Do you remember Johnny Cash’s old song, The Man in Black?
I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down,
Livin’ in the hopeless, hungry side of town,
I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime,
But is there because he’s a victim of the times.
And so on. (Straight up, I love Johnny Cash.)
He got up on their stages and he sang his own songs. Yet he never forgot the ones who weren’t there, so he always wore black.
I used to be more bold because obscurity is its own protection.
The more people show up to read my stuff, the more care I feel about my words. The more I know that people are listening – actually listening – the less I want to run off my mouth. I would never write something like my old Letter to Women’s Ministry – that girl was way more bold than I feel most days. I want to offer disclaimers and nuance for everything from my views on hell to how I like to use too much butter on my bread.
I am a kind person, I know this about myself. I am an artist and a writer, not a preacher or a teacher or an activist, and I don’t know yet how to walk the line between kindness and truth-telling sometimes.
I am wrestling with some truth and lies. You can listen in, if you want.
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.
I see the Church moving towards missional embodiment, towards the theology of place, towards incarnational ministry. I have loved the missional shift in the Church, I’ve found my home there in that language and practice.
I see us as a people moving from the “in front” to the “beside” and I couldn’t be happier about it. I think it’s healthier all the way around – for the church, for the leadership, for the world.
The less hero worship, the less celebrity, the less big name camps, the less video venues and names in lights, the better off the Church.
I like small things. I admit it. It doesn’t take a lot to make me happy. I like knowing the people in my church. I like that I hang out with our pastors sometimes. I like that I know my neighbours.
I don’t mind the little ways. I find God in the ordinary quotidian rhythms of my life, I do. Breaking bread and pouring wine happens in my living room. 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 like the idea of being planted in the house of God, of putting one’s roots down into a community and remaining there. Even when I have occasionally gone to a conference, I find my greatest connections in the hallways and the side doors, in the conversation that happens off-line. Conferences work best when they connect me to my real life where I actually live out the hope of glory.
In a world of dwindling church resources and growing up-front costs, we need to reimagine ministry. Instead, we’re preaching to the choir for $500 a head.
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 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 cry when women sing together, every time.
As a writer, I love getting together with other people who do the work I do. It makes me feel a little less crazy. It’s filled a need for me.
Well, there was that one time when I went to a writing conference and ended up so discouraged and isolated that I quit writing altogether, but that turned out okay in the end so I’ll gloss over the profound loneliness I felt there. Conferences are more fun if you’re on the inside crowd, I guess.
God, I felt so alone for those days. Absolutely invisible.
Like any good honours student of mass media communications, I know my Marshall McLuhan, I know that the medium is the message.
And boy, is that ever true. The very medium of conferences conveys a message louder than anything spoken from the stage, and I hear a sermon about our values and our focus, our materialism and worship, our energy and our dreams.
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.
Conferences fool us because we’re near the People Doing All The Things until it somehow makes us feel like we’re doing something. We like to listen, we like to critique, we like to learn, but we don’t like to get our hands dirty in our real lives.
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.
Now we’re down to the other part of this: where are my people? Where are my outsiders among the insiders?
My friend, Grace Biskie, wrote a powerful all-in essay about her experience as a black woman at STORY. Isn’t it nice when someone else is brave enough to say what the rest of us are usually thinking?
Me (upon seeing another conference website): “Where are the women of colour? where is the global voice? where is the connection to the local church? where are the women of my mother’s generation and beyond? where are the poor and the working class and the middle class?”
We aren’t on stage and perhaps it’s because we we aren’t in the audience either. I know we’re out here, I see us everywhere. Well, everywhere but there.
Who has time or money to go to a conference where you don’t belong? Who has energy to sit at the kid table and listen in on the grown-up conversations when we’ve got our own lives and communities happening right now?
Let’s go there, shall we? I’ve got a speaker tab at the top of my website.
Am I selling out? am I hypocrite?
But this is where I struggle with the tension. I know a lot of the people on the inside now. I know they love Jesus, I know they are committed to excellence, I know that this is the way the world works, I know about how much TED costs, I know a lot of good things come about because of the lights and the stage, I know I know I know.
I know I’m doing good work, too. I believe in my message. I believe it needs to be heard. I have had people I respect and honour as men and women of God, people to whom I’ve submitted myself even, that have said: For such a time as this, Sarah! as they push me forward onto a stage I haven’t really desired to stand upon.
And then I get up there and I’m a girl on fire, I admit it. I’m on fire these days, it’s shut up in my bones, and I feel it.
