It seems that with the rise in numbers of young, broadly-reformed Christians and pastors in recent years, there has also been a large increase in the seeming importance of conferences. Here you have people who love theology, love good preaching, love fellowship across denominational lines, and love the overall experience of getting away and being blessed through deep study of the word for a few days.
What could be wrong with that? Right?
Many of the dangers of conferences (celebrity-ism, seeking life in emotional highs, finding identity in being a ‘conference person’, etc.) have been well-chronicled already. I’ve considered those potential pitfalls, and seen the danger in them. But yet, I’ve still remained largely in favour of conferences.
But recently I’ve been thinking about another problem with conferences — one that is in large part bound up with the celebrity-pastor and church-by-podcast Christian culture of 21st century North American evangelicalism.
The problem is bound up with our ecclesiology (our theology of the church):
Unchecked, conferences can both reflect bad ecclesiology and lead to still worse ecclesiology.
A Leave It to the Experts Mentality
Our culture is a culture of experts. Multiple post-secondary and even graduate degrees are required for just about everything. Specialists, rather than generalists rule the day. If we are not careful, our broader church culture will reflect the same thinking. The voice of the local pastor is drowned out by the thunderous boom of the voice amplified to thousands of conference attendees and broadcast live across the web to many more.
A Downplaying of Biblical Authority
As a pastor, I’m not opposed to my people listening to good biblical teaching from preachers and teachers and writers other than me. Far from it! I love when our people are Berean (Acts 17.11) and seek God’s revealed truth in his word, through whatever means. That being said, if a church member hears the voice of a conference speaker (or a podcast preacher or a blogger of whatever type) as more authoritative than the voice of the pastors and elders of their own local church, there is a serious problem.
Teaching is authoritative, biblically, because it is from God (2 Tim 3.16-17), but also because it is embodied by those who teach it (2 Tim 3.10-15; Heb 13.7; 1 Tim 4.15-16; 1 Pet 5.1-3; etc.). Conference speakers cannot be observed in their life. The authority of any teacher should be measured not by his degree of scholarship, but by the degree to which his life corresponds to his message. That’s why local church elders need to be qualified by a local church.
The Creation of A Disconnected, Eclectic, Personal Theology
The rise of personal subscriptions to podcasts, rss feeds, twitter feeds, and conferences allows people in our already impossibly individualistic society to pick and choose theology a la carte. But theology, biblically, was done communally. It was the people of God who received the word of God. It was the people of God in the local church context who were responsible for the protection of right teaching (cf. Galatians).
Theology done individually leads not only to an inappropriately grounded certainty (‘I’ve listened to all the best speakers on this’) but also to a love-less willingness to write off disembodied ‘opponents’ who don’t listen to the same speakers you do. Theology done face-to-face with people who love you and love Jesus will necessarily breed humility, love, and dependence on the searching of the word together rather than appeals to extra-local authority.
The Importing of Other Peoples’ Issues
Frankly, the problems that Southern Baptists are facing with regards to unregenerate membership in the Bible belt are not the problems our church is facing in Toronto. The Preachers of LA television series is not a problem right now for our congregation. Don’t get me wrong, we have plenty of problems; they’re just not those same problems.
But when people listen to those conferences and hear about how big of a problem this is globally because some internationally renowned preacher said so, it seemingly becomes an alarm that needs to be sounded in our local church. But it’s not. What false teaching and errant tendencies a local church needs to address is the prerogative of the pastors of that local church. To borrow a wise saying, ‘Don’t worry about another church’s problems; sufficient for your church are its own problems.’
The Lack of Willingness to Submit to Local Authorities
In some ways this is repeating what I said above, but I believe it needs to be stated clearly: humans, born in the line of Adam, have trouble submitting. Period. Regenerate or not, we have trouble submitting. And yet, the Bible is clear on what is required of us:
Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you. (Hebrews 13:17)
To be clear, John Piper, Mark Driscoll, DA Carson, John MacArthur, Tim Keller, Kevin DeYoung… they are not your authorities any more than some other man is an authority over my wife. The Bible that tells us ‘wives, submit to your husbands’ is the same Bible that says ‘obey your leaders.’ Yours. Not someone else’s.
We need to be super-careful here. Giving people an excuse to disagree with their leaders is like sitting a recovering addict in front of their substance of choice. Since Eden we have been rebels and we’re only beginning the recovery process. If a conference is teaching things that the authorities in the local church disagree with, then members of that church would do well to steer clear of the temptation.
So, Do I Hate Conferences Now?
No. Not at all. I’ve benefitted from them immensely, and I know that others have (and still do) as well. In fact, I think that my love for the local church has grown and my ministry in the local church has been blessed by conferences. But like most things, where there is potential for good, there is also potential for bad.
We need to be very cautious of the conferences we organize, attend, and promote. I think we need to steer clear of those conferences which promote what we’re against rather than what we’re for and those conferences which attempt to ‘police’ the church. That is unbiblical, presumptuous, and frankly, not unifying or edifying to the whole body. That’s what the local church is for.
The conferences we need are those conferences which, rather than defining the perimeter of Christianity call us back to its centre. Give me conferences that teach the word, help us explore the depths of the wisdom of God in the gospel, and teach me how to walk in the love the gospel has shown.
And please, give me conferences that operate in a way that is consistent with a biblical ecclesiology.