Conferences exist to minister to you

Conferences are strange animals. From one perspective, they’re filled with wonderful content delivered by excellent teachers. From another perspective, they’re great times to connect with people you rarely see in person. From another still, there is always so much to hear at these conferences that it’s hard to process it all. And at every event I go to, I see people wrestling with which of these to prioritize. Should they make sure they hit every session? Should they skip one or two for a longer lunch, or get some coffee with a friend? Or should they head back to the hotel room for a while and process what’s already been heard—or maybe take a nap?

Chances are, a bunch of you reading this are going to be heading off to TGC in Indianapolis today. I’m heading there today, too. I’m looking forward to meeting a bunch of you, hanging out at The Gospel Project booth, and generally having a great time.

But maybe you’re wondering what to do about these things, especially if it’s your first time there. For what it’s worth, here’s my advice: Don’t worry too much about the sessions. Choose a few that you really want to attend, and go to them. But give yourself lots of space for processing. Take the time to pray about what you hear, and consider how it affects your ministry. Allow yourself space to be ministered to. That’s what these events are for, believe it or not.

Despite what you might read on a blog, conferences like TGC don’t exist to perpetuate a celebrity culture. They’re intended to be a service to the local church by ministering to you, the attendee. The person who—if you’re a pastor or leader in the church—probably isn’t being ministered to all that frequently because you’re too busy serving others. If that’s you, I truly hope this event is a blessing to you. (And if it is, come by the Gospel Project booth; I’d love to know how my team and I might be able to serve you during the event as well.) Enjoy the rest that this event (I hope) offers. Let it be an opportunity to recharge and replenish you for the days ahead.


Photo: Pixabay

Three highlights from #T4G2016

T4G 2016: We are Protestant

I spent last week in Louisville at Together for the Gospel. It was a super-busy, but really great, week filled great teaching and opportunities to catch up with friends. This weekend, I spend a fair bit of time trying to process what I’d learned and

1. On blaspheming the Trinity, unresolved problems, and dying for the sake of the gospel

I’m typically neither here nor there on panel discussions and Q&As, but I was amazed listening to Phillip Jensen at T4G. There was a ton that I loved about his discussion with Mark Dever—not the least of which being Jensen’s personality. He was totally embracing his ability to say… well, pretty much whatever he wanted, which was rad.

But more than his personality was what he shared, with what might be one of the most succinct deconstructions of the problem of the papacy I’ve ever heard. In just a few moments, Jensen was able to narrow it down to one essential issue—blasphemy:

If any man or office takes for itself the identity of the members of the Trinity, there is cause for concern, clearly. But as evangelical protestants, we should not be surprised by this. After all, as Jensen and Ligon Duncan before him reminded us as they opened the conference, the fundamental disagreements between Roman Catholics and Protestants remain unresolved:

  • Protestants believed (and still believe) the Bible alone is the sole source of authority in the church, not tradition and one man’s office;
  • Protestants believed (and many still believe) Christians must worship according to the Scriptures, rather than, essentially, worshipping our own way;
  • Protestants believed (and still believe) justification is by faith alone, not a mingling of faith and works;
  • Protestants believed (and still believe) there are only two sacraments, not seven as in Roman Catholic doctrine;
  • Protestants believed (and still believe) in the necessity of restoring the teaching office to the local church, not in a single office that stands apart from the rest of the church; and
  • Protestants believed (and many still believe) that assurance of salvation is not only possible, but necessary, whereas the Roman Catholic Church singles it out as Protestant theology’s fundamental problem.

None of these problems have gone away. And until they are resolved—whether Protestants give up the fight (which would mean abandoning the gospel) or the Roman Catholic Church repents—there can be no true and lasting unity, even if we can unite around causes such as the defence of marriage and advocating for the rights of the unborn and aged.

I long for true unity among those who claim the name of Christ. But we cannot pretend the differences aren’t real—for each of these differences represents an attack on the gospel, to say that they don’t matter or are superficial (as some do), is to miss the point entirely of what so many of our spiritual ancestors gave up their lives for.

