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A Season’s Worth of Conferences

New Attitude is behind us now, and that’s that. Six conferences later I am home for the long-haul, or until the fall at least. We’ve moved from conference season to wedding season (something that is going to take me to Atlanta and Ottawa)! I admit that it may seem an extravagance to go to so many conferences in such a short time, but as I attempted to make clear earlier in the year, I accepted the invitation to live-blog six different conferences this spring (five of which I had never attended before) because I thought it would be really interesting to have the opportunity to observe so many Reformed ministries just doing what they do. It is one thing to experience a ministry through books or MP3 files, but quite another to visit the churches, meet the people and to watch them in action. I had the privilege of visiting ministries from L.A. to Orlando, from Cleveland to Jackson. Combined with conferences I visited last year, I’ve now been able to see and to meet most of the most prominent Reformed ministries. It has really been a wonderful experience, even if traveling really is not my favorite thing to do. I hope you’ve benefited as well, not just from reading summaries of the teachings, but in catching just a bit of the flavor of each of the conferences.

I have been continually amazed at the quality of the people working for these ministries. It did not take me long to realize that the men who gain prominence in this Reformed subculture are men who surrounded themselves with other good Christians–people who will hold them accountable, who will challenge them and serve them and protect them. It was a joy getting to meet these people. I’ve had the men who serve as leaders or second-in-command of major ministries ask me, “Do you need anything? Can I get you a bottle of water? Here’s my cell phone number in case you need something.” If we were to compare this to the second-in-command of a major corporation I suspect you would not find a Vice President so willing to serve. Rather, he’d expect to be served and would pass your needs along to someone else. But these Christian ministries are so obviously run by people who love to serve. And it’s really amazing to see.

I thought of passing out some light-hearted awards (Best Rendition of “In Christ Alone,” Most Comfortable Seats, Friendliest Ninjas and so on) but decided against it. I’ve been asked many times “What was your favorite conference?” And I’ve had to say that I honestly don’t know. None of them was directly comparable to any of the others. Each had their target audience and each reached it with excellence and with the Word. From the intimate gathering at Twin Lakes to the huge crowds at Ligonier, each of the conferences had its own flavor. The one common thread, in my view, is excellence. There wasn’t one conference where I felt the organizers were giving it anything but their best effort.

As I reflected on these conferences I tried to find a single word that helped summarize my experience and my feelings about each event. Here is what I came up with.

Resolved – Diversity

It is easy to believe that these conferences, which are all run by ministries that are distinctly Reformed, attract an audience that is largely Caucasian. Resolved was the first conference of the year and easily the most racially diverse. There was a very large Asian population at the conference (I would think it was probably about 40% or so), prompting John Piper to exclaim “I didn’t know this was an Asian conference!” Many other races were all well-represented and it was very refreshing to see the diversity of God’s kingdom represented in that auditorium. The diversity was noticeable and it was beautiful.

Shepherds’ – Service

One of the things that caught my attention the first time I went to the Shepherds’ Conference was the shoe-shine service. This is a service run by volunteers who give of their time to shine the shoes of pastors and is a perfect example of a service that exists only to pamper the pastors who attend the conference. The same is true of the books that are given out and it seems to me that it was a great idea to transition this year from quantity of books to quality. Each of the men in attendance got some good and helpful books, but also books that are significant and otherwise expensive. Pastors do love their books and they were well-served by the ones they were given at this conference.

The conference is dedicated to serving pastors through the teaching, but also through the whole experience of being there (right down to the candy shop where everything is, of course, free). It is oriented around service and it is easy to see the pastors head for home and head back to their responsibilities feeling relaxed and refreshed.

Ligonier – Detail

I felt that the Ligonier conference was exceptionally well-crafted in its logistics. It moved smoothly from session-to-session and from day-to-day. Though each session was led by a different speaker, each built logically upon the previous one so that by the end R.C. Sproul was really just left to recap each of the sessions and to add some concluding remarks. This attention to detail pervaded the conference to the extent that they even replaced the pictures on the walls of the facility they rented with ones relevant to Ligonier ministries. Of course it is not only the conference that was done with excellence, but also the ministry’s presentation through its web site and books and even advertisements. It seemed to me that no detail is overlooked.

Twin Lakes – Fellowship

Twin Lakes is different from the other conferences I attended in that it is rightly a fellowship and one that is not quite as open to the public as the others. The event centers on this word “fellowship” and on friendships forged from meeting in rural Mississippi year-after-year. It was also a time of worship as the conference is built around a series of worship services, allowing different pastors to show how they structure their services. Though a newcomer to the ministry, I felt immediately included and appreciated and had many opportunities to enjoy close Christian fellowship with brothers in Christ.

The Basics – Humility

I found that The Basics and the Shepherds’ Conference are in many ways a lot alike. The notable difference, other than its smaller size, is that The Basics does not feature speakers that have the high profile of the ones who speak at Shepherds’. So rather than featuring John Piper and R.C. Sproul it features Derek Thomas and Voddie Baucham. This made for a different atmosphere and one that was very relaxed. Somehow not having the big-name speakers seems to make the whole event seem more relaxed. The speakers were available for anyone who wished to speak to them and they seemed very pleased to interact with all those who came to them.

The word “service” would also apply well at The Basics. A large team of volunteers ensured that the pastors in attendance had their every need met and did so joyfully. I was especially moved to see men and women of means joyfully and gratefully serving in any way they could–serving with true humility. Humility pervaded the conference.

New Attitude – Passion

It is interesting to compare and contrast New Attitude with Resolved. Both conferences had similar speakers, similar crowd sizes and a similar audience of teenagers, college students, and young adults. Some people asked me about this and assumed that the New Attitude crowd would be far less sedate and subdued than the crowd at Resolved. Except during the times of worship I found the opposite true. There was plenty of excitement at Resolved and plenty of exuberant joy. To my surprise Resolved also had more production in terms of lights and lasers and other fun details. I suppose I must have been stereotyping a bit too much.

As I thought about New Attitude I thought mainly of the passion of the organizers, the speakers and the many volunteers. This conference featured a great group of speakers who were absolutely passionate about what they spoke about. There were groups of roving Ninjas (couples who distributed treats, prizes, and so on) who seemed absolutely thrilled to be able to serve us however they could. There were hoards of people wearing blue Na shirts greeting us whenever we walked through the doors of the conference center (and even when we arrived at the airport). The worship was loud and passionate. This passion pervaded the weekend and, from what I’ve been reading on the blogs of those who attended, has lingered in the aftermath.

I have a couple of conferences coming up in the fall but do not quite know yet what next year holds for me. So far I’ve accepted only one live-blogging opportunity (Together for the Gospel) and one speaking opportunity (I’ll supply the details when they are made public). Whether I will travel so widely again, I just don’t know.

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