gospel, Ligonier Ministries, The Basics, and other major events were forced by local governments to cancel their in-person events, while TGC Women’s opted to postpone for a year. More are sure to follow.

With that in mind, I got in touch with the organizers of many large Christian conferences to ask them about COVID-19 and the future of the Christian conference. I decided to take a “panel” approach—asking each the same questions and sharing their answers verbatim. I decided to keep the answers anonymous, so am not indicating which answers belong to which ministry, but suffice it to say that I spoke with representatives from 7 major conferences associated with Reformed Christianity.

(I feel the need to add a note here that what anyone believes about the reality behind the pandemic is really not relevant, and I’d hate it if this article sparked yet another discussion about masks and vaccines and other controversial issues. Large conferences have to work hand-in-hand with convention centers, hotels, tourism bureaus, and various levels of government, and are answerable to them. Not only that, but they often need to put down massive deposits to secure venues, hotel space, insurance, security, food, labor, audio production, and so on. In this way they need to carefully assess risks, knowing they could face bankruptcy if they assess wrongly and are forced to cancel or simply find that people will not come. With that in mind, let’s get to the questions and answers.)

What is the function of conferences within your ministry and how important are they to its mission?

  • Conferences are our ministry.
  • Events are important because we value real fellowship with brothers and sisters in Christ. We share in the body of Christ and so we are better able to hear from others, learn what’s happening in their churches, and find new ways we can serve them. Moreover, our events serve as a common meeting ground for Christians from different geographic locations and ecclesiastical backgrounds. They come together because of a common love for the gospel and the truth of God’s Word and also have opportunities to encourage and pray for one another.
  • Our conference is a vital tool for promoting our organization’s values and equipping the broader church in practical ways. It allows us to create a sense of momentum among thousands of people at once, and to spark connections and ministry opportunities for attendees as they build relationships.
  • Our conference is an extension of our local church ministry, but not an essential component of it. As a church, we seek to teach the Bible faithfully and have invested in teaching and training younger men to do the same. In a way, our conference is an extension of this: we hope to equip and encourage other pastors to do ministry well.
  • Until recent days, the conference was basically what we did, but prior to the pandemic we announced a new direction that would change our ministry plan which would be centered on various different areas including a national conference, smaller regional events, and the production of resources for local churches to use from our website and app. We do believe that the conference is a big part of our ministry as it brings people together and allows us an opportunity for more intentional and intense discipleship over a few days.
  • Our conference ministry exists to facilitate times of equipping, fellowship, and refreshment. We aim to fulfill that purpose, and are provided by God’s benevolence and the committed service of its team. Our recent Shepherds’ Conference was the most strategic and important conference we have had in many years while committing to its original mission. Since 1980, the mission statement of Shepherds’ Conference has been “to provide the opportunity for men in church leadership to be challenged in their commitment to biblical ministry and to find encouragement together as servants of our chief Shepherd.” By the grace of God and with the help of our church family, we will continue to focus on this mission statement with excellence. What makes Shepherds’ Conference unique is its foundational support from our local church (Grace Community Church) and the long-standing and far-reaching ministry of pastor John MacArthur. The Shepherds’ Conference is not a separate entity apart from our local church, but rather part of a service ministry in our local church. The heartbeat of the Shepherds’ Conference is our church member volunteers and staff who sacrifice their time throughout the week to welcome and to serve our guests.

In your assessment, what unique value do conferences offer the Christian world?

