Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Are there too many conferences?

Christians today have many opportunities to attend any conference of one's choosing. Might I say a plethora of choices?

There's conferences for men.
T4G. Sing! MLK50. TGC West Coast. G3. Cutting It Straight. ShepCon. LigCon. Right Now.

There's conferences for youth.
Passion. Urbana18. RiseUp. GraceLife Youth conference. Salt & Light. Momentum. Ignite. KingdomYouth.

There's conferences for women (mostly false).
Living Proof Conference. Unwrap the Bible. IF:Gathering. The Word Alive. Women of Joy. Love Life by Joyce Meyer Ministries. Women of the Word. Women of Purpose. Extraordinary Women.

There's conferences for (mostly) false teachers and (mostly) false Christians.
Bethel Conference. Catalyst Conference. Amplify. Charisma.

Of course there are many more. And many more on other continents. Conferences (and their simulcasts) are a thriving cottage industry in the global church. And of course each conference has its own claims of how good and necessary it is for you, the pastor/man/woman/youth/church planter/missionary/any demographic to attend.
  • The Outreach Summit is unlike any other church leader conference. Only at The Summit will you meet and hear from the pastors of the most innovative and fastest growing churches in America. 
  • The Gateway Conference desires to share practical wisdom for cultivating real growth by ...
  • MinCon quickly gained the reputation as a conference of excellence, offering an incredible hands-on experience at an affordable price for teams and churches all across the Pacific NW.
  • Catalyst West is a 2-day conference to help leaders like you build great churches, grow strong teams, and be a catalyst for change
  • We’ve gathered some of the nation’s best leaders to share their wisdom with you. (Small Town Pastor's Conference has a list of leaders different from the other conference sharing wisdom with you...)
  • We’ve gathered some of the nation’s best leaders to share their wisdom with you. (Right Now Conference has different speakers than the other conference sharing wisdom with you...)
  • We hope that during your time with us, you will be able to relax, build new relationships, and leave more excited about this calling than ever before.
  • When you discover how to leverage your talents as an entrepreneur, leader, or pastor, you cultivate a more meaningful impact in your business or leadership endeavors. (This was a PASTOR's conference...not a Google or Amazon business practice gathering, believe it or not)
Some of the ones I read sound like a business model more fitting for Google or AT&T than a church.

Is it too much of a good thing? Is it possible that there are too many conferences that, mixed with the good ones, the bad ones draw away congregants and introduce false notions? Can even the good ones be potentially problematic? I believe so. Though there are many good conferences, I believe the time has come to be more discriminating and skeptical of what today's Christian conference is offering. Please bear with me as I share some thoughts on why many conferences can be dangerous to one's spiritual health.

1. False confessions


A few years ago as I followed David Platt taking the reins of the International Mission Board as President in August 2014. Known for his dedication to missions, Platt was to speak at the annual Student Missions Conference at Urbana in St. Louis MO in December 2015 (as he usually does each year.) The conference is aimed at college students. Curious, I tuned in. The conference's own language describes it as a "catalytic event" in a "sacred space". A catalytic event means they want to use the speeches, emotional reactions from music, and teenage momentum to get attendees to DO something in missions. The conference is the catalyst for that. It's their aim.

Though the conference is not aimed at non-Christians because it's a mission oriented event and not an evangelistic conference, the organizers acknowledge that non-believers do attend. Therefore at the conclusion of the main event, speakers put out a Gospel call to make a decision for Christ. At Urbana 15, Mr Platt asked attendees who had decided for Christ to raise their glowsticks and wave them. It was later stated that 681 students did.

Is this how people come to the cross and enter the kingdom? By responding to a one-hour lecture and deciding, and waving a glowstick? Perhaps the Spirit did use the event to regenerate some, but in high-emotional and religious-pressured environments, at events where youths are separated from parents and other adults, is a concoction rife with potential for false conversions. I had a hard time believing that 681 people were converted at once, though @UrbanaMissions claimed 681 were by calling them new Christians. The same thing happens at the youth-aimed Passion conference. Photos, and more explanation about Urbana 15's decisional regeneration and pronouncement of new believers, here.

2. False Doctrine


At far too many conferences lay the potential to propagate false doctrine. Churches are supposed to be tightly closed. There are membership standards, behavioral expectations, stringent qualifications for leaders, and biblical discipline. In the best of worlds, that is how it's supposed to work. Because it used to be hard for satan to get into the pulpit, satan develops ways to get around that. The Sunday School curriculum, the Children's Ministry leader, the book clubs for woman, the church library, parachurches. And now in modern times, with travel so easy - conferences. I don't think I need to use many specifics here, you know what I'm talking about.

The ridiculous conferences are easy enough to spot, and even the solid ones have a hard time maintaining the gate these days, as the issue with Grace To You/Grace Community Church & TGC West Coast recently showed us. Executive Director of GTY, Phil Johnson, said of the of GCC Elders' decision to bow out of hosting TGC West Coast's "Enduring Faithfulness" conference was ultimately that,
Some of the seminars featured points of view or speakers that stand in stark opposition to what we teach at Grace Church and Grace to You. Other seminars seemed merely to miss the point of "enduring faithfulness" entirely, and some were also arguably tangential to any core gospel truths. We felt the seminars collectively failed to convey what is most necessary for cultivating true, steadfast faith.

