I am writing this before the final day of the FIEC conference. So, there is still most of Wednesday left to go and there may well be some other particularly encouraging things that happen tomorrow that I am not prescient enough to add here. But I wanted to reflect on the last two days and land on some points of encouragement for me.
Before I get to that, it probably bears saying that I usually don’t like conferences very much (see here for example). I can find them quite intense and I often come away with a sense of not having personally made as much of them as I might and somehow not getting everything out of them that I feel I ought (whatever that is). So, the following encouragements also have to be read against that background. That is to say, my overall encouragement and, dare I say it, enjoyment should be it’s own comment.
You might not find some of these things encouraging. Some of them, I appreciate, might even rankle if the same sort of things weren’t the case for you. But these were things that personally encouraged me. So, in no particular order…
Focus on hard places
I have been generally grateful for the focus in recent years on hard places by the FIEC. As regular, long term readers will know, I’ve not exactly been quiet about how we have failed to serve the church in deprived communities and have largely left them behind as an Evangelical movement. But I am encouraged by how the FIEC have come to realise this very issue and, more than just handwringing about it, are genuinely seeking to do something about it.
I was hugely encouraged hearing about the churches in deprived communities who have received support from the mission fund. Workers who have been funded in some of our neediest communities and plants established in tough areas. It was encouraging to hear both how the FIEC have meaningfully helped and to hear just what that help had accomplished in real terms.
It was similarly encouraging that £4,500 was raised in an offering so that the FIEC could offer bursary places for conference delegates next year. These are churches who couldn’t otherwise afford to be there. It was great to know that a good number of those who have benefited from the bursaries this year were able to attend and hear about work going on elsewhere in other hard places. I was encouraged by all of this.
Warmth of fellowship
I was struck this year by the warmth of the fellowship. I have only been to FIEC conference once before but, for some reason, I was particularly encouraged by the warmth of the fellowship this year. I was part of conversations where people appeared to be genuinely asking, with honest interest (which is not always the case when Christians get together) about each others churches. There seemed to be a genuine desire for greater and better and more fulsome partnership between churches. There seemed to be a real desire to see churches working together in the gospel without much evidence (that I could detect) of jealousy, covetousness or competition. The conversation seemed honest, gospel-centred and genuinely interested. And I was encouraged by that.
Bible-centred, Christ-honouring teaching
I can admit that I am highly cynical when it comes to conference speakers. I very often assume the big name speaker will come and drop his totally unrelatable pearls of wisdom onto the rest of us working in situations where these things are impossible to replicate. I am always convinced that unless you speak with a Scottish or American accent, or hail from the South East, you won’t be anywhere near the main stage.
Whilst I was right about the very last bit (though I appreciate the slightly broader range of speakers also doing seminars) I was defintely wrong about the content. I was encouraged by the way Mark Dever offered his thoughts in his sessions and opened himself up to Q&A from the floor with a real understanding of the nuances of different contexts i.e. Not everything will work everywhere but most of the principles offered are replicable. I was grateful for Colin Smith’s views on leadership and the way he applied these things for us too. I can only speak for the seminars and sessions I attended (which was all the plenary ones as well as the particular seminar I was at), all were helpful and were not in any way guilty of ‘big names’ offering counsel that could never apply, even in a small deprived church like mine. All of that was very encouraging. I would be even more encouraged if some little known minister from a hard, unseen place might do some similarly biblical, Christ-exalting teaching from the front next year so that we can get a sense of how people in different contexts might preach the Word (but let’s not let what might be even more encouraging detract from what was already encouraging).
It might seem like a small enough thing, but it isn’t really. Food can be the difference between making a difficult time tolerable or making a decent time excellent. Whilst delegates from my church would have been even more grateful for at least one portion of chips – that faux pas notwithstanding – the food (in my view) has been great. All enjoyable, nothing inedible, all good.
But even more importantly, as I said earlier, was the fellowship over the tables. Everybody seemed willing to talk together and enjoy each other. There was a real desire to be honest about struggles and encourage each other to press on. That is often lacking at conferences with people either descending into woe-is-meism (of which I have, no doubt, been guilty before) or competitive one-upmanship of my church is better than your church. Whilst I obviously didn’t speak to everybody, nobody I chatted with was doing either. And I found that strangely encouraging too.
So, there are a bunch of things I found encouraging. I will no doubt find some more things encouraging today too. But I am grateful to have been, glad I came and, without putting too fine a point on it, I can’t always say that about every conference. And I can’t give a much better commendation than that.