  • John Piper talks about how books haven’t changed his life so much as particular sentences. Likewise, I think a conference—a sliver of time out of a long year—can give a person just enough time away to think. So much of our lives are based on habit and filled with routine that we don’t have to think much and don’t put ourselves in the way of challenges. A conference can do that. We’ve seen the Spirit really impact 18-25 year olds as they gather for a student missions conference. We’ve seen pastors renewed in their calling as they hear good teaching, teaching they didn’t have to prepare. Also, given what now seems like a permanent culture of contention (e.g. social media and political partisanship) it is reassuring to slip away to gather with hundreds or thousands of like-minded brothers and sisters; it reminds you that you are not alone.
  • First of all, conferences gather like-minded people and provide biblical instruction as well as exposure to new and old resources to equip the believers with tools that would best serve them. Secondly, conferences offer Christians a tangible experience of fellowship with believers from all nations around the globe, as well as an opportunity for church leaders to be challenged, encouraged, and refreshed for a few days before they go back to their ministries. And finally, I would also add that conferences edify those who aspire to enter a specific ministry, and conferences oftentimes provide the needed instruction and clarity to help the believers take that step into ministry.
  • While I wouldn’t want to overstate the impact of a mere few days, we hope that our conference can be something of a respite for pastors who are weary and burdened by the weight of ministry. We think particularly of those who labor as soloists or in difficult ministry contexts: we hope that just getting away from that for a few days might be a real refreshment for them. They can share burdens with other pastors who will understand the pressures of ministry, be encouraged by receiving Bible teaching rather than having to give it, and enjoy good food, hopefully leaving recharged for further ministry. With the added burden that COVID-19 has brought to pastors, I can see the need for this type of refreshment actually increasing.
  • Christian conferences are unique because they offer opportunities of worship, Bible study, Christian fellowship, and connection points for personal sanctification and local church ministry tools all within a few days. This makes the value of investing in a Christian conference extremely profitable for the local church who sends their pastor or the family that travels together.
  • It’s difficult to replace the conference format with anything else. Conferences hosted by a local church or parachurches present a way to study and reflect on a specific biblical or theological theme over an extended period of time with one or more speakers who have dedicated themselves to study a topic in order to efficiently and effectively help those who came to learn and grow. Attendees usually come to a conference with an expectation already in mind. A Christian conference is different from the eclecticism of a convention.

I understand that the major financial risk facing conferences relates to accumulating massive up-front expenses that are paid for out of advance registrations. If registrants later cancel, the conferences can quickly go bankrupt. We learned that there is no insurance against pandemics, which left some conferences in an extremely difficult situation. Is there any way of mitigating this risk in the future so conferences are not facing such a perilous financial risk?

(Tim’s note: Did you know a convention center in a key city can easily cost $250,000 over the course of an event? And that’s pretty much just for the space.)

  • That’s the million dollar question! Tourism bureaus, convention centers, and hotels are going to have to help bear the risk. They are almost always financially much larger than the conference organizers and in many cases owned by the state. They cannot expect cancelation clauses to work the way they did pre-COVID. So, for instance, we would typically block several thousand rooms over three days for our larger conferences. If we fall short of the room block, we have to cover the difference. This is called “attrition.” At our last conference we were facing a charge of $500,000 on hotels alone until the governor declared we could no longer gather. In the COVID era, we are now asking facilities to remove or greatly reduce the cancellation penalties. That’s a risk to them. But they are not the only ones risking here. I’m investing in the conference as if we are going to be able to gather. That’s real money.
  • Some basic ways to mitigate risk for Christian conferences would include transparency during the registration process that communicates that risk to the attendee. If the event is cancelled due to a pandemic, the terms state that the event fee is non-refundable. In addition, the Christian conference ministry can negotiate contracts with the event center that would include a clause for cancellation as a result of a pandemic that would allow for the ministry to provide a specific level of refunds to attendees. Obviously, each ministry will need to navigate this world carefully in order to avoid unnecessary risks.
  • Favor working with local churches to host events where possible and avoid the larger corporate entities who have little interest in growing the kingdom of God. That is not an option for many large events, so try to ensure that the contract provides for a force majeure situation and mitigate the potential losses as much as possible. Allowing attendees to be responsible for their lodging and meals removes a convenience for them, but are a couple less things to worry about in a moment of financial exigency.
  • The financial risk involved in conferences is real and requires careful planning. But one of the ways that we have been able to manage conference costs is by being part of a local church and by being blessed by the sacrificial character of the people of the church. All the volunteers who serve at Shepherds’ Conference are our church members, and the conference is hosted on our church campus, and this greatly helps mitigate costs.
  • We are a little unique in this. Since we are so small and most everything is done in-house at the church (from hosting meals to the meeting space being the church’s auditorium), we don’t face as big a risk. It’s easier for us to cancel without incurring large costs.

