Conferences can be a real blessing. It can be great, if you are a regular preacher, to get away and hear somebody else preaching and feeding your soul for a bit. It can be great, if you have kids and go to a church with limited youth provision, to tap into some of the much bigger, better stuff you can get at a conference. It can be great, as a church member, to hear the same truths preached by a different voice, in a different setting. There is no doubt conferences can be a real blessing.
It would be easy to sit here and bash conferences. I don’t think – and I suspect nobody thinks – they are perfect. But I do think they are legitimate. They are perfectly reasonable and they can be a real blessing to us. So I am not going to sit here and have a go at conferences. I am grateful to those who want to serve the church by serving in them. If you benefit from such conferences, I am glad they serve you well. None of this is about having a go at conferences.
But I do want to encourage people not to forget the local church. Conferences are great, but they are like a load of candy floss you get on your yearly trip to the seaside. Lovely to have, definitely enjoyable and absolutely nothing wrong with having it every now and then. But it can’t be your regular diet, it won’t sustain you over the long run, it is somewhat artificial even if enjoyable to have every now and then. As nice as conferences are, they are not your bread and butter. That is the preserve of your local church.
Conferences and conventions are artificial environments. They are artificially big, they are (largely) full of strangers that don’t demand anything of you, the preaching – whilst no doubt helpful – is not going to be tailored specifically to you, but must hit notes that will land with thousands of people, from different places and backgrounds all at the same time who have no common context in which to apply biblical truth. What fellowship you have is that which makes no demands on you, the pastoral benefit you get makes no demands of you, the people with whom you hang out (if anyone) make no demands of you. That doesn’t mean it will be unhelpful or it will prove to be a problem. It is simply to say it is, ultimately, artificial. It is lovely, lovely candy floss. Tasty, enjoyable, pleasant but ultimately artificial.
The local church, by contrast, may not have such glitz and glamour. The preacher might not be so exciting and he may not be as good as the famous name on the platform (though, it bears saying, don’t assume that just because you’ve never heard of him!) The music is probably worse, the format may feel familiar and pedestrian, the service may not be slick and all the AV stuff might constantly go wrong and feel low grade. The people in the church will inevitably make demands of you, you will be asked to serve, you are expected to be present, the fellowship does come with expectation.
But the church is the bread and butter and Christian life. The church is not artificial; it is authentic. These are real people, who can be known and want to know you. The preaching is not generic, but specifically tailored towards you and those known to the preacher. The demands on you are the demands of real friendship and fellowship. The service asked of you is not a burden, but a means of growth and the particular vehicle God has given for the overflow of your love for him. The church is essential for the Christian life in a way that conferences – nice as they are and good as they may be – simply are not.
Conferences, in my view, are at their best when they are purposefully the servant of the local church. When they exist to support local church ministry. When they actively encourage people to press into their local church. When they point people away from the “big name” on the stage and towards the name who knows them, that is the name of the Lord Jesus and their local church elders.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with going to conferences. They can be a real delight and truly bless your soul. They are, as we have said, like candy floss at the seaside. A joy to have and fine in every now and then. But they cannot sustain you. They are necessarily artificial environments that are not easily replicable. They are not the meat and potatoes of ordinary Christian life. That is the work of your local church.
If you are attending a conference this year, don’t hear me saying that you shouldn’t go. Enjoy it. Benefit from it. Come back elated and more thrilled with Christ. Just don’t forget your local church. Don’t consider your church the awkward cousin. Conferences are like going to your mate’s house to play with his interesting toys. You’ve gone specifically to play. It’s not even what he’s doing all the time when you’re not there! Church is your family home. Church is where you will get ordinary meals, where you will be cared for in ordinary ways, where you will ultimately grow. The conference might be nice, may be good every now and then, but make sure your church is your priority. It, and not the conference, is God’s vehicle for your growth and his primary place for you to serve him. The conference isn’t a replicable weekly experience and you shouldn’t be looking for it to be. Enjoy it, by all means, but don’t forget your church. Prioritise it.