It's that time of year again. Christian conference season is well under way. Whatever your taste there is sure to be something for you – from the mega conferences to your church weekend away, the week long holiday with Bible teaching, or the one-day event 'that will change your life forever', there is something for every flavour of Christian. Do you want a quiet contemplative 'retreat', or do you want to 'advance' the kingdom with signs, wonders and booming bass? Do you want to have fantastic fellowship with your fellow Christians, or it is your idea of the nearest thing to purgatory on earth, spending your precious holiday time with your dysfunctional Christian family? Are conferences good for building up the kingdom of God, or are they just pale copies of 'worldly' holidays, and glorified promotional opportunities for celebrity Christians or the latest fad from over the Atlantic?
I have been attending Christian conferences since the 1970s, from the time when at the tender age of 16 I went to the tiny but wonderful OMF conference in the Highland village of Brora, to last year's Keswick Convention. I hope the following observations might help us as we consider their role in the life of the Church in the UK today.
1. If you have never been, why not give it a go?
Whether it was youth conferences, Bible teaching conventions or Christian holidays, as a young believer I was greatly helped by some wonderful Bible teaching, glorious praise and meeting lots of believers my own age. It is a time of feasting – spiritually and physically. It is a time set apart, a 'Sabbath' from our normal routine, which enables us ordinary mortals to get some rest, recreation and spiritual feeding. Some of us are too cynical for our own good. We have prejudices which preclude us from trying out any Christian conference. Time to think again?
2. Beware of becoming a Conference Christian.
I'm talking about the practice of living off the occasional spiritual highs and boosts, before sinking back into the mediocrity of normal Christian living back in the real world. This was, and is, a real danger. The point of a special feast is not that you don't eat food at other times. It is meant to enhance your normal life, not replace it.
3. Remember, they are not for everyone at every season of their lives.
Being in what felt like 24/7 ministry, the last thing my wife and young family wanted to do was give our precious holidays over to yet another 'ministry' situation. We wanted and needed to get away. Nowadays I try to go to one ministry conference where I am not a speaker, but our family holidays are generally spent on our own.
4. Try something different.
I have spoken at conferences as varied as Creation Fest, Spring Harvest, Word Alive, CLAN, and the granddaddy of them all, Keswick. I tend to get invited to a variety of conferences which means that you get to experience things that you don't normally see. Whether it's a different way of worship, a different church culture or just the wacko and bizarre (like the time in one speakers tent the main 'prophet' told us that the Lord had told him we should demonstrate our faith by literally eating grass – I refused on the grounds that I was sane and personally I thought he had been smoking it); it is all part of the rich tapestry of Christian life. If you are able to go to a couple of events per year why not choose one 'safe' one that you know you are going to enjoy, and one 'risky', outwith your comfort zone?
5. Enjoy the Diversity of the Christian Family.
I once spoke at Spring Harvest when it was the most popular Christian conference in Europe. It was surreal speaking in a pub called 'Merrie England' at midnight to 20 punters on the doctrine of predestination! It was beyond surreal turning up in a large hall to speak to a couple of hundred people on the doctrine of Hell, only to find that either side of me were two massive flame-throwing heaters. In my best John McEnroe voice I told the stewards "You cannot be serious! There is no way that I am going to speak about Hell with two flame throwers either side of me!" But despite the strangeness and the difference for me I enjoyed meeting brothers and sisters from many different backgrounds.
6. Beware of Celebrity Christianity.
Don't just go to the conferences for the 'big name' speakers. In Christ's kingdom there is only one big name. Celebrity Christianity is for me an oxymoron. I think of the 'celebrity' speaker who demanded first class tickets, his own dressing room and flowers! (I suggested to the organisers that that should have automatically excluded him). On the other hand you meet people like John Stott who was as gracious, kind and humble in private as he was in public. Faith affirming.
7. Get well fed.
One delegate at a conference told me that it provided 'food for the body and food for the soul'. That's not a bad description. Just as I would not enjoy a conference which provided me with junk food, we need to beware that we do not get fed spiritual junk food. Any Christian conference worthy of the name needs to ensure that the spiritual food is biblical.
I hope that the Christian conference scene continues, develops and grows. May the dross die, and the good flourish. May that which builds up the Kingdom of Christ, whatever tribe of 'Israel' we belong to, go from strength to strength, and may that which introduces poison into the body, wither and fade away.
Until last year I had never been to Keswick, thinking it was the kind of event that my parents would go to, but not something we would enjoy. Last year I went for the first time. It was wonderful – the venue was superb, the scenery magnificent, the organization brilliant, the fellowship stimulating, the Bible teaching out of, and yet for, this world, and (apart from accommodation and food) it was free! It challenged and changed my preconceptions and prejudices and made me glad that I belong to the biggest family on earth – the Family of God. Is that not what Christian conferences are all about?
Rev David Robertson will become the Moderator of the Free Church of Scotland in May.