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David Platt closed the conference with a powerful exploration of the character of martyrs—and why many were reputed to have been reciting Psalm 51 as they met their ends. From this psalm, Platt asked two questions: first, why did they die, and second how shall we live. On the first point, Platt said:

  • They died because they believed their depravity was deserving of damnation. As wonderful and worthy of imitation as these men were, the martyrs knew they deserved death and damnation because of their sin.
  • They died because they believed their salvation was found solely in god’s mercy separate from their merit. They died for the Lord’s Supper, which reminded them of their lack of merit—that Christ would die for them, not that he would be sacrificed again in the Eucharist.
  • They died because they believed love like what we see in the gospel was worth proclaiming. They didn’t die because they believed or studied the gospel privately. They died because they proclaimed it.

On the second, he encouraged us to live in the following ways:

  1. Let us prioritize theological precision among God’s people. “Doctrine matters. Theology matters. Understanding God’s Word matters. How we carry out worship matters. Our understanding of the Lord’s Supper matters. We don’t look to Scripture for permission to do what we think is best but for what God says. We do not prostitute the nations for the sake of donors. And those that are doing it are learning it from us. Stop sending missionaries with a low view of God’s word.”
  2. Let us mobilize for sacrificial mission among all peoples. “The need is great for justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone in America. But it’s needed in the world too. People are just as lost in Turkey as in Tennessee. But there’s a difference: there are churches and Christians in Tennessee. There are almost none in Turkey. They have no access to the gospel. And there’s a good chance they’re going to die and go to hell because they haven’t heard it. What would it take for the idea of unreached people to become completely intolerable to us?”
  3. Let us live, lead and long for the day when Reformation will be Consummation. “We have brothers and sisters in prison in North Korea. We have brothers and sisters in Pakistan where their buildings are being charred. There are brothers and sisters in Somalia whose throats will be cut if they speak the gospel. Do we not long for the day when the figurative fires of martyrdom will be finished. The reformers were fixed on that day.”

I found these points exceptionally challenging, especially as I consider both my own heart. I live in a country that is hostile to the gospel, but in a different way than the Reformers and our brothers and sisters places like Turkey face. I can go to church without worrying that someone will arrest me on the way. I can preach at a church without fear of attack. I can write this post without fear of reprisal (in general). So how can I use the opportunities this affords me while I have them?

The crowd at Together for the Gospel 2016

2. Thousands of voices singing Christ’s praises

One of the highlights of this conference is hearing—clearly—thousands of voices joining together in praise of Christ. Singing praise as such a large group is unbelievable, especially when singing a simple song such as the doxology as we did at the end of the event. Hearing everyone together made me long for the coming new creation, when all of God’s people will join together to sing together and worship him for eternity.

It also made me look forward to praising Christ with my own church. While there are times when I struggle to sing at home, it doesn’t change my desire to. Singing at the conference gave me a few new words to sing for those moments when I struggle to sing the words on the screen at home.

3. Remembering the bondage from which we’ve been freed

John Piper presented a challenging message to the group this week, as he spoke on the bondage of the will. Though the entire message was superb, the end is what will undoubtedly cause a stir among many (and you could feel it happening in the crowd). Piper said (and I’m paraphrasing a bit):

We dare not only preach our new identity in Christ in our churches. Unless you preach the old identity in Adam how will they ever know grace? Whether you’re a convert who can remember what he was saved from or one who grew up in a Christian home, we need this…

That word “only” is important—it’s not that Piper is against preaching our identity in Christ, but that we should not ignore our old identity. Knowing what we were saved from—who we were—helps us appreciate what we were saved to—and who we are now in Christ. This is something that, is easy for me in a lot of ways to take for granted. I know exactly what I was like before Christ saved me. I was a hater of God. My children, if by God’s grace they come to faith in him, may never know a life as a hater of Christ. They might only experience a gradual progression from seeing Emily’s and my faith in action to a faith of their own emerging (and I pray for this to happen). But they need the same rescue I did for their problem is the same as mine. And all of us  owe all we have in Christ to his gracious work of saving us from our bondage to our love of darkness and hatred of the light.

That’s good news, isn’t it?

