While they share some distinct features, the very nature of a conference is contrary to that of a personally penned letter.

  • Letters are intimate; conferences are gatherings of strangers
  • Letters are personal; conferences must be impersonal in order to address all in attendance
  • Letters are soul-bearing; conferences deflect with pomp and circumstance
  • Letters are meant to be read; conferences are meant to be observed, engaging the mind in a passive way – think book vs. television
  • Letters are fluid; conferences require themes and continuity to keep speaker and attendees on the same page
  • Letters are built out of a context of relationship; conferences are indifferent to relationships, assuming everyone in attendance should hear the same message

That, my friends, is why the Christian conference is not the modern-day epistle.

Let me tell you why. The letters of the New Testament, written to the churches in cities across Eurasia, served several purposes. Each letter is unique, but all have the same general functions. Paul wrote fellow believers in order to encourage, correct, teach and motivate them in their faith.

Fellow Believers

Paul’s letters were written to leaders in the new church, growing at rates that were unmanageable. Although Paul speaks for the importance of reaching unbelievers with Jesus’ message, his letters are reserved for the like-minded men and women who were laying down their lives for the cause of Christ. Brothers in arms, if you will. There is a sense that Paul is a pastor, friend, admirer and role model in his letters. The mutual affection is based on the common denominator in their lives; Jesus.

Christian conferences are similarly intended for the fellow believers who are living their lives for the glory of Jesus. Usually geared to those who serve in vocational ministry, conferences often serve as an oasis for dry and weary ministers. If you have ever attended a Christian conference, you would have experienced the pastoral/friendly/admiring/role model dynamic in the relationships among presenters and attenders.

Encourage

Paul is largely seeking to encourage the church leaders who are dealing with unmanageable growth, persecution, and the blending of cultures. No doubt the pastors of these local churches were in overdrive trying to keep up. Paul emphasizes that it is about the work that God has done and is doing, not about the individual leaders ability or qualification.

As a 21st century leader, this is something that can quickly be overlooked. With big personality leaders, and churches that seem to explode overnight, it is important to keep our eyes on the Creator of the Church, and not our abilities, or lack thereof. This theme is the through-line of many conferences.

Correct

Because cultures were blending, the theology was developing, and people are people, Paul spent a good amount of time in his letters correcting the young leaders. Much of which was reminding them to keep their hearts right before God and men. If something wasn’t right, Paul would bring it up.

This is harder to do in a conference setting, where speakers may be addressing representatives from multiple churches. Correction can be made about things like leadership perspectives, programming strategies and stewardship of time and finances. The best example I have seen of this was Rob Bell’s talk at Catalyst this past fall, where he urged leaders to let go of their attendance aspirations and to be faithful to those whom God has called them to serve.

Teach

Paul addresses many theological stances in his letters. Especially in metropolitan areas where cultures and religions are meshed, strong theology is difficult to uphold and communicate.

Conference speakers are unique in that they usually speak/teach about a specific characteristic of God. Many times, several speakers will cover very different aspects of God, which helps to form and reaffirm a strong understanding of Scripture.

Motivate

Paul constantly urges the church on through his letters. Although he encourages, teaches and corrects, Paul always left the readers with a strong motivation to carry on in their work.

At conferences, motivation may be one of the best things a speaker can provide. If a leader walks out of a conference with the truth that they can carry on, and that they are being greatly used by God, the conference has done it’s job. I would imagine the leaders in Phillipi, Corinth, Rome and beyond had that same feeling after reading a letter from their friend Paul.

I had a curious thought the other day. I was thinking about a conference I want to attend this fall, and the speakers who will be presenting.

Then I began to wonder how the conference came to be, and why we attend them. Especially in the church world; why do we love conferences? In the midst of this inner-conversation I wondered, is the Christian conference the modern-day epistle?

Over the next two days, I will give my reasons for why it is and why it is not. Tomorrow will be my “why yes it is” day. Wednesday, I will attempt to show how the conference is the furthest thing from the epistle.

The bonus, underlying content, will be that you get to witness an example of the arguements that take place inside my head.

In the meantime, what’s your initial reaction? Is the Christian conference the 21st century epistle?

If you could master a brand new craft by the end of the week, it would be ________.

I happened across an article on the website for Princeton’s student newspaper, that dealt with creating a conversation culture. The piece is written by a Rhodes Scholar from Princeton, and speaks about how the University should play more of a role in fostering a conversation culture on their campus. You can read the entire article here.

One comment he made stuck with me, and I think it applies to culture at large, and also has huge implications for the church.

…conversation culture is born not in elevators, lecture room seats or basement hallways before precepts — it flourishes in the smoky, sweaty corners of pubs; in cafeteria alcoves; and over beer in common rooms.

Pubs, cafeterias and common rooms. These three things share a commonality, which is that none of them are formal educational spaces. Colleges and Universities place a lot of focus on their formal spaces, but often neglect creating the culture that will foster growth in areas like critical thinking and classroom participation.

I think there is a takeaway for the church here as well. Great (faith) conversations don’t happen in church lobbies, pews or Sunday school classes – but thrive in pubs (or coffeehouses if that makes you more comfortable), cafeterias and common rooms.

Faith conversations rarely happen inside church buildings. Like many post secondary educational facilities, churches often focus on the building in which they gather once a week (formally), and neglect their responsibility to create a culture of conversation – which ultimately boils down to neglecting their responsibility to create disciples.

If the church can continue to move from a monologue to a dialogue, it can be a major player in the culture of conversation both in local communities and on a global scale.

In an interview, Bono once said the church should be the moral force in our society. The church can’t be the moral compass if it isn’t at the table when decisions are debated and executed.