Another recent column at Christian Week:
It’s hard sometimes not to be cynical. An example is when I attend Christian pastoral and leadership conferences. Conferences are everywhere, and after a while they all seem the same.
I struggle with a few things: overly emotive songs, relatively little Biblical content, and an overemphasis on pragmatism. I never used to approach conferences with dread, but years of attending these events have taken their toll, and I find myself a tough attendee these days.
Late in February, I attended the Revive Your Soul conference in Toronto, sponsored by Tyndale University College and Seminary. It’s billed as “a personal spiritual and renewal conference for pastors and leaders.” The conference lineup looked good. I’ve heard recordings from past years that were helpful, so I decided to attend.
The speakers were good, even excellent. Mark Buchanan, a Canadian pastor and author, spoke on developing a life in which God gets bigger to us every year. Author Ken Boa offered seven keys to finishing well. Earl Creps, a pastor and author, talked about the importance of reverse mentoring – learning from those who are younger than us. Psychologist Gary Collins spoke on the importance of Christian coaching and handling change.
Their presentations were good, but I found myself struggling. Maybe it was the mediocre coffee, the information overload, or the growing list of ideas to implement. It looked like it could become just another conference. Collins even quoted a statistic that 95% of people don’t change after attending conferences like this one.
But during the last session, something changed. Earl Creps found some ideas coming together during the conference and decided to share them. His session was unpolished, but it was one of the most profound messages I’ve ever heard.
Creps talked about our tendency to shrink spirituality, offering Jesus as a set of self-improvement techniques. “We present a Jesus so small that he can be tucked into our lives,” he said.
The alternative, Creps said, is John 15: abiding in Christ. We need to stop holding up answers, and start holding up Jesus. Our pragmatism essentially says that Jesus is not enough by himself. We are offering our people too little. Jesus did not come to improve our lives, but to be our life. He did not come to make bad people good or good people better; he came to make dead people live.
The enemy of faith is not so much doubt, Creps explained. It is reductionism. The world is waiting for a spirituality that is big, much bigger than the one we’re offering with our self-help spirituality. Instead of looking for turbo versions of ourselves, maybe we need to spend more time looking at the transcendent God who is much bigger than our puny lives and organizations.
For the first time in the conference, I found myself taking pages of notes. What I need most, I realized, was not more techniques, as good as they are. I am hungry for Jesus. The same is true of my church. A bigger church and a better life are alright, but not nearly important as my connection to the one who said, “Apart from me you can do nothing.”
On the way home I listened to CDs of the sessions by Jill Briscoe that I had missed. Briscoe talked about lessons she’d learned in her seventy-some years. One lesson is that we are too focused on mechanics, and not enough on dynamics. In the end, this conference pointed me past all of the mechanics and to the dynamics of life in Christ. For the first time in years, my soul was revived at a conference.