Are Christian Conferences damaging the local church?

We all swim in the waters of culture and it impacts us more than we realise.  But how have some of those trends impacted the way we approach church?  I want to suggest 3 wider trends and finish with a specifically Christian 1.

Consumerism – My inbox has been inundated this week with notifications about Black Friday Week (!?!) sales.  Inviting me to consume lots of things that I don’t really need.  There’s deals and special prices and all sorts of offers (which honestly are the best they’ll ever be – unless you read what the small print says).  We are always being invited to consume.  In fact it is almost impossible for us to go through a day without being a consumer.

And our consumerism is always about getting the most possible for the least possible outlay.  That’s why we have countless comparison websites, why there are blogs about where to get the best deals, why whenever we buy a product we’re offered future discounts if we just leave a review on Trustpilot or similar.  Because people want to get the most they can.  They want the best.

It’s not hard to see how that might impact Church.  Bring the Trustpilot and Black Friday consumerology into your thinking about church and you will want to go to the best church.  You will travel in order to get the most bang for your buck or value for your time.  You will want somewhere that suits you, where your needs are met.

Individualism – ‘Me time’ has become a huge thing.  It’s the ultimate cry of the individual.  But it’s also seen in the individualisation of everything.  And again it has had an impact on church and people’s approach to it.  There is less concern for the impact of our actions on others, less commitment to the biblical idea of a body, and more a sense of moving for what suits us.  That is a distinctly gospel denying way of thinking!

Entertainment – We are used to being entertained all the time.  The quality of entertainment has risen; be it in terms of GCI crammed films, music and digital audio,  4k TV (so we watch that bead of sweat roll down the footballers nose as he takes that penalty), and so on.  And the glut of entertainment available plays into our individualism like some kind of destructive feed back loop.  Again it’s not hard to see how that impacts church and our involvement in it.  If it’s not slick and well produced we value it less.  If it’s not grabbing our attention and keeping our attention we won’t give it our attention.  The skill of working hard to concentrate on something is increasingly a lost art.  That has huge ramifications for our choice of church, engagement with church, care of others, and engagement with the Bible more generally.

Lastly, and maybe peculiar to Christian culture:

Conference-ism – The church has never been better served by conferences than it is right now.  Word Alive, Keswick, FIEC leaders conference, Spring Harvest, New Wine.  There are multiple opportunity to gather with large numbers of Christians to worship God and encourage one another.  And it is hugely encouraging to meets with hundreds if not thousands of other believers, as a family we have been wonderfully fed and encouraged at those conferences.

But I wonder if it’s having an unintended consequence.  I wonder if it leads us to long for this to be the norm.  I wonder if unintentionally and almost unnoticed they are making us long for the encouragement of meeting with many rather than valuing the small local congregation as God does.

We’ve seen it impact us as a church as families have moved to bigger churches saying they need more believers around them or their children for the encouragement that brings.  Even citing the conference they were at recently and how that encouragement of numbers spurred them, or their children, on and made them realise that they want that every week.  I have lots of sympathy with that, though I think it’s biblically flawed and dangerous for gospel witness.  It smacks of me-ism and ignores God’s mission.

I wonder if our conferences rather than supporting the small local churches, as they aim to, are unintentionally creating a hunger for bigger, better populated meetings ad churches week by week.  So that instead of gathering once a year – or if you’re an conference junkie (not mentioning any names, but you know who you are) 2 or 3 times a year – to be encouraged and then scatter to the local smaller church and serve, we are gathering and creating a hunger for that conference feeling of numerical encouragement every week.  Which is actually not serving the small church but denuding it.  Creating Christians who can only conceive of church as somewhere large and with lots of people like me.

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