(Tim’s note: Perhaps the takeaway here is that we may see conferences grow smaller for a time as registrants regain their confidence in attending and organizers regain their confidence in taking risks. Conferences hosted by churches seem to have an advantage for the time being since their costs are so much lower.)

Some upcoming conferences have moved to an online-only format. Do you anticipate that some ministries may make this a permanent format?

  • We understand that some may do so, but our hope is to return to in-person conferences as soon as we safely can. However, this year’s required turn to the digital environment has forced us to build our capacity for holding a dynamic virtual event, and we expect that future conferences will include a deeper and richer experience for those who livestream online than in past years.
  • I’m not sure about other ministries, but we don’t plan to host our conference online. I’m sure it could be done, but we believe we’d miss out on much of what makes our conference what it is: that hospitality and care of pastors that you just can’t get on a screen.
  • I think this online format may have to last for a few years, but I don’t anticipate it being permanent. Christians are called to “assemble” weekly as the visible church. It is important we congregate. A conference doesn’t need to gather the same way a church does, but we do like them. It’s at conferences we are introduced to good teaching, good books, new ministries, and great singing. I think they may be even more anticipated post-COVID.
  • It is quite possible to see some ministries doing more work through an online format in the future as a result of being forced to think outside the box during this pandemic, but as a whole, just as the local church will eventually get back together for a normative meeting schedules—we can expect Christian conferences to resume as well.
  • Streaming an event with faithful teaching is a helpful way to augment ministry outreach, but it cannot replace in-person discipleship and fellowship. Apples and oranges.
  • Every ministry will need to assess its finances, resources, and philosophy as they make this decision, but we certainly do not anticipate moving our conference to an online-only format. Our conference philosophy is to provide an opportunity for our guests to fellowship with one another in person at a physical location as well as to provide hospitality on our campus. The online-only format may have its benefits, but the onsite format offers an experience of fellowship and edification that simply cannot be replaced by the virtual experience. Besides the interaction that the guests get to enjoy with one another, what makes our conference unique is the hospitality that our church members provide to the guests; and this cannot be expressed through an online format.

(Tim’s note: I wouldn’t be surprised if in the future we see a growth in online-only events, but I expect those will largely be in addition to, not instead of, the major conferences.)

What do you think it will take for conference attendees to regain their confidence that they can once again be packed into a venue with thousands of other people?

  • There will need to be a major medical breakthrough or people will need to accept a certain level of risk for much of their daily life. Conference attendees will need to know that they are as safe as they can be in a fallen world and that the event organizer is sensitive to protecting the health and safety of everyone who attends. As churches reconvene for Lord’s Day worship, and if the travel industry begins to recover, and if larger gatherings of people resume without too many negative effects from the coronavirus, people will look for additional opportunities to learn in fellowship with one another.
  • Something less than a vaccine. I think within the next 12 months we will find a new normal where we learn to assemble large groups. That may involve facemasks, temperature checks, and touchless faucets in restrooms. But we will quickly adjust.
  • As a result of the pandemic, the return to normality will be a slow roll. Air travel is still near 90% decrease from this time last year. In order for people to feel completely comfortable, a vaccine or drastic decrease in risk will be necessary. As the economy begins to pick up pace and public gatherings and major sporting events become more normative you can expect to see Christian conferences follow the same pattern.
  • To anticipate your next question, I think it would take the widespread distribution of a vaccine (or herd immunity, I suppose) to see the large numbers come back to conferences. That, or simply time, when people have adjusted to the reality of COVID-19 being here to stay, much like the flu. With that having said, I do think smaller conferences have a future: judging from the polarity of responses to this pandemic, while some are cautious, there are many who are fairly bold in their willingness to gather. I also wonder if outside venues might be a way forward.
  • Conviction and conscience. Based upon our recent feedback and current circumstance, I think many are eager to attend and fellowship in a conference of their interest just as much as they are ready to gather for fellowship at their local church. With Romans 14 in mind, attendees should not be pressured to attend a conference and it is likely that some may hesitate to attend a conference with thousands of other people, unless we see an overwhelming interest surge by God’s providence. I hope that as soon as the restrictions are removed by the government, most conference attendees will immediately regain their confidence to attend a large conference just as every believer is eager to return to their local church.

