“Why isn’t this church like that conference?”
A friend recently reported that her teen daughter asked her this question after attending a teaching and worship event that drew thousands of people from across the U.S. The young woman had experienced the sweet intensity that occurs when a large group of people is gathered for a single, focused purpose. She came home ready to change the world, and sat through a typical church service or two before she realized that though the conference speakers and her pastors were both using the same words for realities like discipleship, calling and mission, they ended up carrying completely different meanings. The conference was a call to a deeper and more courageous Christian life, complete with stirring testimonies from people who were living that life. Church services were…well, 4 songs, a collection, some announcements (“Ladies Bible study Thursday morning, Youth Group trip to Six Flags next month”), a sermon, communion. Same thing every week with the same people who were mostly content to leave the boat unrocked.
When I was on staff at a church, we spent time in our staff meetings discussing that very question. Some were very offended when members of the congregation returned from various conferences and asked the question as they were coming down (hard) from their mountaintop experience. These staffers almost always heard the question as an accusation. Because at least in some cases, it was. Some on the church staff worried about alienating those who were new to our faith community, or who didn’t have the capacity to swim in the “deep end of the pool”. Others took umbrage at a perceived challenge to their leadership decisions.
Silencing the question-askers by branding them as malcontents missed the importance of the question. Why, indeed, isn’t the church stretching its members’ faith and motivating them toward holy action? No one on staff was willing to reflect on this question (which came to us repeatedly, from a variety of different people), or to view it as an expression of divine discontent with the status quo.
We sure do love our status quo. It’s relatively easy to program and staff. And you don’t really need trained lifeguards if you keep everyone wearing floaties and splashing in the wading pool.
Conferences (which are also programmed, and feature various Varsity Teams of musicians and speakers) aren’t meant to replace the sacramental context of life together of a local church, of babies being born, people getting sick, or married, or dying. Of being born again, then learning how to follow Jesus in their job at Jiffy Lube.
But they do call people to the deep end of the pool, and offer a look at what life together could be like if we had the chutzpah to hear the hunger for maturity embedded in that question.
What has your experience been in your church if you’ve been to a conference or two, and returned home asking that question? Did you have a difficult time integrating the “mountaintop” of your experience into the status quo of your home congregation?
5 thoughts on “Why isn’t our church like that conference?”
1) The ironic this is that this is why we go to conferences, to relight that passion for ministry that often gets quenched by the day-to-day.
When I go to conferences I usually come home with hundreds of ideas. Once I run them through the filter of speaking with my wife and our other church leaders they are usually reduced to a couple good principles to build on.
2) Isn't it interesting that the desired to be stretched, to grow and to go "deep" often comes from our youth/teens. They haven't played the game long enough yet to know not to question the status quo. They are able to say, "Yes, it ain't broke, but can't we still try and fix it?"
Maybe the question we should ask isn't, "Why can't church be like that conference?" but, "Now that we've brought something back from that conference, how can we use it to edify the local church?"
As you pointed out, these conferences are like all-star games. It can be exciting to see the most gifted people from many churches all perform together, but if they abandoned their home churches to make a "super church" the rest of the body would suffer. We are not given spiritual gifts to advance our own spiritual careers, but to serve one another in love, even, or especially, those less gifted.
But the other thing to consider is that not only is the local church incapable of sustaining in the long term what a conference did for a week; the conference couldn't sustain it either. It was intended, if wisely planned, to equip people and send them out. Like Peter on the Mount of Transfiguration, we sometimes want to turn a mountaintop experience into a permanent dwelling. But have you seen what happens when people try to make an event like this permanent? They either build a human institution that continues long after the life is gone, or develop a cult-like atmosphere.
Maybe if people kept these ideas in mind (or became aware of them, if they weren't already) church staff wouldn't feel so threatened and conference attendees, both young and old, would find more ways to serve with their newfound zeal.
