Saturday, September 28, 2013

Why I Can't Go to Christian Conferences

Canadian author and Christian blogger Sarah Bessey wrote on her blog this week a piece called In Which I Have All the Feelings About Conferences.  Here are some of the things she said:
Conferences are the new church planting phenomenon: everyone wants to do it. Everyone thinks theirs is different. Everyone thinks they’ll be the real voice of Jesus or the one to reach their generation. We’ve got a niche for you! conferences for everyone! you get a conference! and you get a conference! and you get a conference! but part of me doesn’t like conferences – not as a model, not as an experience, let alone as a method for real and lasting change. 
The real transformations of my life didn’t come about at a conference or on a mountain top; the real transformations in my spirit and my character and my life were born and tended and raised in the daily mundane habits and faithfulness of my life.

I see conferences as entertainment and mass commodification of the Gospel. Some of them smell like a machine, like a big hairy complex business to me, and so I am suspicious. Probably it’s in my nature to be suspicious, after all I’m a Gen-Xer and a western Canadian. I guess my bullshit detector is set at a bit too high of a setting. I am wary of Group Think and emotional manipulation and spiritual manipulation because I’ve experienced – and committed the sin of – them all. We know how these things work once we’ve been on the inside, it isn’t rocket science. I have seen behind the curtain. What’s the line between hope and hubris?
But here’s the rub: I still like conferences.
I do. 
I love the big hairy worship events. I can shout down a preacher for preaching good. I love to take careful notes and cry at the altar and dance in the aisles. I love the bonding experiences of conferences, the friendships I make, the networking connections. I love it. I get it.
I worry that conferences are fracturing the Body of Christ. That they are making us go from experience to experience, stadium to stadium, round table to panel, think tank to gathering, instead of burrowing down into our real lives. 
I worry that they isolate us from our communities because we have these big gigantic teachings that blow our minds and set our hairs on fire, but we have no one to actually live it out with and so we end up feeling like failures or like “no one gets it” and we vacillate between failure and pride. 
The average conference ticket costs between $100-500 but factor in airfare, hotels, food, and you’re looking at nearly $2,000 sometimes.
Now we’re down to the brass tacks: I don’t go to conferences because I cannot afford to go to conferences.
I’m baffled at the sheer number of people who go to conferences, seemingly endless Jesus camps with meet-ups for old friends, and I think who are you people? There must be a lot of money in the world. I guess these things aren’t for people like me. By their nature, they are exclusive, and we’re there because we’re people of privilege.
I get all of this. Everything she said resonates with me-- the love and the suspicion and the worry and the bafflement. I used to feel all these things when I went to conferences. But when I viewed her post, and now as I sit down to write this, tears are gathering at the back of my throat and I'm much more upset than I thought I was going to be. But I'm still going to talk about this because I need to say it. And maybe, maybe it will heal some old sore spots that it turns out are still much sorer and more painful than I thought they would be after all this time.

I can't go to Christian conferences anymore.

I haven't gone to a conference since I was in my twenties-- and I'm turning 50 in a month. Every year my sweet friend who is the leader of the women's ministries in my church sends out a mass invitation to the Jubilee Women's Conference. It's a local conference that costs just $35 and is held right in my own church's sanctuary-- so it really isn't exclusive or just for people of privilege, and somehow I doubt if it's a big complex business machine full of emotional and spiritual manipulation. The webpage for the conference doesn't even mention any glitzy worship band or high-powered team of speakers-- just a local author sharing from her book. This conference seems to avoid all or most of the things that made "Christian conference" into such a negative thing in my mind and heart.

And yet I still can't bring myself to go.

When I was in Maranatha Campus Ministries in my college years and after, every year there was MWLC - the "Maranatha World Leadership Conference." Held in a large city-- usually Dallas/Ft. Worth, Texas-- it gathered together all of the members of Maranatha from churches all over the United States and Canada, as well as many from Australia and other church plants overseas. It constituted three days of famous speakers, world-class worship bands, dance teams, light and sound and glory. There were individual classes in the daytime and stadium events in the evening, and people who had moved across the country to start new Maranatha churches would reconnect with their old friends and get a chance to hear Bob Weiner and Joe Smith in person.

Attendance was mandatory.

That's right-- mandatory. Most church members were either in college or married with young children, and yet we were all required to "step out in faith" to raise the money to attend. We were supposed to ask our parents, our aunts and uncles, or our (hopefully) rich grandparents; we were supposed to contact local businessmen and request donations; to participate in car washes, bake sales and other fund-raising events.

It was hard.

What was especially hard that first year is that the young church I attended was brand-new in the city of Eugene, Oregon, and was finding it hard going just to pay for the huge house we were renting (formerly a fraternity house), even with most of us living in the house and paying rent. The car washes and bake sales that were supposed to help members pay for the conference were actually going towards house utilities. And it was 1982, right in the middle of a terrible recession that kept many of us from finding summer jobs.

I tried everything. My parents wouldn't help pay for it and wanted me to find a job. And I tried; I really did, but without success. We were new to the area and I didn't know any businessmen I could ask. I remember in desperation trying to sell my old flute to at least be able to pay the registration fee. The most anyone would offer me was $35, and I needed $100. I was near despair. Most of the other church members had found some way to attend, but I was getting nowhere.

At last the church leaders told me they were giving me permission to miss the conference. They knew my heart was in the right place, they told me, because I had done all I could to try to go, but maybe for some reason it wasn't God's will for me that year.

