The biggest shock to my system upon returning from Africa was my desk and inboxes, both literal and electronic. They were stuffed with invitations to conferences. The invitations were slick: DVD’s with amazing videography and music, pictures of cool speakers whose shirts are always untucked in an enviable way; a box of cereal that looked like Wheaties but was somehow actually an invitation to a conference of champions; generic brochures filled with the beautiful faces of the young speakers who’ll be encouraging us all, telling us what to do and how to do it.
The thing is, there’s not one or two of these conferences vying for my dollars and time; there’s one or two almost every weekend. I could become a conference junkie: Atlanta, San Diego, Nashville, Grand Rapids, Chicago, San Diego again – always “learning”. I won’t though. I doubt I’ll even go to one in the coming year, because I’m increasingly convinced, after the last conference I attended, that most of these conferences, led by giant churches and their pastors, or superstar authors and speakers, run the subtle risk of unintentionally getting the rest of of us off course. Our senses are assaulted by cool, loud music, cameras and production teams worthy of MTV (or, for me, ESPN), and linear, propositional declarations about how to make your church better. Nobody’s trying to make me feel inferior, and maybe the problems all mine, but I sometimes go away from conferences thinking: “I wish I were cool like these guys. I wish our church had an ESPN worthy production team. I wish I could boldly declare that our church is going to kick Satan’s butt through some very clear, measurable objective, like starting a thousand churches, or equipping 10,000 leaders to make the next generation of church more butt kicking than the current one. Or whatever. Instead, my church is just trying to be the presence of Jesus in Seattle and, as he guides us, beyond.
I understand that all of us run the risk of passively sinking into mediocrity – just surviving in our jobs for the paycheck because the fire in our bones has died out and we stuck around without fanning it back into flame. Maybe these conferences are great for those folks. I hope so. I’m not there though, not in my church for job security or a paycheck, and I suspect lots of others aren’t either. And for those of us who are not perfectly, but faithfully, serving our communities as days turn into years, I’d suggest that the sustaining truths and creativity we need might be found much closer to home. I don’t need to go to a conference to learn these things; in fact, I’m better served by learning them at home:
1. We need to know we’re loved – first by God, and then by some people in our lives. In “The Emotionally Healthy Church”, the author exposes the truth that lots of people are in vocational ministry in order to earn God’s favor, or the favor of people. We might “shake the world” with our multiple campuses, missional thrusts, emergent, media savvy, market driven Christian enterprises, but unless we’re content in Christ, we’re building a house of cards. Superstar Christianity, and the fallout that comes afterwords isn’t new. One can be big, hip, and deeply rooted in Christ – at least I think one can. But always, always, the starting point is this: we’re complete in Christ – deeply loved. When we begin there, we’ve nothing to prove, and this means we can be content with a crowd of six, or six thousand.
2. We need to know our gifts – Paul took great pains, in several letters to different churches, to explain that each of us has a vital contribution to make to God’s kingdom. We’d do well to discover our unique gifts, how we’re wired to contribute, and invest the bulk of our energies there. Mine are teaching and writing, first, so I’m trying to make certain, with the leaders of my church, that I keep contributing most of my time there. Others are great at shepherding, or administration, or showing mercy, or serving. The important thing isn’t what gifts I want to have…it’s what gifts I do have.
3. We need to quit obsessing over size and context. I’ve pretty much stopped wishing I was somebody else, or leading a bigger thing (or even a smaller thing, because there are days when the bigness of it all gets to me). Maybe that’s the result of being in my 50’s. I’m here. Now. Alright then, I’ll be faithful here. Now. I’ll look for joy in small things, and celebrate every step of progress here. Now. “Wherever you are, be all there”. That’s what a famous missionary once said. It’s still some of the best advice I’ve ever received, and frankly, going to conferences in search of ‘tools’ and ‘vision’ rarely inspires me to contentment.
4. Everything needs to flow out of intimacy with Christ. Yes, we need to be better managers, and leaders. Yes, we all have things we can learn about casting vision. Yes, we can all do our jobs better. And in this sense conferences can have value, especially conferences that will expand our vision in realms where we’re presently under-represented (here’s a good example). Ultimately, though, it was Jesus who said this: “You will bear much fruit”. That’s the promise. The condition upon which the promise is predicated though, isn’t that I attend a conference, or two, or ten. It’s not that I read endless books, or surf the web when I’m discouraged about my church, looking to the experts who are peddling answers. Fruit comes from “abiding in Christ”.
Intimacy with Jesus – whether you’re a parent, or a pastor, an engineer or an athlete – the promise of Christ is that fruit is a byproduct of abiding: read my Bible, looking for a verse or two of encouragement, promise, challenge. Write in my prayer diary. Notice creation and thank God for it’s beauty and provision. Pray for joy and wisdom, thanking God in advance that he’ll provide. And then get on with it, expecting fruit, but never putting demands on God regarding the scope and timing of the fruit.
It’s that simple – and free – can close to home.
What practices help you overcome inferiority in your world? –