No, I won’t be live-blogging #T4G2016

T4G 2016: We are Protestant

Today, I’m hitting the road to Louisville for T4G 2016 to spend three days visiting with friends, learning from amazing preachers and teachers, and hopefully getting to enjoy at least one stop at Chick-Fil-A before heading back to Canada. (It’s the little things that make trips like this worth it…)

But one thing I won’t be doing this year? Live-blogging.

I took a break from live-blogging two years ago during T4G 2014. The pace is hectic, and the self-imposed pressure to capture everything doesn’t allow for serious reflection (at least not for me). Although I am a believer in the importance of hard work, if a conference is a semi-vacation for me, then it should feel a little more… vacationy, y’know?

Instead, here’s what you’ll probably see from me this year:

  1. At least one post highlighting a few key teaching moments from the event. One thing I loved about TGC 2015 was being able to sit back, and take a bunch of notes (because I always do that), but really consider the moments that stuck with me. (You can check those out here.) This is what I’m hoping to do again this year—take in the sessions that I can, write down what really matters to me, and think about what I’m going to do with it. Which is what we’re supposed to be doing at these things, isn’t it?
  2. Something focused on the personal moments from the week. For me, the most important part of these events is connecting with people who I normally only get to interact with via email or social media. They’re great folks who I honestly wish I could hang out with on a more consistent basis. Even the one that keeps calling me a commie. While I’m not sure there will be escapades like last year’s excursion to Disney, I’ve no doubt there will be something worth sharing.
  3. Something about the books that catch my eye. One of my favorite parts of these events is checking out the bookstore and talking to publishers about what’s new and noteable that’s coming out in the near future (or being premiered at the event). While I won’t guarantee it, it’s a safe bet you might see something related to the books that catch my attention, as well as some of the freebies that come home… or something on how I’m finding a good home for a bunch of books as soon as I get home.

And who knows? Maybe I’ll write about something controversial. Like music.

If you’re unable to attend, I hope you’ll take advantage of the livestream of the event. If you’re in Louisville, though, and you see me around the bookstore(s) or milling about the exhibitor booths, come over and say hi. I’d love to meet you.

3 takeaways from Story Nashville

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I’ve long had a strange relationship with the the “creative” subculture. I love being challenged by creators (or “creatives” if you prefer); I get excited when I learn about something really cool that someone’s done (especially when it’s something I can build on). But I can’t stand the “snow-flakiness” that tends to exist: this idea that creators are a special breed of people, an elite group who cannot be understood by mere mortals.

So why would i attend a conference all about creativity, then?

Last week, I was in Nashville for Story, the theme of which was “Some Stories Are Real,” referring to JRR Tolkien’s description of the gospel to his friend, C.S. Lewis. I’ve now attended this event three times (previously in 2012 and 2014), and it was a great time—by far my favorite Story experience so far. Here are a couple of key takeaways:

Telling the whole story matters. Blaine Hogan, a creative director at Willow Creek, made a good point: “If you tell your story as ‘I once was lost but now am found and never was lost again,’ you will be telling the world a lie.” We need to be willing to tell the messy side of the story, not in a misguided attempt to be “real”, but to help people move toward wholeness (particularly spiritually). Listening, I was positively encouraged because there is a temptation to try to shape our personal experiences around a narrative that doesn’t make sense. Things don’t always come up Millhouse, and we’ve got to be okay with that.

Passion fades, but love perseveres. Jena Lee Nardella, co-founder of Blood: Water, didn’t really speak much on creativity directly, but she did speak on the need for perseverance. After experiencing a major failure with Blood: Water, she realized much of what she thought was “hope” was actually zeal. It was passion that wasn’t fully grounded. Failure grounded her and helped her see things differently—not with an unbridled or unrealistic optimism, but with a greater understanding of the limits of human ingenuity and the purposes of God. This is important for creators because we learn by failing far more than we do by succeeding. Whether our “art”—be it a book, a song or a spreadsheet—is a passing fancy or something we deeply love is often revealed by how we handle the hiccups.