I have some freedom songs to sing, a better world to prophecy, an invitation to extend. (And a book to promote. Of course.)
People tell me that the system needs people like me, people on the other side of this ministry shift, people who are on the other side of the gender debates and the postmodern movement and so on. I hear that I need to be reforming from within the system.
But the truth is that I don’t feel like I’m “within” there, I never have been part of that system. That is not my world. I tried a while ago and it nearly killed my faith stone dead. So I made a very conscious decision years ago to step out of those systems and methods and give up on ever wanting or jockeying for a “seat at the table.” I found God out here among the misfits, I belong here.
It’s tempting though.
I’m tempted to lose weight and wear high heels so that I blend in with the other Lady Preachers. Maybe figure out how to speak in public better and do that smoky eye make-up, I’m tempted to come inside the stadiums and the conference centres and tell earnest and well-meaning people about the stuff I know. I think it would be good, I think I could make a difference.
I have hope for a few of them. I hear their leadership teams talking and they feel these tensions. So I’m hoping.
This post is probably very foolish of me.
I found God in the wilderness, I found intimacy with Jesus out among the pioneers, I hear the Holy Spirit clearest and best when I’m a bit outside of it all.
I am not someone who turns over tables. (I abhor conflict. This little inconsequential post is making my hands shake.) I won’t turn over a table. I will send emails and make phone calls. I’ll negotiate ticket prices and encourage greater diversity. I will advocate for a global voice. I will be picky and choosy. I’ll speak at the conference where I feel I would belong but then I turn down another one and another one and another one. I rabble-rouse like a polite Canadian. I’ve got school pick-up later and we have ten new spelling words to master for Grade Two tests on Friday.
I think we could figure this out, I do. I want to. I’m committed to figuring it out because I think how we do things matters as much as the why.
I don’t see a lot of marketing language in the New Testament. Not a lot of strategizing and branding, not a lot of business planning or factory farming, not a lot of Discipleship-O-Matic or Identi-Kit Churches. Instead, I see relationship, I see intimacy, I see organic growth, I see making disciples one by one by one by one. I see the little ways.
Why do I need to have disposable income and the ability to travel to get access to the best teaching and the best preaching and the best music and the best church experience, arguably to the best Gospel, money can buy?
I’ll tell you why: because it’s a business. Because it’s not cheap to run these things. Because this is how we make money because ministry and teaching and preaching has been professionalized and commodified and people have bills to pay. Because a work man is worthy of his hire and, trust me, after all these years of putting all my work out there online for free, I get that. I wouldn’t mind a paycheque now and then.
But still. I value small. I value conversation. I value the ones outside. I value the Gospel.
So how do we include the rest of us in these conferences? How do we make room and open the doors for those of us who can’t afford to be there? Those of us who are sick and housebound or unable to travel? Those who are single parents and don’t have someone else at home handling things? those who are global? those who are poor or working class or living pay cheque to pay cheque?
We could live-stream and make content accessible to the world. We could engage the local church. We could lower prices. We could go somewhere off the beaten path. We could place value on conversation and village-building instead of from-the-stage preaching. We could feel a pang about our own names in lights and purposely subvert our own lame celebrity. We could do a lot of things. Probably all of them are good.
I have no idea.
I just hope there’s a way to gather together as believers, as a big and beautiful Church, without leaving the rest of us outside.
I like the idea of conferences. I have loved gathering together with men and women all around the globe, learning from each other, praying together, working together, it’s spirit-filled and spirit-breathed and I love it. It can be amazing.
But still I look around and think: if this is really the Gospel, if this is really the stuff we believe is going to change a generation or bring revival or renewal or whatever, then why aren’t the doors wide open for the rest of us? Why haven’t we flung wide the doors, ripped up our ticket price spreadsheets, poured out in the streets, scoured the city for anyone and everyone who wants to come, and danced in the gutters instead of the stadium aisles?
I’m not drawing any lines in the sand. Not yet anyway. I might someday. Right now I’m trying to stay open. I’m not anti-conference. I have so much to learn and navigate. And, let’s be honest, I have laundry to fold. Real life is happening far away from the stages.
I find friends and disciples everywhere – inside, outside, around the bonfire, around the boardroom table, on stage and in the street.
I know the Body of Christ needs each of us.
I’m just not sure what my place is in the midst of all these lights and stages and book tables. I feel most like I belong here, in the life I have already.
Follow up Post: In which I want to talk to you about the If: Gathering