Monday, March 12, 2007

Conferences and the Church

Last year, Carl Trueman published a very funny and yet very serious post on the Reformation21 blog, raising questions about the role of conferences in the lives of Christians. While it may have been a little "dangerous" raising these questions on the blog for the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, around the time of their sponsored PCRT, still the points Trueman raised are valid and need to be considered more thoughtfully and thoroughly.

One of the realities of evangelical Protestant life has been the multiplication of conferences; these conferences tend to represent particular market niches within the Reformed and evangelical world--the Gospel Coalition; Augusta Conference; Twin Lakes; Ligonier; Shepherds Conference; Resurgence; Together for the Gospel; PCRT; Desiring God; Banner of Truth (those are the ones that I came up with from the top of my head). As such, these conferences bring together the like-minded to hear solid preaching that ultimately encourages and reinforces particular aspirations, beliefs, practices, and stories--in other words, these conferences serve an important purpose in identity formation.

I think we've seen this most clearly in the recent debates over the Federal Vision--regardless of where one falls on those issues, it cannot be denied that the Biblical Horizon and Auburn Avenue conferences played a large role in forging a particular way of looking at the world for those who participated and adhere to their proposals--and this, I believe, speaks to issues of identity. It is the same way for frustrated boomers in the PCA, who have met in an invitation-only group for years, and now for frustrated Gen X-ers, who are doing the same. Bringing together like-minded individuals to conference on issues of concern is a long-standing way of forging identity.

On the surface, there is nothing "wrong" with conferences; I attend them as well. And yet, ultimately, these conferences are not "the Church"; and because this is the case, conferences may actually be fostering the division in the church that so many X-ers decry and yet may be unwittingly perpetuating. This is the case for the very reason that these conferences bring together the like-minded, the already-convinced, the insiders. They set the like-minded against the others--whether it is a "Reformed" doctrine conference against all the loosy-goosy Arminians or a non-denominational pastors conference that sets people against all the amillennialists.

And yet the Church is bigger than that--in the church, you have to learn how to work together with those with whom you agree and with those with whom you disagree. In the church, you serve on committees with those who trust the Church and the work of the Spirit through her and with those who distrust the Church and believe that it tends to abuse of authority. In the church, you worship with the high-church, the blended, the contemporary, the traditional, the low-church, the charismatic (and this is just the PCA) and somehow you have to see them all as brothers and sisters in Christ. In the church, you have to work to protect and negotiate the interests of builders, boomers, X-ers, Millennials, Y-ers; it's not possible simply to serve one group. In the church, you must be patient, you must believe all things, you must bear all things, even the thorns of ministry--because in the church, you truly learn to love as you love those with whom you have so little in common.

As we have our identities formed by our lives together as the Church, as opposed to issue-identity conferences, we truly image forth Christ's own body--where heads, hands, feet, eyes, and everyone else are vitally necessary. We learn to value those remarkably different from us, who see issues different us, who value worship different from us. We learn to live through the polity of our church, which best expresses the unity and diversity of the church. And we learn to confess that the "one, holy, catholic, apostolic church," even as represented by this little Presbyterian denomination, is a little bit bigger and messier that we knew--and that's a good thing.


chris larson said...

Thank you for this reminder Sean.

Alex Brown said...

Dr. Lucas,

How would you practically outwork this? What can be done to move our conference mind-set to a Church mind-set?

Could the Presbytery and GA be the place where we ought to be looking for the fellowship and challenge that is sought in para-Church Conferences? Rather than seeing them simply as places of business is there scope for them to be places of teaching, challenge and debate?

It seems to me that if we see Presbytery and GA as the primary 'conferences' for ministers and elders then things like Federal Vision can be critiqued within a situation which is regulated by the our Subordinated Standards. Para-church conferences can (though not always, and I would always defend ecumenical conferences such as Together for the Gospel) foster a mentality encapsulated in the old Scottish toast ‘Who’s like us? Very few and they’re all dead!’ And this can lead to division within denominations, such as what has happened with Federal Vision.

If we encourage honest and open debate within our denomination, under the Westminster Confession, we can sharpen, critique, and correct one another in a way that forges Church unity.

Maybe not. I dont know. But I find the divisions within Presbyterianism hateful, and long to see the denomination as a place of open and loving debate, and not factions.

Alex Brown.

Greg T. said...

Hey Sean--Thanks for this.

Your words are helpfully attentive to the tendency to isolate and critique--and to the rank destruction this tendency brings. This seems right to me.

One thing to consider. Not all gatherings of this sort fit into the rather narrow range of purposes that you outline here. That is, it would be possible to meet not merely out of schismatic isolationism, smirky discontent, or even the cultivation of a subculture identity.

Some of them may, in fact, be for the purpose of equipping people to live more fully and faithfully in the life of the church than they might otherwise do; to renew people's vision of the breadth of the church--and their lives within it--so that they might serve her more faithfully.

If this is so, then two things seem to follow:

First, there may be motivations other than the ones you've outlined here that need to be considered when evaluating conferences per se.

Secondly, this would mean that public conversations of the type represented in conferences might not need to be set in such strong opposition to the church's work. In light of their (as far as I can tell, legitimate) capacity to form character, deepen relationships, provide instruction, and motivate ecclesial service--they may, in fact, be of service to the church.

I write about this because your post could have the unintended consequence of casting suspicion on all who attend (or plan) such conferences and may, in this regard, unintentionally and ironically damge the unity that you hope to preserve.

At any rate, thanks for spurring my thinking about this. And thanks for a good blog.

Peace of the Savior. GT

Sean Michael Lucas said...

Hi, Greg:

Thanks for chiming in. I, of course, agree with you. Conferences can be immensely helpful for refreshing, revisioning, renewing, and redirecting--for coalescing like-minded individuals to work for the Church, not against it. It is undoubtedly true that those who plan and attend such conferences (and I say this, again, as someone who has planned and attended such conferences) do so with no harmful intent in mind and with every beneficial hope.

I guess my larger point was about how "conferences" interface with the future of the "church." It wasn't so much a reflection on any particular group or conference as it was on the future of the church which we both love dearly and serve and how to best facilitate her peace, purity, and unity.

I appreciate you taking the time to respond so helpfully and hopefully...sml