(And as a side note, I was incredibly encouraged by the maturing outlook on caring for those in need she displayed in her session—as someone who’s been beating the “we’re not called to redeem the world but love it” drum for a long time, it was nice to hear it from someone else.)

What’s the thing you want to do but you’re you’re not doing—and what do you need to do so you can do it? Pete Wilson spoke of pursuing dreams, and reminded us that to do this requires courage. You’re working not only against your own comfort levels, but you’re sometimes working against other people’s ideas of what you should be doing. “God’s got a plan for your life, but so does everybody else,” as he put it. In the same way, James Rhodes reminded us all that creativity isn’t the same as having ideas. Creativity requires action because to be creative means we must create something.

Too many of us say, “I’ve got a book in me,” but don’t do anything about it. What’s stopping us from acting? In the same way, what’s stopping us from taking the initiative and reinventing the process at work that might increase efficiency, or learning to play an instrument, or whatever that thing is for each of us? What needs to change in your life to make it happen? Maybe it’s as simple as admitting that the only thing holding us back is fear. Perhaps it’s more complicated. Whatever it is, we would be wise to consider what we would need to do to be able to pursue that thing we’ve always wanted to. And if we’re not willing to, perhaps it’s time to stop talking about it.

This last point is probably the most important for me, simply because it’s the space I’m in right now. I have a lot of things I want to do, but I’ve been afraid to go ahead and do them. There’s the fear of not having an idea accepted. There’s the fear of the work not connecting with readers. There’s the fear of having to give something up so I can actually work on these great ideas.

And all of that is just dumb. So I’m working through that right now. Where it will lead, I don’t know for certain, but I’ll keep you posted.

Those are just a few thoughts on the conference. If you attended, what were your big takeaways?

Books I’m packing for #TGC15

TGC15-books

The Gospel Coalition’s 2015 national conference begins this coming Monday, which means in just a couple of days, I’ll be hitting the road for Orlando for a few days of teaching on the new creation, conversations with far off friends I don’t see nearly often enough, and, hopefully, a little time in the sun.

And because I’m going to be sitting on a plane for a few hours each way, it’s also a great opportunity to catch up on some reading. Although I’m almost certainly not going to get to everything (because that’d be silly), here’s a look at what I’m packing:

What Does the Bible Really Teach about Homosexuality? by Kevin DeYoung. I’m about half done this one already, so it might not actually make it onto the plane. Incidentally, if you’re at the conference, you can get a copy for $5 in the bookstore. If not, be sure to get it while it’s on sale at Westminster Bookstore.

Blind Spots: Becoming a Courageous, Compassionate,and Commissioned Church by Collin Hansen. What I’ve seen of this, I’ve really liked, so it might be my next read after DeYoung’s book. This is also another one of the $5 deals in the conference bookstore that is worth considering.

Defying ISIS by Johnnie Moore. Moore’s book came on my radar just recently, and thankfully I’ve been able to get my hands on a copy. Looking forward to seeing how he handles the subject matter.

Fear and Faith by Trillia Newbell. Trillia’s new book is one that showed up in my mailbox last week. This one I’m looking forward to almost more because I enjoy how Trillia writes (that’s a huge part of what makes a book worth reading for me—style).

Experiencing the Trinity: The Grace of God for the People of God by Joe Thorn. I’ve been meaning to get to this one for a while now, and just haven’t had the opportunity to start. Thorn’s last book, Note to Self, was terrific and I have high hopes for this one, too (especially based on my friend Joey’s recommendation of it).

I’ll also be continuing my trek through Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 3: Sin and Salvation in Christ by Herman Bavinck. Conference or no, I’m on a schedule, and I’ve already had to push back my completion date once. Thankfully, this one will be particularly easy to pack since it’s sitting in my Logos app.

While at the conference, I’m actually not planning on purchasing any books, although that may be easier said than done. There’s a title or two I already know will be there that I’ve been meaning to take a look at…

Travelling to TGC this weekend? What are you planning to read along the way?

Why aren’t unknown pastors headlining Christian conferences?

unknown-pastors

Christian conference season is in full swing once again, which means there’s inevitably going to be a flood of blog posts and tweets from various corners of the Interwebs about this or that event. Some folks will be live-blogging. Others will be live-tweeting. And some will be lamenting the fact that there aren’t any “ordinary” pastors headlining anything.

