Over the past few years I have had opportunity to attend a lot of Christian conferences, sometimes to sit and learn but more commonly in a kind of official capacity as a speaker or reporter. From either perspective I enjoy them most of the time. I will grant that without some vigilance we can overdo it and allow conferences to feed a kind of celebrityism, but I am convinced that they have their time and place and can be genuinely beneficial to the Christian.
One thing conferences do well, and one thing I love about them, is their unique atmosphere of excitement and anticipation. Most people attend a conference expecting that they will be blessed by the teaching they receive there. Enthusiasm runs high and is contagious so that people listen attentively, work diligently to make personal application and go out of their way to express gratitude to the speakers. For the attendee, the reward is directly related to the expectation–they expect much from the conference and therefore they work hard to get much from it. It’s not that the messages or sermons there are so different or so much better than what they might hear in their local church; rather, there is an atmosphere that lends itself to listening and applying.
I’m grateful for this kind of expectation, especially when I am speaking. It many ways it makes my task easier and more immediately fulfilling. However, I also find myself a little bit concerned about it and here’s why: The excitement and the anticipation that marks a conference is often noticeably absent in the local church. A sermon preached at a conference can have a greater impact on a person than the very same sermon preached the next Sunday morning in the context of a church service. Why? Because the person attending the conference has prepared himself to receive that message. He believes he will be blessed, he applies himself, and not surprisingly, he finds in the end that he has been blessed.
I will grant that conferences have some notable practical advantages over church services: Parents can sit and listen without having to stop the children from squabbling and without having to take them for bathroom breaks. Neither do they have to be concerned about rushing home to prepare lunch for guests or about staying late to put away chairs. I get all of that. But I’m convinced that the primary distinguishing mark is the preparation and the anticipation.
Sometimes we talk about conferences as if they are intrinsically wrong or as if we should enjoy them less. I disagree. Let’s continue to support and enjoy conferences and continue to believe and anticipate that the Lord can use them in our lives as a, occasional, supplemental kind of blessing. But as we affirm the value of conferences, let’s also learn from them that there is value in elevating the preparations we make for worshipping in the local church, and elevating the anticipation we feel for Sunday morning’s sermon. Let’s learn from conferences that we can and should take that excitement and anticipation and bring it to church with us every Sunday.