It’s common these days to hear people disparage the big conference or to claim that attending an event is an unnecessary luxury since so many of the talks are live-streamed or divided later into clips for consideration. Some decry the focus on “big names” and well-known personalities, fretting over the celebrity culture that has had toxic effects in evangelicalism. Others say that big conferences require money that could be better spent elsewhere.
Critiques of conferences have their place, and some of these criticisms hit the mark more than others. But I still believe in the value of the conference in the internet age. The experience cannot be quantified in dollars and cents, or in hours and minutes.
First, a conference—more than just about any other activity—pulls us out of our day-to-day fields of ministry and helps us see how God is at work among and in others. By interacting with people across the country and around the world who share a similar theological vision or ministry approach or denominational identity, church leaders receive the gift of wider vision, of remembering that the little plot of land over which we labor as the Lord’s farmers is just that—a plot of land. The Lord has many fields, and we rejoice to see harvests in some areas and challenges in others. In both cases, we listen and learn, not as a way of commiserating about the heartaches, but in order to draw encouragement from remembering we are not alone no matter how lonely the task may feel at times. The encouragement that comes from a conference, especially among pastors who often feel isolated, is real, enduring, and needed.
Second, a conference draws people together in face-to-face conversation in a way that is simply not reproducible otherwise. I hesitate to compare a conference to a church gathering, because the gathering of believers together on a regular basis (when there is a covenantal understanding of one’s privileges and responsibilities) is of a fundamentally different nature from showing up at an arena or conference center to worship and hear the Word. Still, there is something to be said for face-to-face interactions, especially among pastors and church leaders who may have been friends or seminary colleagues or who have connected online over similar interests. The conference allows for spontaneous conversations in the hallway between old acquaintances, and meals across the table from people who encourage and edify you. As many conference goers will tell you, the conference gathering is often more about the gathering than the conference.
Third, even though watching a conference online helps people keep up with the goings on and receive edification from the preaching or worship, there is something about the conference itself that cannot be replicated. A live stream usually takes place “in the background” while the viewer is shifting between different tasks. As grateful as we are for the live stream, and as much as we might benefit from conference talks after the event, we recognize something irreplaceable about being in the room, with one’s Bible opened up and all distractions set aside, listening to the exposition of God’s Word while enjoying fellowship with others who are listening carefully with you.
The conference is a retreat, but not disengagement. Its goal as a retreat is to recharge the conference-goer so that he or she will make gospel advance in the future. A retreat is strategic, leading us to step away from regular responsibilities and to detach from everything else going on in the world for a few days, to re-center our attention and affection on the Lord and his Word, all with the intent of reengaging from a position of strength and renewal.
We are blessed, even when we are unable to attend a conference, to receive some of the benefits from afar, whether watching live or downloading later. But there is still something special about being present and adding to the event. We can be grateful for the role of the conference, and yes, even the denominational meeting, because these events solidify relationships, re-establish friendships, energize us for the tasks we have ahead, and remind us that we are not alone.