(Tim’s note: So it’s not just that you and I will need to be willing to gather, though that’s a good place to begin. It’s that governments will need to welcome crowds, venues will need to be willing to host events, and conference organizers will need to be willing to take the financial and liability risks. Also, you and I will either need to be willing to risk losing our money if the event is canceled or have some assurance we can request a refund. In 2020 many of us had our hotels and flights refunded and were willing to not request a refund for our conference registration, but I’m not convinced those kinds of courtesy will continue indefinitely.)

We consistently hear the message that for the pandemic to come to an end we will need a vaccine or otherwise reach a kind of herd immunity. Assuming that either one is at least a year away, have you changed your plans for events in 2020 and/or 2021? Should we anticipate there being any major Christian conferences as long as the pandemic continues?

  • While we canceled our 2020 conference, we have not yet canceled our 2021 conference. We’re taking a wait and see approach at this point. The good news is that we have more lead time to make changes for the 2021 conference should we want to gather in a different way than we regularly do (i.e. using social distancing, thinking about outside venues, etc.). The unfolding of the pandemic and subsequent restrictions didn’t allow us that kind of time for creativity in 2020.
  • We are holding our plans for 2021 loosely. We are also exploring options for distributed conferences in which churches gather locally to watch together, carefully following whatever health guidelines apply in their jurisdiction at that time.
  • Our plans remain the same for our next conference in 2021, if the Lord wills. If the pandemic continues and the government does not allow large conferences in our county, the conferences may have to be postponed or we might explore the online option, and make the best of it. The pandemic is currently fading; therefore, we can anticipate there being not only major Christian conferences, but also major Christian church services, as long as the governing authorities do not increase unnecessary restrictions.
  • Our next major conference is seven months away. We are too far away from a vaccine, but may be in a situation where protocols could be in place that people are happy to comply with. If my conference was this summer, I’d go online for sure. I’d feel confident about a gathering in 2021. We are already seeing crowded boardwalks on the Jersey Shore!
  • We make plans but hold them loosely under God’s sovereignty. We trust Him. We’ll move forward with a reduced schedule for 2021, making adjustments as necessary. 2022 seems like a more realistic view to resume more frequent conferences.
  • Providentially, we announced at our annual national conference in January of 2020 some major transitions to our ministry which involved moving our conference from January to October. So, we have already put our transition plans into place prior to the pandemic for October of 2021.

(Tim’s note: The consensus seems to be that we are unlikely to see major conferences through what remains of 2020.)

What are your thoughts about the future of the Christian conference in a pandemic or post-pandemic world?

  • In a post-pandemic world you will see a full restoration, I believe. We have short memories, and don’t like the present situation. Christians shouldn’t have their lives governed by fear. I think we’ll want to get back to what we had. Like the stock market, there will be a dip, but I believe the bulls will run once again.
  • The Christian conference is not something that is going away. As we’ve all experienced through the use of technology during this pandemic, even the best technology has its limitations. While we are grateful to incorporate more technology use within our ministry plans, we will not be moving toward an online plan for the future. God created us to be social and the Christian community enjoys a special fellowship that cannot translate well through the mode of screen-based events.
  • A Christian conference is not essential just as a parachurch ministry is not essential. The worship of God’s people on the Lord’s Day is essential. If we are able to gather together for a time of focused reflection on the Word of God with faithful preachers and teachers, that will be a wonderful blessing and an aid to Christian growth and discipleship, but it’s not essential for thriving as a Christian.
  • The future of Christian conferences should continue to thrive and promote fellowship with the saints by cultivating unity, investing into church leaders, avoiding animosity from both government and the people in our community, and adorning the gospel in every possible way.
  • The pandemic has reminded us that while conferences are helpful, they are not strictly necessary nor can they ever replace the local church. My hope is that conferences will return, but that believers will strive to be more excited about and engaged with the ministry of their local church rather than the next big conference for which they’ve registered.

(Tim’s note: If the short-term consensus is that we are unlikely to see major conferences through what remains of 2020, the longer-term consensus is that conference organizers are eager to return to the old normal as soon as possible.)

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