3. Too Many Speakers to Vet


In the past, conferences used to feature just a few well-known speakers. By "well-known" I don't mean celebrity pastors, but faithful pastors who have endured long and have a proven track record as to their doctrine. Nowadays, some conferences feature up to 200 speakers. While you could look up the keynote speakers to check, though that in itself is time consuming as the roster of keynote speakers grows, it is impossible to "vet" all the speakers of breakout sessions. So when one of the members of your church attends a breakout session, it could be led by someone who is teaching an unbiblical doctrine, or one that your church does not hold. As a matter of fact, given the times we live in and the methods satan uses, this is likely. In fact, this was one of the reasons that Grace Community Church elders decided to bow out of hosting The Gospel Coalition West Coast Conference. Though they had trust in the keynote speakers, a number of other speakers were added afterwards. As Phil Johnson explains, this was problematic.
Some of the seminars featured points of view or speakers that stand in stark opposition to what we teach at Grace Church and Grace to You.

Below on the left, a screenshot of the recent MLK50 conference speaker lineup, on the right, The Gospel Coalition West Coast Conference this coming October 2018. How is a parent/husband/discerning person supposed to vet all of them? Can't.


4. Many Conferences Feature Stretched Complementarian Boundaries


One of the most hotly contested areas of doctrine in church culture (and secular culture) today is the role of women. The correct biblical stance is that women are not to be teachers of men, leaders over men, or pastors in the local church. They are not to have authority over men. (1 Timothy 2:12). However, women can teach children, or other women, or in a home setting as Priscilla did with Aquila. This tiny bit of leeway has given satan an inch, and he has taken it by a mile. I've noticed over the recent years how many women are now speakers at mixed-gender conferences. Young women at that.

At Delivered By Grace, Josh Buice hits the nail on the head:
While women are permitted to discuss biblical theology in a mixed group setting such as a Sunday school class, women teaching children or other women (Titus 2), or in a private setting such as with Apollos’ instruction that was gleaned from meeting with Priscilla and Aquila—biblical teaching, when among the church as a whole or a mixed audience should be led by men. It seems clear that Paul was addressing an issue that was taking place in the life of the church and needed to be corrected. 
When it comes to teaching men in our present day, we have the conference culture that often stretches these complementarian boundaries. This is a dangerous practice, since conferences are designed to strengthen the church and to in many ways model what the local church should be promoting in their local assemblies—ie., expository preaching, sound biblical theology, and other important, if not essential, practices. Therefore, to have women stand and open the Bible and teach a group of men in a conference setting is not beneficial to the Church represented in the conference from many different local churches. Such stretching of the boundaries is a common practice in our day and we should be cautious when we see women teachers invited to speak to a mixed audience.

5. We are being made merchandise of


2 Peter 2:3 says that the false teachers will exploit the believers and make merchandise of us. Barnes' Notes says,
Make merchandise of you - Treat you not as rational beings but as a bale of goods, or any other article of traffic. That is, they would endeavor to make money out of them, and regard them only as fitted to promote that object.
There are conferences that have a goal to teach well, and to serve hard. Shepherds' Conference is one that I know of. But too often the case is the opposite. There is a reason many conferences' blurbs sound like an entrepreneurial business advertisement- because they are a business. The larger the conference gets the more the organizers have to recoup money from renting the venue, paying accommodations and travel expenses, or the like. The false teachers flock there to flog their book, sell their latest book. Tee shirts, trinkets and more is all for sale.

I attended one conference where the food vendors inside the arena were selling food at fantastical prices. Simple game day type food like pizza and hot dogs were for sale at high prices. Perhaps the organizer had nothing to do with this and could not prevent it, but the atmosphere left one feeling, well, exploited. We had just arrived after a long drive, had no time to go anywhere else for food, and the conference was about to start. We were trapped and had no alternative but to pay the demanded prices.

Just as the money changers at the Temple began as a good idea, soon filthy lucre made its way into the courtyard and what started as a service soon became exploitation. It is no different now.

I think conferences can be great. Pastors can gather with other pastors and be refreshed. The ebullience of youth can accomplish much when properly directed. Woman believers, many of whom are stay-at-home moms, can collect with other women and be edified.

However there are dangers to be considered. When believers are away from their home church, especially youths and women, satan can enter in more easily. Remember what happens to the limping gazelle in all the wildlife programs. Separated out from the herd, they are vulnerable. (1 Peter 5:8)

False doctrine spread by false teachers or unknown or unvetted teachers can be propagated in their lectures or their books. These seeds of evil can be brought home and planted in the home church. Boundaries can be stretched, poor models of lifestyle presented, discontent sown. Please consider carefully when desiring to attend a large conference. Many are good. But of late, they can more often be an entrepreneurial business opportunity for the organizers, and you their potential merchandise ... or spiritual target.

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