I’ve wondered about this for a while. We’re all equal in Christ, after all. Those who are more obscure in their ministry have as much to say (sometimes even more) than those who are extremely well known. So why do our conferences seem to focus primarily on the latter group? What’s the deal?

Why aren’t unknown pastors speaking at big events? The answer is actually pretty simple: it’s because you wouldn’t go if they did.

Now, before anyone thinks I’m accusing any groups of propping up the so-called “Christian celebrity industrial complex,” or that I’m telling people who complain about such things to knock it off, let me tell you a story:

A few years ago, I went to a three-day conference here in Ontario, which featured several speakers (and only one of whom was fairly well-known among theology nerds like me). The location was quite accessible, located just off the 401 highway (and had free parking, even!). The word spread, sponsors and volunteers signed up… However, maybe two hundred people showed up.

A year later, a big two-day men’s event was announced, again here in Ontario. Three of the four speakers were, without question, Christian celebrities (even if one of those three is anything but in his demeanor). The location was in a city’s downtown core (and therefore had some challenges with parking especially). Again, the word spread, sponsors and volunteers signed up… This time, about eight thousand men showed up.

Which was the more edifying event? Having attended both, the former, by far. But significantly more people went to the latter. Why? Because they wanted to hear the big name speakers.

And that’s a huge reason people go to big conferences—it’s not that the conference organizers are trying to perpetuate Christian celebrity-ism. It’s that people will only go if they make it worth their while. There has to be a draw.

For some people, it’s the topic. For example, TGC’s focus on the new creation in 2015 is really exciting to me. It’s a big part of why I’m going (social and personal ministry reasons aside). But some people are going, really, just because they want to hear John Piper or Tim Keller speak. And that’s cool, too, as long as they’re learning. If they’re going only to get selfies with them, though…

But think about it: A lot of the folks who bemoan certain groups for perpetuating celebrity-ism are just as guilty of it—they just have different celebrities. If you’ve asked John MacArthur to sign your Bible, guess what? You’re doing it because he’s Christian-famous. He is, for lack of a better term, a celebrity.

But just because MacArthur is well known doesn’t make the Shepherd’s Conference evil, any more than Tim Keller being well known makes TGC’s National Conference evil. Or Kevin DeYoung increasingly becoming well known makes T4G evil. Or… well, you get the point.

A few bad eggs[1. See also, “peddlers of God’s Word”] aside, many of the Christian-famous Christians we know—whether MacArthur, Keller, Piper, or whomever—are not so because they’re trying to make a name for themselves. God has simply chosen to give them a larger platform. This doesn’t mean those of us with smaller platforms don’t have anything worth contributing—it’s just that God has chosen to do something different in our lives compared to these other people. And that’s okay.

Also, don’t ask people to sign your Bible. It’s just weird.

Cliff Notes from the Xchange

Recently I spent a few days in Escondido, California, basking in the mid-teen temperatures (sorry, folks, I still think Celsius when it comes to temperatures), enjoying the sunshine… and taking part in the TruthXchange 2011 Think Tank. The theme of the conference was One-ism: A Poison Pill for the Church?

Building on the messages from The Exchange Conference in 2010, the Think Tank addressed issues of the gospel, social justice, environmentalism, spirituality, missiology, gender, worship, education, eschatology, literature and epistemology (that is, thinking). While my full notes would be too intense (I’ve got something like 12,000 words worth), I wanted to share some highlights from the sessions I most appreciated.

The One-ist Gospel

Brian Mattson spoke on the One-ist gospel by examining Brian McLaren’s most recent book, A New Kind of Christianity, asking two key questions:

Is McLaren’s Christianity new—and is it really Christian at all?

The answer to both of these questions, says Mattson is no. McLaren’s new kind of Christianity is nothing more than classical Enlightenment liberalism. Mattson’s analysis suggests that the gospel put forth in this book (and by many like-minded thinkers within the Emergent stream of evangelicalism), is actually Universalism, which is necessarily Gnostic, not Christian.