I think what conference attendees fail to realize is that a lot of the fervor and excitement they feel during a conference has less to do with the content and more to do with actual human energy. The elation you feel at a largely-attended Christian conference is of the same sort as that experienced at a largely-attended football game, a largely-attended Presidential campaign, a largely-attended concert, a largely attended dictatorship rally, etc. That is, the energy and fervor of The Crowd is what people experience at these Christian conferences. The content can be whatever it is you want it to be – the energy will be the same. People wept and passed out at Hitler's speeches, for example.
In smaller places, such as local churches, you are much more visible, exposed, and therefore conscious of yourself. You keep your emotions in check, for fear of appearing ridiculous. This isn't a bad or a good thing – it's just what we do as a society. Yelling and clapping and applauding is much easier in a room of six-hundred than it is in a room of six. In a room of six, it's just ridiculous. In a room of six-hundred, it's expected.
In other words, it's easier to be The Crowd than it is to be The Individual. The question to ask is thus, 'what is real?' Was your emotional experience (your 'mountaintop experience') legitimate if experienced as The Crowd? After all, if you can feel the same elation at a football game as you do at a Christian conference – and this comparison is often made – then does this not testify to the transient nature of this 'mountaintop experience?' In this case, perhaps the Christian conference is just as status quo as the politics of your local church, and maybe a different question needs to be asked.
Eric and Papa Bear, you reframe the question in light of a local congregation: How can the learning and experience of a conference be worked into the life of a church?
Instead of being threatened by the enthusiasm of a conference attender, it would be wonderful if church and ministry leaders would find ways to debrief with the people who've gone to learn/experience something new. Eric, a pastor, can debrief with his wife and other church leaders. But perhaps this same model can apply to the teens who attend a big event, too.
Ben, you definitely bring in a thoughtful counterpoint in assessing the emotional dynamics of a big crowd gathering. What question(s) would you ask instead of – or in addition to – the ones generated above?
I think adversity against the 'status-quo' needs to be reassessed. After all, it is within the realm of the status quo wherein the pragmatic matters of 'common sense' and 'every day knowledge' are generated. In other words, what's so bad about the status quo?
Of course, I'm drawing a very thin line here. It is easy to go through life invisible, doing what is expected, not doing what isn't expected. Most people live their lives this way, Christian or not. Living your life invisibly has a certain peace about it, though the peace comes with a price: spiritual dumbness. A life lived via the dictates of the 'status quo' is an unconscious life, an easy life, an enjoyable and happy life. This describes most people – again – Christian or not.
It is therefore from this point I take a step sidewards and postulate a different line of questioning, a line that should be traversed before the conference, before the church, before the status quo. I wonder first if Christianity (in the form we are discussing) is just a different way of saying and doing the same thing everyone else does. That is, is Christianity just another way of living the status quo? And are its conferences places to recharge when one becomes bored with the status quo they try so desperately to uphold?
Perhaps then the place to begin is to first cease taking for granted our concepts of happiness, peace, enjoyment, and ease. Does not the very idea of a Christian conference seem repetitive? How many conferences did I attend when I was younger where most of the time people spent on stage was telling me (and everyone else) what we already knew? Like most church services, these conferences draw us away from the life that we should be living. The life of a Christian should be anything but ordinary, but I can not think of anything more ordinary than living a Christian life.
After all, it is not our beliefs, but rather, it is our actions which matter. I can not act when I am not conscious; or rather, it is not I who act when I am unconscious, but the status quo acting through me. And this is what it means to be happy. To paraphrase, the true Christian is hated not only by the world, but also by his friends. Does this mean if I am well-liked, I am doing something wrong?
The reason why I propose a reassessment of the status quo is that maybe, just maybe, it is more pervasive than we think it is. The youthful tendency is to merely rebel, but there is no absolute form of rebellion. Even rebellion is dictated by the status quo (For example, The Communist Manifesto is a rebellion against 19th-century industrialization – then the status quo – and nothing else). Therefore, the true Christian is not a zealot. And likewise, I doubt that you will find a true Christian at OneThing or whatever-it-is-they-do at the IHOP. The true Christian is somewhere on that VERY thin line, which has perhaps all but eluded us since Christ.
That being said, Christians aren't born at conferences. They are born alone. And how?