For Monday and Tuesday last week I found myself at the annual Northern Ireland Ministry Assembly (NIMA), which this year was held in Maze Presbyterian Church. The guest speakers were Alistair Begg and Paul Mallard – both of whom were excellent in content and delivery. In recent years I have attended a variety of different conferences, and on the whole I find myself leaving with similar thoughts and feelings. The following is a summary of those reflections on conferences.
It is vitally important that if we take time off work, or away from ministry, that we do so to receive good teaching. As the people of God we must be people of the Word and so we must seek out men who will read, explain and apply the Word of God. Many of the conferences I have attended in the recent past have been those with good teachers, which equates more often than not with good teaching.
Unique to NIMA (as opposed to other conferences I have attended on the whole) is the focus on this being a conference for pastors and preachers. This means that it is all the more important that the teaching is rich and beneficial – not because pastors and preachers are more intelligent than others (even theologically speaking), but because they are constantly giving of themselves in the task of teaching. It is imperative that pastors and preachers are periodically fed so that they in turn can continue to feed others.
Another element of conferences which is hugely enjoyable and beneficial is fellowship. It is a wonderful experience to stand in a room of 200 people and join in singing which sounds something similar (with regard to volume) to a capacity Kingspan Stadium on a Friday evening. It is enjoyable to bump into people you haven’t seen for a while, renewing friendships and making new friends. There is something encouraging about hearing what God is doing in some individual’s life, in some back corner of the country that you have never heard off. Fellowship on big scales like this is very often profitable.
Change of Scenery
A conference also offers the opportunity to have a change of scenery. This is especially true for pastors and preachers who work tirelessly in local church settings – often with slow or minimal results, or at least it appears that way from close quarters. Thus, the excuse to get out of the town for a day or two helps clear the head, lighten the thoughts and renew the energy.
It is also profitable for others to take time off work and get away to a conference – meet different people, see a different venue, hear a new song and sit under a different preacher for a time. All of this can help us assess our usual scenery, noting what is good and lovely about our usual setting and considering those things which could change or be done differently.
That being said, there are some dangers to attending too many conferences.
There is something very special, and a little unnerving, to walking around a church building that is full of friendly smiling faces that are delighted to see you. There is something delightful about being at a conference where everyone is eager to hear the Word read and preached. But, once you return to your local congregation, well all of a sudden you remember life is not like that…
Conferences offer an unrealistic atmosphere; it serves as a sort of escapism. However, once you return to ‘normal life’ it is very apparent that all is as it was. Nothing has changed. Indeed, from time to time the speakers are guilty of encouraging this as they exhort pastors, preachers and Christians to remarkable feats of holiness, obedience and development. It is all too easy to be captured by these visions.
It’s No Church
This is perhaps why it can be such a delight to be at a conference, however, it is also the reason why we cannot live of conferences as Christians. There is no accountability in these settings; there are too many people who look, think and dress the same way; there is no way that this can impact the wider world by itself; in short it is limited in its benefit.
The local church with its structures, diversity, ministries, individuals and community offers the best setting in which a Christian can develop, grow and learn. Too many of us (and I very much include myself in this) rely on the ‘famous’ preacher who knows nothing about me to aid my discipleship and tell me where I should use my gifts. In all reality this must be done in the local church with someone who will never be invited to address a pastor’s conference, but who knows me inside out and will speak truth for my benefit.
What to do with the Conference?
Due to these severe limitations to conferences should we just chuck them out? Refuse to attend and look down on others who do? No I don’t think so.
I think it is hugely beneficial for Christians to periodically attend conferences. I would suggest probably two a year at most, as any more could very quickly develop into a dependence on them – limping from one conference to another for our ‘spiritual high’. Additionally I consider it vitally important that those in ministry attend conferences, and I would say at least once a year. However, I believe that conferences should be attended with the benefit of the local church very much in mind.