Yesterday I had the privilege of hanging out with two relatively new friends, Collin Hansen and Tim Challies. Collin is an editor of Christianity Today (you might know him best from his article “The Young, Restless, and Reformed“), and Tim runs one of the best and most widely read Christian blogs on the Internet. He has live-blogged almost every major Reformed conference around. With both people, the issue of conferences in the Reformed movement came up, and it made me start thinking more about the effect such conferences are having today.
Conferences have been around for a long time. In fact, you can go back to the beginnings of the Kewsick movement and see that conferences were quite frequent. In the early to mid-twentieth century, conferences were particularly common among the Fundamentalist movement, especially during the summer. These conferences developed what became know as the “Fundamentalist Celebrities” which included men like Charles Fuller, Donald Gray Barnhouse, Charles Trumbell, Harry Ironside, Bob Jones Sr. John R. Rice, J. Frank Norris, and Paul Radar. These men, most of whom had radio shows, also appeared as keynote speakers at conferences. The dispensationalist movement greatly benefited from the conference culture as well, having professors from various Bible schools teach their way of interpreting the Bible and reality through the dispensational lens. The Fundamentalist and Dispensationalist movements were shaped by these celebrities through their books, conferences, radio shows, magazines, and bible institutes. Inconspicuously missing in both movements, however, was the local church.
More recently, I was brought up in the conference culture of the Southern Baptist Convention. Such conferences included First Baptist Jacksonville’s Pastor’s Conference, Bailey Smith’s Real Evangelism Conferences, and other annual conferences including state evangelism conferences and state pastor’s conferences. Not included in that were other various conferences geared for specific groups, such as leadership conferences, worship conferences, and youth conferences. Some of the Southern Baptist celebrities which came from this conference culture included men like Adrian Rogers, Jerry Vines, Stephen Olford, Jerry Falwell, Johnny Hunt, Junior Hill, Bob Pitman, Mac Brunson, and Ted Traylor. Sometimes the conference were back-to-back. For instance, the FBC Jax Pastor’s Conference would end on Wednesday, and the Bailey Smith REC would begin the next day in FBC Woodstock. When I was on staff at a church, I was sometimes gone for two weeks straight, listening day after day of speakers at conferences. I will never forget being at the front of the church to shake someone’s hand and seeing a long line of people asking these SBC celebrities to sign their Bibles.
In the last five years, we have seen the blossoming of the Reformed movement in America, and the fruit of that can be seen in the ever-growing number of Reformed conferences. Tim Challies has made a list of Reformed conferences which gives you an idea of just how expansive it has become. In this conference culture, the Reformed celebrities include men like John MacArthur, Mark Dever, John Piper, Al Mohler, Ligon Duncan, C. J. Mahaney, R.C. Sproul, D.A. Carson, Phil Ryken, Voddie Bachum, and Steve Lawson. A recent trend now has been to perpetuate the conference by putting the messages together and sale them in book format.
I must first say that I am not against conferences per say. I think conferences can serve several good purposes, not the least of which is bringing encouragement and camaraderie to those like-minded in their calling. I also believe that conference with a specific theme or topic can be particularly helpful. Ministers who rarely get to sit under someone else’s preaching can go to a conference and be refreshed while listening to some of the best preaching in the country. However, my concern with the Reformed movement is two-fold. First, I do not want to see the Reformed movement become defined by the conference culture as the Keswick and Fundamentalist movement were. They were by and large parasitic of the local church and did not emphasize or place priority on the local church. As a result, both movements died when their celebrities and conferences died. Second, I don’t want to see these godly men who have become so influential in so many lives becomed elevated to a celebrity status. They should not be asked to sign anyone’s bibles nor should they be considered anything more than mere human. Though I have been at several conferences and personally been able to meet several of these men aforementioned, I have refrained from doing so because of the euphoria of the environment that seemed to surround me at that moment.
Perhaps we should have a conference to deal with all the Reformed conferences. I’m being serious here. Ministers and lay people only have so much time to take off during the year, and some of that should include time with their family (also, how much time do the speakers have to be away from their churches or schools?). If we are going to see long-term effect from the Reformed resurgence, it must transcend the conference culture and progress into the local churches. The other movements at best were parachurch movements, and the outcome followed that format. The influence and enthusiasm spawned from the conferences and books are great, and it is personally excited to see our generation swept into a God-centered, God-entranced vision of missions and ministry. But therein also lies my concern. It could end up only a generational thing.
As I think about the work of God in the early church, I recall specific times when people wanted to elevate the apostles to a celebrity status. When Peter healed the lame beggar, he asked the crowd, “Men of Israel, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we have made him walk?” (Acts 3:12). When Paul and Barnabas were at Lystra, and the crowds saw that Paul had healed him, they cried out, “The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!” (Acts 14:11). Luke goes into detail to show that Barnabas had been called Zeus and Paul Hermes, and the priest of Zeus brought oxen and garlands to offer sacrifices with the crowds. I’d say that they thought pretty highly of ole’ Paul and Barney. But what was their response? They cried out, “Men, why are you doing these things? We also are men, of like nature with you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these vain things to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them” (Acts 14:15).
While I am quite certain that none of the men aforementioned leading the Reformed resurgence would respond any differently than Peter, Paul, or Barnabas, my concern is the danger of us not responding any differently than the crowds who wanted to turn them into celebrities. We, like Peter’s crowd, have the tendency to sit back and stare at those on stage or on the big screens. We may not bring our oxen and garland and offer sacrifices like those in Lystra, but we will bring our sharpies, cameras, and Bibles to sign. We know that we should have no other gods before us, and the very notion sounds absurd. But let us be sober enough to realize that anything or anyone who merits our attention or appreciation more than Christ turns them into nothing less than idols in our own hearts. I love and appreciate John Piper, but he did not die for me. I am grateful for Al Mohler, but he did not give me eternal life.
So let us lift our hearts to whom praise, worship, and adoration is due, and let these men who have led us find their place alongside us in glorying in our great God and King. And may we see the work of God through the Reformed movement bring revival to our churches and a renewal to radical God-centeredness where we devote our time, attention, and focus on Jesus Christ.