In the Gnostic gospels, you’d run across a motif that runs through all of them; it’s not enough for the Gnostics to claim that the “violent, tribal deity” is a lesser God—they call Yahweh, the God of the Bible an ignorant God; “the bastard child deity of a screw-up.”

The explanation is elegant and simple. The God revealed in the Old Testament Scriptures claims to be the only God. He actually says “I am the only God and there is no other.” His ignorance is manifest in his claim of exclusivity.

On the one hand there’s a God who claims to be the only God, to whom all allegiance is owed. On the other, there’s a group of people saying, “no, this cannot be true because divine love is universal.”

The question is, how do they know?

They know because they are “Gnostic.” He can claim that he is the only God to whom all allegiance is owed, but they know better.

All claims to Universalism are claims to have access to spiritual knowledge beyond bounds of God’s revelation. It goes all the way back to the first temptation in the garden; his “new kind of Christianity” is actually the oldest kind of heresy. Read More about Cliff Notes from the Xchange

Truth and Lies: Francis Chan – The Truth and the Lie in Social Justice

Francis Chan is the bestselling author of Crazy Love and Forgotten God. Until recently, he was also the teaching pastor of Cornerstone Church in Simi Valley, California. His message, The Truth and the Lie in Social Justice, was, perhaps, one of the most intriguing for me to see at the conference. Largely because I didn’t know where he was going to go with it.

Chan’s message found its foundation in Colossians 1:16:

For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.

“We’ve been talking about one-ism and two-ism [at this conference],” said Chan. “Here’s the ultimate [example]: Everything was created for Him!”

Robbing God of His Glory

“Everything we do is to give God glory,” he continued. “Somehow everything I do should give glory to God and in the area of social justice it’s difficult. These are good things, but if we’re not careful but we can get lifted up instead of God.”

The bad part is there are times that I like it. In the last few years my life’s gotten really weird. Our American Christian rock star thing… it’s really messed with my heart at times. And the Lord’s shown me at times… I was at a pastor’s conference, and my face was on the magazine, and on posters and people were talking about me, and he impressed upon me, “You actually like that, don’t’ you? You actually enjoy the buzz of your name around the room?” Read More about Truth and Lies: Francis Chan – The Truth and the Lie in Social Justice

Proud, Devoted and Dead

During Jesus’ incarnation, the religious elite of His day, the scribes and Pharisees, would follow Him around and seek to trap Him, discredit Him and have Him arrested and killed.

The Pharisees honestly get a bad rap sometimes. During the 400 year silence prior to John the Baptist’s arrival on the scene, these men saw the godlessness of their countrymen and wanted to do something about it. They wanted Israel to live according to the Law.

So the strove to obey the Law as closely as possible. To obey God as His people.

The problem is they started adding to the Law.

The most common place was with the Sabbath. They had a lot of extra rules, particularly that there was to be no healing on the Sabbath.

So one day, Jesus is at Bethesda and sees a man who has been an invalid for thirty-eight years.

When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had already been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be healed?” The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I am going another steps down before me.” Jesus said to him, “Get up, take up your bed, and walk.” And at once the man was healed, and he took up his bed and walked. (John 5:6-9a)

Jesus performs an amazing miracle in the life of this man. People should be celebrating, right?

Here’s the problem: “Now that day was the Sabbath” (v. 9b).

So the Jews said to the man who had been healed, “It is the Sabbath, and it is not lawful for you to take up your bed.” But he answered them, “The man who healed me, that man said to me, ‘Take up your bed, and walk.’” They asked him, “Who is the man who said to you, ‘Take up your bed and walk’?” Now the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had withdrawn, as there was a crowd in the place. Afterward Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, “See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you.” The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had healed him. And this was why the Jews were persecuting Jesus, because he was doing these things on the Sabbath. But Jesus answered them, “My Father is working until now, and I am working.” (v. 10-17)

The Pharisees sought to persecute Jesus because “he was doing these things on the Sabbath” (v. 16).

They did it because He broke their rules.

And they became so blind with pride that they could not see who Jesus was or what He was doing. Read More about Proud, Devoted and Dead