I've been incredibly blessed over the last couple of months to be able to attend two gatherings of Church Planters. The first was the Ecclesia Network's National Gathering and the second has been Christian Associates International's Leadership Summit.
I'll blog more in depth about both soon, but for now- it's got me thinking about why Church Planter conferences are so great and church growth/pastor's conferences are so not.
(By church growth/ pastors conferences I'm thinking of the big, national events with lots of big names, big ticket prices and big... Well, big EVERYTHING.)
1. Church planter conferences tend toward collaboration, Church growth/pastor conferences toward competition.
The big question at pastor conferences? How big is yours? (Church that is). The feeling is very middle school, with people sizing themselves and others up, clear pecking orders, cool kids, nerds and outcasts... And plenty of comparing yourself against the superstar A-listers on the stage and the B-listers who get invited to tell how cool what they've got going is at the various breakout sessions.
It tends to be a different world at Church planter conferences- everyone is either at the same place or only one or two steps removed and can remember clearly and identify with where everyone else is at. The spirit tends to be sharing of stories and wisdom/ resources, rather than the "Let me tell you how I innovated our way to WINNING and how you can too!"
2. Church planter conferences are about encouragement- pastor conferences try, but because of their emphasis on celebrity, end up being demoralizing.
I'll say this- the big conferences TRY to encourage pastors/leaders, they really do. And often, in spite of the lasers and smoke machines, God does show up and brings encouragement. But because of the very nature of the big stage, the inaccessible superstars, the cutting-edge everything, the end result is often men and women who leave thinking "If only I could speak like that. If only MY church was like that. If only..." they go back not necessarily encouraged in what God is doing in their community/context, but determined about what THEY are going to do next- driven to "take it to the next level." And when, year after year, the "next level" is not reached, but growth, if at all remains slow, a certain "Why does this work for everyone else but ME?" tends to set in.
Church planter conferences, however, tend to do the opposite. They confirm God in the slow and steady, they help us see God in what is now- however small, however seemingly insignificant. And because of that, while I leave church growth/pastor conferences determined and with a list of things to change and to implement, I tend to leave church planter conferences not with new level of drivenness, but new levels of clarity- clarity about what I'm doing, where God is in it, and what I long to see God do next.
3. Church planter conferences are about connection and you meet new people, while growth/pastor conferences tend to be about resources and programs.
Church planter conferences, at least the ones I go to, tend to be smaller, and that means a different relational dynamic. I went to a large conference in Southern California for years, heard many amazing speakers, got a ton of great ideas- but never made a *friend* I didn't have already when I walked in the door. And generally, at the end of the day I came to realize- I could have saved a lot of money, listened to all these talks on the internet, bought the books the A and B Listers were inevitably selling, and gotten largely the same result and maybe better if I'd just taken those books and MP3s and sat by a pool somewhere.
But over the last three years of attending small church planter-oriented conferences, I've actually made friends. People who know my name, who pray for and encourage me when I need it. People who get the unique challenges I'm facing and that I can pick up the phone and call when I need to... And believe me, I have. I've found not just the latest resource or model, but an actual learning community I hope to be journeying with for a long, long time.
4. Church planter conferences are about the small ways we see the Kingdom breaking in, both personally and corporately. Pastor conferences tend to be showcases not of what God is doing, but the best and the latest of what WE are doing.
Gather with five thousand other pastors, pay hundreds of dollars to be there and you have a right to expect exactly what you will get: The best speakers and the latest methods and technology. Watch Ed Young Jr ride an elephant onto the stage? Heck yeah! See some guy dive off a hundred foot tower into a bucket of water? Why not? Listen to one of three sugar-stick messages this superstar is touring the circuit with this year? Absolutely.
This isn't to say there's not a sense of inviting experienced and authoritative people to speak to the church planting conferences. But those folks come for a lot less money, they tend to actually hang around and have conversations with people, and all in all, it ends up feeling like someone who actually wants to contribute to your ministry- not fly in, do their thing, grab their check and jet out.
The planter conferences look more like what we actually do- simple worship, dialogue, sometimes bad PowerPoint. But in spite of (and maybe partially because of?) all that, they tend to deepen - not distract you with THE SHOW. The church growth conferences dazzle, but they don't tend to deepen. They show you what you can have if you just spend more money, hire the right staff, adopt their model...
Am I exaggerating? Sure- a bit. But I'm editorializing here! :)
Does small mean better? No, not necessarily. Ive been to some great larger conferences and some scary smaller ones. Can and does God show up at Catalyst Or some conference with "!" in the title or "Q"? Sure (but even HE has to pay $800 to get into Q). If you can go, go. Have a good time- get out of things like that everything you can.
But understand- we try to convince people that what's flashy, what's new, what appeals to our consumer instincts isn't always what's best- that God (as Elijah found) is often heard in the still silence, not the flash and bang... And then we often turn around and choose exactly that. The glitz, the show, the "experience."
I've simply become convinced that there's a whole lot more to the small and non-slick than meets the eye. That maybe my time and money are better spent in smaller environments that can't "compete" with these big mega-conferences, but also offer some things they could never hope to.
And maybe, if you are in ministry, yours too?