I knew what they were thinking, though. The problem was my faith. I didn't have enough faith to move mountains, and so God could not or would not bless me. Maybe, I thought in my heart of hearts, God just isn't pleased with me. Maybe God doesn't think I'm a good enough disciple.

So I watched tearfully as everyone else went to the airport, and I stayed behind.

The rejection I'd faced from prospective employers all summer was intensified by what felt like God's abandonment, as I missed what everyone later told me was a fantastic time in the Holy Spirit, a life-changing encounter with God and destiny.

The next year I did manage to get a summer job. My parents had wanted me to put the money I earned towards my living expenses that summer, so they could have a break from supporting me (they paid my way through all four years of college, bless them!), but when they saw how desperately I wanted to go to MWLC, they said I could use the money for that. Excitedly I contacted a travel agent and bought plane tickets, sent in the check for my registration, and when the time came, boarded the plane with my friends and pastors.

And I had a good time. Really, I did.

But. . . .

Well, there was the speaker who used his one-hour slot to give the entire stadium a tongue-lashing about our lax spirituality and our selfishness.

Then there were the intense, hyped-up testimonies about the mission field and how important it was that everyone go on at least one short-term mission during their lifetime-- no exceptions. We were all told to bow our heads in prayer, then take out a card and write down on it what nation we felt God calling us to.

I felt like God was saying, "The United States."

All I could feel was intense gratitude that we weren't required to put our names on the cards and turn them in.

It is true that when the lights were playing over the stadium and the music was rushing, and everyone was shouting and dancing and crying and praying, I felt the presence of God very strongly. I will never forget the emotional and spiritual high.

But then when it was over, it all felt sort of fake and hollow. Was that God's presence I had felt, or merely the frenzy we'd all been whipped into by the speakers and the band?

I think now that it was probably both. I know what God's presence feels like when I'm not emotionally hyped up at all, and I'm sure it's real. But the hype and emotionalism actually made it seem less real.

But the worst thing was the feeling that somehow we weren't just adoring God, but the keynote speakers and the Maranatha leaders and the worship-team stars. It was a celebrity event, and I was sure those people up there were spiritually above the rest of us down in the seats. They were on a higher plane where God's favor and blessing rested on them in ways I would never experience.

Deep down I resented them for being closer to God than I could ever hope to be.

And I felt guilty for it.

The conference came to an end, and we all went home, and somehow the grand and glorious things we knew we would do when we got home, never quite materialized. Our hyped-up faith that can move mountains returned to the normal, gritty faith that finds a way to do the chores, attend the prayer meetings and hand out flyers for the next local meeting while trying to complete two 20-page lit papers and study for three midterms.

There was another conference the next year. And the one after that. And I managed to go to one of them, but the next year I had just graduated from college and needed to get a job, and that was the year the Eugene Maranatha church merged with the Maranatha church in the next town, and somehow no one was requiring us to step out in faith to go that year.

I think, all in all, I went to three MWLC's. The leaders eventually stopped holding them every year, and then finally the entire ministry dissolved, and the local churches were left on their own to sink or swim. Ours swam, but it became a kinder, gentler fellowship, and in the end my family and I left it without acrimony on either side, and we joined the kind, gentle church we attend now.

Where, every year, I get invited to a local women's conference that I can't bring myself to attend.

Too much baggage. Even the thought of paying a registration fee I know I can afford, brings back the old feelings of being coerced and not measuring up.

Even the thought of spending a couple of days with a group of women I enjoy, listening to a calm speaker and (probably) the regular church music group, brings back old feelings of confusion and resentment and guilt, and of being asked to give out of myself beyond what felt comfortable or even safe.

I guess what it boils down to is that those old conferences equate in my mind with a vast array of personal boundary violations that I can't even quite articulate.

So I'm staying home. And I'm writing this, about my love-hate relationship with Christian conferences, which is about confused love and guilty hate, from a past I still have not managed to lay to rest. I think writing this actually has helped a little. . .

I'm glad that people today go to conferences and are blessed by them. I really am.

But until further notice, count me out.


heather said...

I can relate to the guilt... The times I've been to conference where it seemed like everyone else in my group was feeling his presence and hearing from God except me... I tend to withdraw when ppl are trying to hype me up so always felt outside the experience. The times I felt I had the experience usually seemed fake later. The leaders are always at this unattainable level of spirituality. I can't bring myself to go any more either.

Eli said...

thanks. definitely resonated with me except I just feel this overall when it comes to most of the church. I feel bad cause I know I have avoided and written off plenty of solid groups but it is what it is. I figure there are enough people dedicated to making it happen they won't miss me.

Tango Whiskey said...

Great article. I totally agree with you.

Kristen said...

Oh, wow. This week Elizabeth Esther said it even better:

The False, Glittering Promise of Christian Conferences

Anonymous said...

This is really interesting, Kristen. I like Elizabeth Esther's piece, too. I don't remember feeling that way. I hated these type of conferences; they made me feel out of place and seemed ridiculous. So instead of the warm fuzziness or high, conferences just made me feel bad because I didn't fit in. -- Your Sis

Kristen said...

Sis, I read a comment or two on Elizabeth Esther's blog that dovetail with your experience. You're not the only one!

Anonymous said...

Oh, can I ever relate! I was in a campus group in the 1980's that was similar to Maranatha, and we also had a church seminar that we were "supposed to" go to each year. It was never stated that you were "required" to go, but it was expected.

I write a blog, also, although it is not as popular as Elizabeth's, and here were some of my thoughts on her entry: