conferences :: sarah bessey


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 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 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

In which I am among the Spanish oaks again
In which I share what I'm into for September 2013
thank you for sharing...
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  • Very accurate title. This really is “all the thoughts.” Thank you for your bravery and honesty. Honestly, I’m mainly looking for a conference that aims to do something small like network people, get like-minded people together. Maybe call it believable hype? The bigger the boasts, the more audacious the goals, the more my bullshit meter goes off. So yes, I can really relate to so many of your thoughts here.

    • Mike Morrell

      Ed!! Wild Goose Festival!! Come? Please? : )

      • I know Mike! Really. This needs to happen. 2 years ago we had a baby due and last year it coincided with family vacation. I’ll do my best to block it off on my calendar for 2014 once the dates are made available.

        • Mike Morrell

          Excellent. I’ll hold your feet to the fire. 😉

      • Sarah Heroman

        hey mike. 🙂

        • Mike Morrell

          Hi Sarah. : ) Nice to see you here on the Interwebs.

    • Good point, Ed.

  • Jerusalem Greer

    oh honey. yes. yes. yes. ALL the feelings.

  • Yes. So much yes, and amen. I’m feeling the same things, asking the same questions, living in the same tension. Thank you for putting words to it. There are so many I wish I could just hand this to and say “This. Just…this.”

  • Jessica Stock

    Sarah, this is so so good.

  • hannah anderson

    A comment in which…

    I want to give you a standing ovation except that it would undermine the whole point of this beautiful, lovely post.

    I do love how blogging has broken into the network, the scratch-my-back-scratch-yours, the “somebody’s daughter” system of the world, but I have to admit that I feel it creeping back in. Like you, I wonder how we preserve the simplicity and accountability that only happens in small, quiet places. How do we step away? How do we have enough faith to use our $2000 to actually fight poverty instead of gathering together with other people to talk about fighting poverty? How do we know when we should gather?

    I think comes down to posts just like this–we must all be willing to reflect on our motives and to do what God calls us to. To go when He says “Go,” to stay when He says “Stay.”

    • I feel that way about blogging, too, Hannah. Where else in history would someone like me have a chance to even be listened to, right? it’s a great equalizer. And great points, as always.

  • this might be my favorite post of all.

  • Whitney

    Great great great stuff.

    I would venture to say that the outsiders/poor/etc don’t come to conferences because the church itself (in North America and in Britain where I live) is primarily privileged, Upper class people too. Like, which primarily white, wealthy, suburban conference would intentionally market towards and invite an inner city poor church? Much less simply invite people who don’t know a thing about the gospel…

    Ooooo just had an idea for a new conference…

  • Stevie Swift

    Oh thank you Miss Sarah! I will never be “in” because of who I am and where I’ve been – I just don’t fit the mold. But I am “in” where it counts – in Christ – and there is not one thing that He cannot do through me when I am surrendered. Besides, who better than misfits to reach out and love the misfits 🙂 Feeling inspired.

  • I love this whole thing.

    And this: “…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 can attest to this in my own life as well.

    And that you spell it like “paycheque” because that’s awesome and makes me wish I was Canadian.

  • For what it’s worth, I think this is your best post yet. Thank you. – Another outsider.

  • Karrilee Aggett

    If you knew me… you would know I am terrible at picking favorites… but this? I agree with DL… this may be my favorite!

  • Alia_Joy

    Oh Sarah, I just love you. ALL the feelings. I just came back from The Idea Camp and keep seeing posts going up about all the stuff and I’m wrestling with all the glory and muck and finding a way to tell the truth and be kind. And I think I veer towards kindness these days, and grace, and covering those multitudes of sins that sneak in anytime people gather, including my own heart, but then I wonder if I’m doing a great disservice to all those who wrestle and come out feeling weaker and discouraged. And as an INFJ who HATES conflict, I am scared that I’ll write something that will come out all wrong and hurt people. So this is truly inspiring, that you can tell the truth with so much grace and authenticity. Thank you for your words. I just did all the crying and now maybe I’m ready to write.

    • Write it, Alia. Write it. We need your words. <3

      • Alia_Joy

        Thanks Elora and Sarah. I wrote the first one down and although it scared the hell out of me, I feel lighter. Thank you for the encouragement and teeny tiny shove I needed.

        • Curiosity Officially Piqued, Alia.

    • I’m with Elora – write it!

    • Hope the writing is going well. 🙂 From a fellow INFJ…

  • I love you, Sarah. Soldier on, sister.

  • kim

    Thank you so for writing this”out loud.” I struggle with much you mention here. These are good questions and assertions that deserve discussion and then action toward better means and methods.

  • Yes and amen. Not that I’ve ever been to a conference. I’m in the “where do people get that money?” boat, as if I could afford tickets and flights and all the rest. But baby girl and I spent last weekend at a women’s retreat with a local church. (It’s not our church but they’ve been welcoming and kind as we search for a home church of our own, a safety net of sort, and maybe one day we’re just going to have to say this one is our church and has been all along. But that’s another issue for another day.) But women’s retreats, oh yes, alllll the feelings. All this emotional stuff and it feels fake and it feels genuine and it feels fake-genuine and I hate it and I love it and I don’t know what I think about it but I most certainly don’t fit in, anyway, not me with my lack of tears because I haven’t the slightest ability to express emotion the way every other female seems able to and maybe I’m just heartless, I’m probably a terrible person, I hate women’s retreats, but I also really love them…..and so go my thoughts, around and around.

    • You’re not heartless! I am the same way. That’s the thing I dislike the most about women’s retreats. It seems like they can’t even announce dinner without every woman in the room crying on cue! I find it baffling. So, you’re not the only one =)

    • I so GET this. I often feel like that, too, but I’m a total weeper. I am. I cry about everything. It’s embarrassing.

  • I’ve been feeling this way lately too. So many conferences that look interesting, yet the cost of travel is prohibitive. I am too lazy to look it up right now, but last spring some big conference livestreamed all their sessions, and I attended as many as I could that way. It was great.

    • I know that (in)courage does a great model that way – they’re local and livestreamed etc. Great model.

  • Anonymous

    Thank you. I’ve been upset the last few days about a conference in my town I’ve been looking forward to- because I’ve been priced out. It’s supposed to be aimed at women like me- stay at home moms, young women making their start- and the shock of finding out that most women like me can’t afford to go without stretching made me doubt the purpose of this conference. Is it about a movement in my generation after all?- because I’m starting to think it’s about money. If it’s indeed a money making scheme, then why should I whine about not being able to go- or worse, strain our finances by buying the ticket anyway. Maybe I’ll organize a camping trip instead, for myself and my friends who have been priced out. We’ll take our Bibles and our old camp songs out to Lake Travis and do the small things you wrote about. Somehow that sounds better, when I think about it, even though we’ll be left out. After all, Christians are misfits by their very nature, right?

    • I *love* your idea about a camping trip! Love. Please do it!

  • I really like this one, Sarah. I have to say, it’s something I really struggle with, especially this part –

    “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.”

    I’m one of those people whose bills are paid by the business of distributing the Gospel. I have an interest in platform-building and media production and distribution and social and all that stuff, and there’s no message I’d rather distribute than the Gospel.

    So I often find myself torn, between packaging Good News as a commodity, and wanting to find a way to support my family by building conduits for the most important message.

    • I know, it’s such a hard tension. I feel that way, too, especially now with the book coming out. Very complex.

  • Jemelene

    As I stared at a conference website two days ago, my heart sunk. I had been hopeful that my daughter, the one who is in the “target age” of this conference, the woman it is aimed towards, the one with the questions and cynicism and feelings of an outsider would find a place in this meeting. Two things struck me: 1. The price was not only far out of reach, it was exorbitant. It was like those movies where people just jump on planes on a whim or stay at the Waldorf when they have seemingly mediocre incomes. They are written and planned by people in a completely different income bracket who have no idea how the other side lives. 2. There was not one woman on that panel who seems to have ever had a blemish, braces, tattoo or bad scarf day. They all seemed to be clones of the perfectly coiffed bible study teacher whose DVDs are unpalatable to the young women who already feel as if the trappings of society are about to choke the breath out of their lungs.
    You may cringe at the thought of your women’s ministry post but there is a line that still resonates with me. “…no more celebrity speakers, please just hand the microphone to that lady over there that brought the apples.”
    If we are really going to get together to bring Jesus to our community we can’t expect our community to all board a plane with a few thousand other women. We need to find the hearts and souls right in front of us. The old and the new souls. We need to cross generations and colors and please please please can we cross economic lines?
    Sorry for the rant but it has been capped and I think you just shook my bottle.
    That’s probably a good thing.

    • I like when you get ranting, J – always good stuff. And hug that daughter of yours for me.

  • Liza

    Never been to a conference, so I’m definitely on the outside on this one. However, I LOVE that you are trying to find that place in between “celebrity” and well, what is the opposite of celebrity? Regularity? Clearly not. Anyhow, I think it is GREAT to continue speaking your mind, because you love God with all of it, and He has blessed you with these thoughts. I hope if this gets you in any trouble (which I can’t imagine that it would, but again, I don’t know anything), it helps you and the rest of us in the long run.

    • Thanks, Liza – really appreciate that. Truly.

  • Tara Porter-Livesay

    I think you already know this – but just to say it again – (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.) Amen. Then my own conflict: I hate the constant tension of marketing and fundraising and the business side of missions. Sadly, I think the pre-internet age was able to do their work and do it humbly without talking so damn much about it. I hate that part about me/us/we. Less with the jaws. More with the paws. (I’ve had my post about this in drafts for six months. I am not nearly as brave as you.)

    • Tara Porter-Livesay

      I also want to start the conference called “Rhyming names” — see you there.

      • Tara, Sarah, Lara, Farah, Karah, banana-fana-fo-farah…

    • “Less with the jaws. More with the paws.” << I love this so much.

      • Tara Porter-Livesay

        Elora, You met Troy (and he filled me in on how much he enjoyed getting to know you two) — this is a Troy saying. 🙂 Would love to have dinner with you guys later this fall if schedules allow.

    • You win the comment of the day: Less with the jaws. More with the paws. You better publish that post, woman, or I’m telling Troy.

  • Sarah, I resonate with this post in so many ways. Thanks for sharing your reflections. One of my favorite lines was this:

    “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.”

    I want to see that too. Keep up the good work.

  • Vicki Judd

    You are such a brave girl – and you have said what many of us would like to say – in such a humble, open, I-don’t-have-this-all-figured-out way. Thank you. The line that got me? “…the best Gospel money can buy.” Ouch.

  • Your post is not foolish at all! I bet many of us feel the same way. Much of what you said really resonates with me. Not necessarily about conferences, because I’m one of those people that cannot afford them either time-wise or money-wise, but for me right now I have similar feelings about church in general. Especially when you say something like this, “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.” Thank you for making me not feel alone and expressing feelings I’ve been having trouble expressing myself!

  • michelle

    Thank you for saying the hard things. Even though you haven’t come to a nice and neat ending it needs to be said. It needs to be wrestled with. As a small time blogger I was sent two tickets to a nationally known traveling conference in exchange for a blog post. I took my teenage daughter. We made it through one hour of the first night’s “show.” And we noticed our tickets cost $100. each. (thankfully we didn’t have travel expenses). And in that moment I started having a lot of the same feelings you listed here. I never blogged about that conference experience. It was too upsetting and I really didn’t want to say anything harsh about that conference that had sent me those tickets. But for the last couple years I’ve struggled with so many things that you’ve named here. Thank you for your bravery.

  • Joanie Pustejovsky

    Please, please know that this post was a working of Spirit. Many women in my area just came back from a conference that I have attended (and somewhat enjoyed because I like to help) many times – but something has always grated, nagged, etc. And today that needle worked all the way in – because this is a “private” retreat, where you “share”, and you can’t tell outsiders what happened on the mountain. And they post and they talk between themselves and have the most wonderful time . . . and everyone else is told that they can’t be told about any of it, they have to experience it. And I’ve been sliding down the pity-party hill, asking why I feel like I have no friends, yada-yada. And I asked God for help not two minutes before your post showed in my feed. God bless you – it should never be about exclusion, but always about openness and welcoming. I cringe to think that I did that to people. The retreat is justified by saying the “Holy Spirit choose those particular women to be there” and maybe that’s true, but the goodwill generated should then be turned outward when the retreatants return home, to grow the church, not to shut anyone out. Thank you so much for shining your light!

    • Oh, my goodness, I’m so sorry you felt that way. You’re right – if it’s the Holy Spirit shouldn’t it edify the whole church instead of leaving some us feeling excluded? Wow. That’s good.

  • Nish

    In Which Sarah Bessey Burns Down the Internet Again.

    Well-said, sister. NAILED IT.

  • Jcafe

    Please, please know that this post was a working of Spirit. Many women in my area just came back from a conference that I have attended (and somewhat enjoyed because I like to help) many times – but something has always grated, nagged, etc. And today that needle worked all the way in – because this is a “private” retreat, where you “share”, and you can’t tell outsiders what happened on the mountain. And they post and they talk between themselves and have the most wonderful time . . . and everyone else is told that they can’t be told about any of it, they have to experience it. And I’ve been sliding down the pity-party hill, asking why I feel like I have no friends, yada-yada. And I asked God for help not two minutes before your post showed in my feed. God bless you – it should never be about exclusion, but always about openness and welcoming. I cringe to think that I did that to people. The retreat is justified by saying the “Holy Spirit choose those particular women to be there” and maybe that’s true, but the goodwill generated should then be turned outward when the retreatants return home, to grow the church, not to shut anyone out. Thank you so much for shining your light!

    • rstarke

      Goodness, sister. What you’re describing isn’t a holy experience – it’s grownup women doing jr. high summer camp and taking the Lord’s name in vain to do it. Shame on them.

  • Thank you for standing in the tension, Sarah.

    For giving voice to the tension, while you are still processing: ALL. OF. THE. THINGS.

    And, thank you for not drawing a line in the sand. Just yet.

    In the meantime, real life *is* happening. Sometimes on makeshift stages in parking lots and Safeway.

    And garden parties * cough* (Kelley Nikondeha.) 🙂

    I love you.

    Happy laundry-folding as you shake off the vulnerability hangover.


    • Oh, man, that was a great post of Kelley’s at Deeper STory today, right?! Amazing. *(And your photos….) Love to you, too.

  • Gasp. You said “bullshit’, in a Jesus-related post! I find that endearing, actually, and it makes me wonder if I could get away with it. Probably not, given I’m in the Bible Belt and all. I loved many of your points and am in whole-hearted concerned agreement about the machine the church is becoming. It’s not in the Bible. It just isn’t. I long for simplicity. Thank you for your trepidacious boldness. I’m not anybody “important,” but I like it.

    • Oh, honey, my potty mouth is one of the worst kept secrets ever. It’s horrid, really. But glad oyu find it endearing. 🙂 And thank you for your encouragement – it means a lot to me.

  • jodylouise

    Love your honesty here. Thank you.

  • Beth Anne

    I just did a series of high kicks at my desk.

    You nailed it.

    Somehow you take every emotion I struggled with as a Christian teenager, spilling into my adult life, watching it with a newly jaded eye still evolving & I’m all WTF IS HAPPENING & WHAM! here it is in writing.

    Thank you for that.

  • Yes, yes, yes. Totally agree here. I have the same conflicts. I didn’t go to one conference this year – largely down to money – and I don’t really feel I’ve missed out. I am part of a church with great teaching at a high standard (often better than conferences), which does help. But Jesus gospel was never just for those who could afford it – yet at the same time, community and connecting with others is good.

    Great post Sarah. Lots to ponder.

    • So glad you’re at a great church with strong teaching! A true gift.

  • jademichele

    i like how honest you always are -it can’t be easy in the virtual world!
    i’ve never been to a conference! they don’t interest me at all.
    i’m sure having a cup of coffee or tea with you would be nice though 🙂

  • Sherry

    This is partly why I love the idea behind the IN(RL) un-conference that puts on. Many of the concerns you have raised were thought of by the people behind it. But they did want people to gather. So how? Have people meet locally to watch the “conference” sessions. Do it in someone’s home, a church, wherever you can get Internet service. Post the information about the meet-up location and leave it open to whoever wants to come. Not limited by church denomination, not limited by travel cost or a hefty conference fee, not even by who you know. Get together to meet people in your own city or neighbourhood who want to get to know other women of faith. Cost to register? Free.

    • Me, too, I love the model they have going. And the hearts of their team are so pure. Love those girls.

  • I struggle so much with these thoughts and feelings, even more so this week. Thank you for standing in the tension, voicing much of what my swirling head is thinking, and leaving us to ponder it all.

  • getoutside

    I wanted to livestream last year’s Justice Conference to our church in Salt Lake City, but even their livestream would have cost hundreds of dollars. a Social Justice conference. That’s too expensive to even watch on a screen. I get that things cost money, but that much? So that haves can get together with other haves to talk about how to serve the have nots because have nots could never afford to be part of the conversation. Sigh. Still unpacking that one. Thanks.

    • Good point. I didn’t even think of that irony…

  • Linds

    Yes. To all of it. I am probably your mother’s age and have been blogging since 2006. Dinosaurs roamed the earth. So I have seen everything change. And I have longed to go to just one conference but heck, I live in the UK and I find it hard enough to heat my home, never mind fund either the latest must have books or, you know, a transatlantic flight or two. Or visa to enter the country. Sigh.
    However, I go to a wonderful vibrant village church across the valley and there is a great deal of real hard work going on in our community. I probably don’t have the time for a conference anyway. Keep writing from your heart, Sarah. Your voice is heard.

    • Yes! Another long-time blogger, love it! So glad you have a wonderful village church – that’s worth a million fancy conferences.

  • mizmelly

    All the feelings. There’s a conference I’d like to go to here in Dublin next month but where are the women speakers, where are the IRISH speakers, why must we IMPORT speakers……? You are speaking truth again, my friend. I hug you from a distance.

  • Shannon G

    I had a conference attending season in my life. I’m not sure looking back where the disposable income came from. I know that on the outside I looked closer to God back then. But the ideas the conferences sent me home with became prisons for me. I didn’t meet and serve God the way they wanted me to.
    Now as a single mom with three kids I have attended one conference. I had one real conversation and made one friend. I was an outsider. Was I inspired? Maybe, yes a little. But then I went home and life sucked and no one cared. And I thought, I should not have gone to that conference. I am not one of them. I am not some big name writer or conservative Christian. I’m a liberal, going through a rough time in her life, that is trying to scratch out some words and make sense of life and God.
    Thank you for your thoughts

    • Ah, disposable income, I remember those days before kids. 🙂 Sometimes we get our clarity by figuring out where who we aren’t first, and that’s a good thing.

  • JennaDeWitt

    Love your honesty and boldness and writing style and all of this. A few musings:

    1. Think any of the conference hesitation could be introversion-related? As an extrovert I THRIVE in environments like that. True, it’s hard to go alone, but I often end up meeting people I wouldn’t have met otherwise and having a lovely time, taking home plenty of good ideas/resources, etc. I guess it is about picking one within driving distance that is worth the time away and whether or not the people who attend came alone or in groups. Generally if everyone else came in a group, I’m miserable and can’t meet anyone fun, but if everyone else came alone too, I end up with buddies from all around the world. 🙂
    2. I’m all about the cheap livestream. Love how livestreams and twitter can combine to make you feel like you’re all part of something global.
    3. My company puts on youth camps and conferences so I know it’s not about making tons of money. Events are EXPENSIVE to put on. There are just a lot of people to pay and resources to pay for from venue to technology to lighting and sound to speakers and musicians to brochures to hand out…
    4. I think a lot of it depends on what you bring to it too. Like the local community connection you take home. A big part of any conference, especially one in a new city, is how your group bonds in the travel, the late night chats, the homeless people you pray with and buy lunch for, the people on the street who ask what’s going on and you get to hear their stories and tell them about what Jesus is doing in your heart that weekend. It’s not things that are on the event schedule that make them worth attending. It’s who you go with or meet when you get there and the experience surrounding the programming that make it worth it. And what makes it last when you get home.

    • You’re probably right, jenna – the introvert thing might be a count against me here. And yes to how expensive they are! I think that’s part of why I like the ones that reimagine a new format – it’s just better economic sense, right? And yes, to what you bring to it! Totally agree.

  • theblahblahblahger
  • Totally inside my head and heart — and we haven’t even met! The Spirit has this going on, girlfriend, all over the world. Yeah…I was just thinking this stuff myself. Wish we were neighbors….

  • I like imagining other worlds and possibilities with you … For starters, I don’t like the word “conference.” And I like global and inclusive and something that feels like a conversation. You know this already.

    Love your heart, friend.

    • Yes and yes! You know I”m with you, Idelette. Say the words.

  • Fantastic post. Brave and brilliant. Prophetic, yet gracious. Wise and insightful. I found this conference last April and wanted to do it for our church plant. I’m SOOOOOOOOOOO doing it in April if they do it again.

    From the site:

    “Derived from the social media acronym “IRL” or “in real life,” (in)RL
    is our annual conference that takes place the last weekend in April.

    It’s unique because instead of asking you to travel to us, we
    bring all the content to you. There’s a webcast to tune into and a day
    of real life meetups with other local (in)courage readers.”

    • I agree – really “out of the box” ideas. Love it and love those girls.

  • Kirsten

    I love the tension in this. I worked for a ministry that puts on (I think!) a great missions conference that (I think!) EVERYONE should go to and does speakers and worship from a very global church approach, yet I view other conferences with the same weariness and also skepticism you mention here. I love this conversation, thanks!

  • Heather King


    Since I started blogging, I haven’t been to any Christian events. Until last weekend, which was Idea Camp, which did not feel very conference-ish to me, and I’m grateful for that. And this one time, my mom got me a ticket for a big Christian conference and to be honest, I was so uncomfortable I nearly exploded. Until one woman came up and kept it totally real and was all, I’m all busted up about this and I’ll never be over it and so I have no answers for you…when she told her story. I liked that part. It felt like coming along with me and like I was bearing witness to hard truth, cause truth is truth. Sometimes we just can’t DO it right and so often these things are about changing what we do, learning how to get better, trying harder….it feels very selfish to me. Because while I’m shining the hubcaps on my faith, a world is spinning out there with so much need…and yes, the money.

    Sure, I need to be “filled” and “fed” and I need to be around other people who are like-minded, but it’s all passive, mostly, in these situations. And I can’t worship on command all that well and I learn the most about God when I’m serving all around with and for all kinds of people, not just “my” people.

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. Can you tell?

    I appreciate your heart and your words so much. I get it.

    • I can tell and I like your thoughts, Heather King. I like you.

  • SKE

    Yes, yes, yes. As an introvert, I get very antsy at conferences. As someone who craves vigorous dialogue, I get very excited about conferences. So conflicted.

    Back in the late 90s there was a series of conferences, almost entirely participant driven, with the aim of networking and cross-pollinating ideas amongst Gen-X Christians. I went to two of them and loved them. At one of them I met a man and we exchanged emails and then got married. I also never could have afforded them unless my employer paid for them.

    The conferences stopped for a few years and then some of the former attendees got the idea for a new set of conferences, known only by a single letter of the alphabet, which always sound so fun to me. But I get the invitations in my inbox and I just laugh ruefully, because they may *think* I’m their target audience, but I’m not. We are raising four children on one income. The price tag on these things is eye popping. I know these things don’t happen for free. But still, the net result is a participant base that’s…intensely privileged. Sigh.

    • Yes, it does skew the participant base which then continues the cycle. I get that.

  • Rebecca Henrich

    this is wonderful. Thank you.

  • Amy Hunt

    So with you. I want to go to them but I can’t. I’m called to a quiet and small home life right now as I manage a travel filled career and can’t fathom the cost of these things. Yet I want to fit in. But I don’t feel it. But I am. And, it’s all so complicated. Which brings me to “retreats”. (Have you heard of Kris Camealy’s Refine Retreat?)

    • I really like those retreats! I haven’t gone to one but I’ve seen Kris’ work out online and it seems legit.

      • I so appreciate this post, Sarah. I too am amazed at all of the people who attend conference after conference. I have 4 kids, I home school and we live on one generous income. I am grateful if I can attend ONE conference a year. This year I started planning a retreat for me, by myself, and God re-directed me to open it up for others who crave some quiet, concentrated Jesus time. I stand behind Refine {the retreat} because It wasn’t my idea in the first place. I’m calling it my one giant terrifying act of obedience for 2013/14. I’d sure love to see you there. There will be no spiritual manipulation. Just women who are hungry for God, who have holes that need to be filled (don’t we all?!) and uninterrupted time spent bent before The Lord.

  • BMcGlothlin

    Sarah, I truly resonated with what you said. I’ve attended several conferences, some for blogging/writing, some just spiritual growth, all more good than bad. But over the last few years my heart has also been drawn to the small. At the last big women’s conference I attended, I walked away thinking the same thing you just said, “more ministry just happened in the hotel room than in the conference.” I’m not saying no one walked away with a nugget of truth to apply to their daily lives, but I am saying they had to pay $250 dollars for it. And if we would just invest ourselves in the people God has already put in our lives (family, church members, friends) and truly open the door for all those biblical things we’re supposed to be doing when we walk out life together, and if we could just make the time to read our Bibles and ask the Holy Spirit to gives us eyes to see, we could probably get that same nugget of truth for free, and come out on the other side in a much richer, deeper place in the Lord and with our friends for it.

    As for blogging, I feel like the Lord has called me to simply be faithful to what He’s called me to do. In the process, I’m building relationships, platforms, and marketing, but all within the context of just being faithful to the message God has put on my heart. I’m done with blogging formulas for success…done. Sure, there are things I can learn to be more effective, and for the sake of the people I love to serve I will do that, but I’ve seen evidence, since I embraced this style of blogging, that God will bring us His perfect plans for our lives and ministries as we’re faithful to what He’s called us to.

    Thanks 🙂

  • Yes. “Conferences work best when they connect me to my real life where I actually live out the hope of glory.” Beautifully put. Going through my own conference angst over here, so it was so good to read your thoughts.

    • Well, I’d still like to read your thoughts… hint hint. 😉

  • Susan Dunlap

    My goodness, you seem to have hit a nerve here! Thank you for pressing through and speaking it out! Commercialized Gospel does not have a good ring to it. Money-changers and all. And yet, how often do we sign up for this conference and think it’s just a dandy version of a churchy vacation. The choir praising the choir and all. The body is replicating its methods rapidly due to social media, and here we are on social media having such a discussion. It’s all good. We need to be thinkers. Make no apologies, Sister!

  • Abbie K.

    Mmm. So. This resonates because I was just thinking about IF. And the email I just received mentioned the price, and I gasped, and then I was tearful because I don’t think that is a possibility…at ALL. And, why did I want to go? Well because a certain SOMEONE would be in Austin then and I want to see her. So, do I want to attend the conference? Sort of, yes. I enjoy all those women and faithfully read their blogs, but I am already passionate about what they are so boldly proclaiming. Do I need to go to said conference? Probably not. But do I still want to see a certain Canadian? Damn straight. I’ll spend that money to fly myself up north instead. That’s all.

    • I completely support this plan. Just bring babies with you. 🙂

  • Rachel

    I recently went to a conference in Philadelphia in which I and a few of my teammates attended. My teammates and I were able to get in for free because we were volunteers through a program that had a booth there. The hardest thing is being in a room filled with people, in all the glitz and the lights and the motion-media talking about the poor and the oppressed… while it is the people who are being spoken of that can’t afford to get in, and no one is hearing their voices. After the first few hours, we found ourselves to be very emotionally and spiritually exhausted.

  • Michelle Gunnin

    I love this post! I
    love how honest you are, and the questions you raise about conferences are
    valid. I think we as humans try to
    recreate moments where God showed up in hopes that he will show up again in the
    same way. This is how movements of God
    begin…with an outpouring. Then we try to
    package it usually out of a genuine desire to meet God face to face
    corporately. But when he moves on, we
    are stuck.

    I have been a
    believer for a long time. I have been
    involved in many different “movements” of God.
    What I have witnessed is the outpouring, the packaging, and the stagnation,
    many times before. There was the small
    group movement…discipleship groups, life groups, cell groups…there were all
    kinds of names. These groups were
    awesome as far as getting into the nitty gritty of life. But they became cliquish over time. I mean when you share your stuff in a group
    you get tight, and a new person coming in doesn’t know all the background and
    so feels a disconnect.

    There was the accountability movement that started off with
    a genuine desire to help people grow by holding one another responsible to live
    for God. It dissolved into
    legalism. The social action/missions
    movement was a reaction to the inward focus that had been so common in
    churches. Now it is all about
    outreach. And so the pendulum
    swings. There is a move for conferences
    and there will be an anti-conference movement.

    My point is that
    humans want to put God in a box. We want
    predicable, but exciting. We want
    accessible, but mysterious. We want to
    give him a list of how he should or should not move. I don’t know if you have noticed, but he
    doesn’t follow our lists! He moves in
    conferences, and in small groups. He
    moves in corporations, and in homeless shelters. I think we have to seek him, we have to
    listen to him, and we have to follow him.
    It is not an outward issue or format…it is a heart issue. I don’t think anyone starts a movement
    saying, “I want to exclude people, or let’s make it expensive to come.” I think the heart was “Wow, God is
    moving. How can we open this up so more
    people can experience this?” From there
    it builds and then it is like a runaway train.
    Bottom line…when you experience God in one way, you want to share that
    way with others. And that is not a bad
    motive at all. It is when we forget to
    check our hearts regularly that we get into trouble. We stop asking questions, like the ones you
    asked in this post. We catch the
    momentum and go with it. Sometimes we do
    not recognize that God isn’t going with us.
    Sometimes we think we have found THE way to experience God, and so we
    stop looking for him in other places.

    The truth is he moves everywhere…big, small…doesn’t
    matter. Just like you said, I have found
    him in both…in powerful ways. My theory
    is that he is bigger than 100%. I have a
    part of him that you may not know…and you have a part that I do not understand. Together we have more of him than we do separately. I do not know how church is “supposed” to
    look. I have seen a million variations
    and I have seen him in each one. I am
    with you that there are some issues with conferences, just as there are issues
    with any gathering. I think to allow him
    to lead us, instead of following blindly…and also to speak as you do so
    eloquently, instead of remaining silent is a key. Searching out his heart is his desire for
    us. Otherwise he would make it easy and
    follow the lists or live in a box!
    Instead he is like a mist that moves and is constantly changing…waiting
    to see if we will follow him. Keep on writing and sharing your heart…his voice is being heard through your posts!

  • Sarah Silvester

    I really likes this and appreciated your honesty, I’m so glad you mustered up the bravery to do this.
    I loved all your thoughts.
    My pet peeve is slightly different, from a small country, we don’t have many huge conferences here. But I get very annoyed that even when a conference is for “everyone”, ie not a woman’s or men’s conference, all the key note speakers are male. Women have things to say too, not just to other women! I’d love to see a rise uo of women preachers and speakers for that sake. But on the other side of that, I agree with you in the whole thing of the real benefits of the gospel story happening side by side in our everyday walks.
    You’re awesome 🙂

  • sabrinakf

    Amazing. Read and re-read. Thank you for this.

  • There is truth here in so many ways. I have been to one Jesus conference/blogging and honestly, it was the lure of the friendships made that make me want to return. I think as social media increases, it’s this pull of wanting pieces of heaven. When I look at my baby I just want to eat her up, because she’s too much and I want to devour all of her.

    Our hearts are longing for Jesus, for heaven and we want a place at the table, a place within community, to be known and well, it’s complicated isn’t it. Whatever may be, I am here, finding my place here, my table here, my people are here.

  • Thank you for sharing some of your tensions Sarah. Well said. As a ‘regular’ reader I’ll go a few steps further – here in my ‘regular’ life I don’t know anyone who goes to conferences or who wants to. I go to a church that has the mission statement ‘to spread the love of Jesus in a hurting world’ and I value the sitting around listening to my nearest and dearest struggle with the real life nitty grity of this. I value making time to learn from my friends who don’t share my faith about my own priviliege and biases. So, frankly we are too busy with trying to love our neighbours and our families and those around us who really need it to really get worked up about the whole American Christian conference phenomenon. If anything to borrow your phrase, conferences and the popularity contest they seem to be set off our bullshit meters bigtime. And yes, yes, yes to the beauty of the church coming alongside and the damage conferences have the potential to do to that.

  • Aussie Bree

    Oh Sarah, as an INFJ I so relate to that line:
    “I am not someone who turns over tables. (I abhor conflict. This little inconsequential post is making my hands shake.)” You wouldn’t happen to be an INFJ too would you? Your beautiful, artful, natural, profound way with words would lead me to think so. I get the shaky hands and the wide-awake at 3am and the lost appetite – but I get them when it’s conflict that MATTERS. When it’s something I know I need to engage in. So thank you for engaging with this and having all the thoughts that so many of us have. It’s very easy to feel that things like this don’t matter when there is so much other mattering going on in the world.

    Big smiles from down under 🙂


  • Jim Miller

    My church found kind of a cool alternative to conferences that serves a similar purpose, but it’s definitely an “alongside” instead of “up front” approach. I wrote it up for Leadership Journal: Instead of conferences, we study best practices up close and have the chance to do the kind of Q&A that conferences don’t allow for.

  • Kristen Rosser

    Thank you for asking these questions. I can’t go to conferences anymore because I was in a group that mandated them– we were all required to raise money we didn’t have and appear at a stadium once a year to be hyped and guilt-manipulated and yelled at.

    I can’t go to conferences anymore because they trigger those old feelings, but I’m not opposed to them per se. I’m glad you’re asking these good questions about them.

  • Gil George

    This reminds me of a conference I went to about putting ourselves in a place we can listen to the voices on the margins in which all of the speakers were white, educated, middle aged to elders, middle and upper class and I would guess 95% of the attenders were the same. It was disheartening.

  • I love you, Sarah.

    And I can’t help thinking about Heaven here: “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.”

    As a five foot two single woman who is not very cool, I feel left out a lot.
    I’m realizing that maybe God feels left out of what I do (and what we do) too.

    I want to be part of that beautiful Church with you, and sing together forevermore.

  • ‘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’

    ‘You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere humans? For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not mere human beings?’

    {Hate Christian Hollywood. Seems I am in good company}

  • Hannah Mudge

    This is excellent, Sarah. The conference scene in the UK is nothing like it is in the US but many of the same issues and principles apply. I was shocked at the average costs you quoted though – of course over here there are four or five day festivals with tickets costing over £100 but the conferences don’t tend to be as pricey. There’s one happening next month and I’ve seen people questioning the cost – it’s £35/US$56 for a day conference in London. Personally I’ve attended many more feminist conferences and they tend to be really affordable, usually with a sliding scale of ticket costs depending on how much you earn.

    I really identify with this:

    “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.”

    Many of the events here happen in London. I’ll often be the only person from my city in attendance and I’ve definitely felt these feelings. My local area also has a complete lack of feminist groups and even though, like you, I have so many friendships with people I know online and see at events, it’s not the same as being in local community with people.

    I’ve been coming to the conclusion, in recent months, that the ‘big name conference’ set up where everyone sits and watches a glamorous/well-known name tell us stuff in polished little slots of time, appeals to me less and less. I need to feel as if there is collaboration and discussion, not that the people at the front are telling everyone something then we all go home. And as someone else has already commented – these events where privileged white people discuss how best to ‘do’ social justice and reaching out to the disadvantaged, without any of the people they are talking about working with actually being there or having a say…it’s not what I feel comfortable with.

    Now I love a good conference, but these are all valid issues you’re bringing up. Bless you Sarah 🙂

  • fiona lynne

    Sarah, thank you so much for publishing this post. It’s an important conversation, a needed one. I start to find myself on the other side, the organising side, and there’s a huge temptation to go big, to need these events to be impressive and life-changing and overwhelming. It’s a sneaky desire because if you asked me straight out about my own values, they’d sound a lot like yours – local, service, knowing this is holy ground right here right now. I believe more and more than maybe the smaller it is, the most life-changing it can actually be. But it’s too easy for me to slip into that cultural mindset, and it’s not healthy, it’s not Jesus. Thank you for pulling me back to centre and challenging me in your oh-so-gentle way.

  • I love all of this. Especially #9. The flip-side of that one is that conferences can point out ministries to us that we could get involved in, too. But we have to actually get outside and find out if it’s the right place for us to serve. And often, we just end up fizzling out and hopping onto the next bandwagon when the next conference rolls around.
    I have basically not been able to go to a conference outside my own church or home city now since we can’t afford such things. The last conference/convention I traveled to was 4 hours away, and we went for exactly 8 hours and then drove back home, and only went to visit with some old friends, not to hear speakers (and we didn’t pay, either). Otherwise, if it’s not in Columbus, OH, we don’t go.
    When the Vineyard National Conference happened this summer in Anaheim, I watched it on live stream, for free. And part of me felt guilty, like I was getting something for nothing, and then I felt really stupid for feeling guilty for not paying for live stream that was offered for free.
    I really *get this,* all of it. We just have to be so careful and balanced and I think when it comes to conference planning, we should always be asking, “Do we *need* another conference?”

  • As a writer who’s been feeling profoundly lonely lately and had to give up her ticket to STORY this was needed. I love it. Accurate title. Thanks for #1. That being said if you DO choose to come to Festival of Faith and Writing in my own hometown, please come to a dinner party and a hug…

  • Bev Murrill

    It’s the truth that ye speak – but then, as you say, conferences are great when you can go to them… and every niche group does have something to say … to their niche… which they’d like to get larger! HO hummm there’s a lot of conferences I don’t go to … now. For all those reasons… and a few more.

  • Nurse Bee

    Yep! I’ve been to a few conferences back in the day….urbana 2003 the most notable (wow, nearly 10 years since I’ve been on a plane!). But I don’t have the time or money for that sort of thing now. But last weekend I got to drive 200 miles to celebrate an old friend about to have a baby and see another old friend. Beats a conference any day!

  • Sarah Heroman

    oh yes. OH yes. but how? how do we connect? Isolation is certainly a faith antagonist, but I can’t find a place to pitch my tent. I won’t be a pew sitter, and I don’t want a microphone. I want brothers and sisters. Had it for a while. It fades easily without a system in place. I guess that’s why God had a tabernacle. He moves a lot. And I guess His sense of the passage of time and urgency isn’t the same as mine. But still. The longing. Thanks for posting.

  • Really appreciate this, Sarah. I have never been to a conference like the ones you are talking about, but I have wondered lately what all these different ladyblogger conferences and events are really about and why we need so many. As a bit of an outsider, it seems like a lot of these events are about followers paying to spend time with the bloggers they idolize. Which is an okay thing, as long as everyone understands that’s what’s going on–I have gladly paid to see authors I admire. But it gets tricky when it’s couched in terms of faith and God and it’s really just about hero worship.
    I also have a lot of feelings about how easy it seems for popular bloggers to become speakers. Do we really think they are the best teachers and preachers we have to offer? Because it seems more like they are simply the ones with the followers.

  • Lisa Hewitt

    I love this post, Sarah–I can definitely identify with many of these feelings. One paragraph in particular really resonated with me: the spot where you talk about needing to “lose weight and wear high heels,” and do the “smoky eye make-up.” Please don’t, unless you truly want to. I would much rather watch and listen to a woman who is honest enough to eschew the make-up (both internal and external) and express her real self. (An example might be Nadia Bolz-Weber; bless her.) The sense I get–and this could just be my own judgmental self coming through–is that many of these women are “packaged” to look like what we expect: “packaged” to look slim and fit and healthy, with the flawless hair and complexions we see of women on television. Why? For God’s sake, why? None of it is real, and as I get older I find I resent being forced into this mold in order to come across as “professional” or “competent” or “intelligent.” Since when is competence necessarily paired with the socially acceptable female “look”? Further, why should it be so? And why do we tolerate it? Don’t we come to these conferences to connect with other women? Why, then, would we throw up the barrier of make-up and the pretense that we “have it all together” at the same time?

    I understand that many women love make-up. Heck, I love make-up. But making that an entrance requirement into an exclusive club (the Christian-circle writer/blogger/speaker club) is way foolish, whoever is establishing that requirement. We shouldn’t require it of our sisters in Christ, and they certainly shouldn’t require it of themselves.

    In other words, let’s just accept ourselves–and each other–as we are, and stop trying to copy the world.

  • Emery

    I feel like I’ve never fit in and keep hoping someday maybe I will find a place where I do. But maybe, just maybe, that’s something God is using in me for change.

  • Kelly Ellis

    It’s in these beautiful moments that I feel like I’m not alone. Like maybe I’m not just the greatest cynic that ever lived and my gut feels things for a reason. I love the idea of Christian community but don’t understand how to find it or how to belong. I see the conference pictures and shudder because I can’t imagine engaging with Christ with so many people around me and ,yet, I wish I could. Thank you for a scary but heartfelt reiteration of your conflicted feelings. I like knowing that being conflicted doesn’t always have to be wrong.

  • It’s not just me? ::sigh::

    You are brave, friend. Thank you for finding these words.

  • pastordt

    SO with you. And yes, this does appear to be ALL the thoughts. :>) It’s one reason I loved Deidra’s 100 person cap on her Jumping Tandem Retreat. Small enough for some real connection, one worship leader, different ages up front, some ethnic mixing in the group. I think your very best work comes out of your life, as YOU live it, not as somebody else (read: publishing guidelines/conference pressures) tells you to live it. So stay where you are and tell us about it, okay?

  • How do I respond to this as a brief comment and not a full-length blog post of my own? Sarah, dear, you are a prophet and a mystic. You speak Truth in community and your 133+ commenters in the last 24 hours are your witnesses.

    But pride is the poison of a prophet.

    The challenge we face is in releasing the boulder-sized words of God while still cradled within our skepticism and humility that they aren’t really that big after all. If our words take on a life of their own, rolling along and gathering strength, then we all know who the original author was. If, however, they roll to a stop and crumble into dust, forgotten … well … then …. maybe it was just our humanity … and those hot peppers we had in our omelet this morning.

    Your words will live on as branches on the vine, intertwined with our own, and bear fruit, conferences or not. You are that good, and your humility and your desire to continue folding your laundry and spend time with your tinies speaks louder than any amplified voice on stage.

    I pray my brevity causes the white-spaces between my words to whisper more clearly than the words themselves.

  • Totally in love with this post my friend. Thank you for your bravery in writing and posting it. People spending so much time and money on these conferences that are mostly filled with upper class white people instead of being with and serving their community has always seemed like such an odd thing to me.

  • Deidre

    I love this, we were talking about this last night at our book club. My favorite “conference” ever was one my sister and I ran. It was Dirty Diva Day (the name actually was banned at our church but we will forever refer to it as that). The focus was practical skills for young women and their mothers/mentors. We had public speaking, cooking, car maintenance, carpentry and women’s health. It was small and short and we all ate lunch together and it cost $10 pp and was so much fun.

  • Michele Minehart

    I’m having all the thoughts about your post! It resonates with truth and yet I’m so excited about IF that I’m making a list of people to write letters to try get to go (annnnnd back to the exorbitant cost thing). I’m in the midst of some women’s ministry building (all new, all unanticipated, all “how did I end up HERE?”) and know there are some women who have been wrestling longer and thinking harder and I want to know what they have to advise. But I feel like conferences and even the bloggy world is very high-school-dance in which I love dancing but that circle over there seems to be where I’m “supposed” to be shaking it. Which is very unKingdomlike. So there’s that, too.
    Thanks for your thoughts.

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  • Erica

    I know you wrote this several days ago, but I just stumbled onto it. This resonates with me so deeply. We belong to a church and ministry that highly values the lights, videos, big events (pictures hundreds of people at a “fall fest”), conferences, etc. etc. etc. After being a part of the inner circle for 15 years, we pulled back. Still attending church there and loving the people, but desperate for real community. My real life happens in my kids’ messy bedroom, our ONE bathroom for six people (ha!) and in-between loads of laundry. Most days I can barely make it to church let alone an all day Saturday conference. Ministry for me happens when my neighbor and I are talking about yelling at our kids or fighting over money issues with our husbands. This to me is just as valuable (dare I say more valuable??) than the lights, big names, large crowds, loud worship music. But, how to do community in a place that values something different? How to “fit in” so to speak so I don’t go bananas with loneliness? Ahhh… working it out here. Thank-you for your honesty. Thank-you for speaking the truth of your life.

  • Caroline Starr Rose

    This is fascinating and a part of Christianity I didn’t really know existed. It is always so interesting to me to see the circles within circles inside of the Body.

  • randywoodley7

    Oh yeah! Sarah, you articulate so well the words from my heart, much thanks from the Indigenous corner of he room!

  • randywoodley7

    it’s a vicious cycle-you want people to read your books (why else write them-there’s no $ in Christian books unless you are “a big seller”), but to sell books you have to “conference” and the more of and bigger the conference the better. Don’t sound much like Jesus to me…I got off the hamster wheel but that’s not helping people read my books…still, you’ve pegged the Christian branding industrial complex very well-thanks! and, let us know what happens with your book…

  • Luke Sumner

    Good thoughts. I can resonate with much of this.

    I went to a large conference last year that was all about Justice (which I got in for free to by helping a friend). Yet what I saw was (a) most of the planners of the conference, and speaking, were middle class white males, (b) a ticket price that would exclude all but those of significant means, and (c) a commercialization of justice on a level I had never seen before (For example, I was told multiple times that I could actively participate in justice by buying things. Really!?). All this to say, it made my angry.

    But I think your words gave me a tad more hope that there might be some good and just ways to gather and learn together. Thanks!

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  • Kristen Rosser

    I ended up writing about this on my own blog this week, if anyone wants to read it:

  • Suzanne Burden

    The most heartening of posts…thank you for speaking into this. Who has time to go to a conference where they are marginalized, indeed. And this:

    “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.)”

    This you must do. You must do it because the Spirit births it in you, my sister. And as you lean into the Spirit for direction on ways and times to say no so that you might say YES to the right things, peace will reign. His daughter will prophesy. HIs Kingdom will come. His will be done.

  • heatherquiggle

    I completely understand this: “The more people show up to read my stuff, the more care I feel about my words.”
    That alone makes it a huge stretch for me to start teaching a class at church, or building my own blog audience. I like to speak my mind. Unfortunately, and fortunately, I don’t mind conflict. I like the freedom of obscurity, not just it’s protection to say what I will. Yet – how do I stay genuine, but not careless? Responsible, but not rehearsed? Kind, but not people-pleasing? It’s that grit and grace tension we share on
    I’ve had amazing experiences at conferences…one of the most life-changing in fact. I don’t think the NT talks about marketing, but it does talk of renewing our minds, pruning ourselves for new growth, and this creative creation God made us to be. God didn’t call us to be small…just humble. As to the price…well that’s just a problem with western world church as a whole. No matter what we say, or ministries we serve, it’s not really okay to be poor and Christian in a first world country. You must be doing something wrong if you’re poor. I remember a time in the 80’s when I was a kid and all the Jesus concerts like Carmen and Point of Grace and so many I would never push the play button on Itunes today for, wouldn’t charge. Even though they’d have thousands attend and a massive stage production, all they’d take was a love offering. I haven’t seen that in YEARS.

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  • Mya

    I hate to say it but unfortunately I can bear witness with you about the aforementioned writing conference. Been there, done that, still keep going to get what I can get out of it. I also hate to say as a Black attendee at said conference I feel the same way your friend Grace Biskie felt, feeling like the only woman of color for miles that has a love affair with God and a passion for books, art, and writing. But I don’t give up. I go and eat at the table because the dessert sometimes is so much better than the dinner. I don’t give up because those nuggets of wisdom give my passion credence when the conference is over and I am plugging away at my writing desk or my art studio. Thank you for telling the truth with this post. It lets me know that I am, in fact, not alone like I thought.

  • RA

    This comment is way overdue, but thank you for writing this. I sent it to my husband and we had an interesting conversation about conferences and other experience things (retreats, mission trips, books, podcasts) that feel good in the moment but then … what? Thanks for provoking those thoughts.

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  • You have torn the bandage off. These events are about money, business, and hero worship. Maybe we need to scale these back — make them small and intimate and worshipful again. Maybe we need to remember God. Would Jesus attend one of these?

    A few years ago Promise Keepers came to this very conclusion…and stopped the big events in favor of men gathering in churches again.

  • Tim

    Sarah, you’ve reminded me of something I read about why a guy stopped attending a particular church: “Too much church, not enough Jesus.” I think I could say the same for many of the conferences I’ve attended – too much conference, not enough Jesus – so I’ve stopped attending.

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  • Jordan Thomas

    Gah. I just discovered you and I love you. Are you in my head? As a plain old run-of-the-mill grad student getting my Masters (in Visual Culture Studies… it’s a lot of identity theory) in a middle-of-nowhere place called Normal, IL, but with a fire in my heart to make disciples… I get so confused. Why am I sitting in classrooms talking about social injustice and gender inequality when I could just be out doing ministry? Is Academia worth anything whatsoever? Shouldn’t I be doing something BIGGER? Of more eternal value? Loving people toward Jesus, full time? I don’t have the money to GO to the conferences to meet/hear my spiritual heroes who are out doing what I want to do, so I listen to the podcasts, read the blogs, retweet the tweets. I stay up on what’s happening in our global Church’s spotlights. I’ve been chomping at the bit to get involved myself. To maximize my potential, or… something. To be used by the Lord like those people! But God has been trying to slow me down these last couple weeks — He has me HERE, for now. And He’s been trying to get me to see it… this post has helped, also, to reveal the mechanics a bit: The Christian Culture Machine is not the only place Jesus is working. He is doing significant work in little nothing places like this city, though me, loving those who no one really knows about. He works in and through the nameless and the unknown, the least of these. I’m not best friends with Joyce Meyer, Christine Caine, or Sarah Bessey, but I am best friends with some other, under-the-radar world changers. In our celebrity-crazed world, sometimes it takes some strong doses of authenticity (like this post) to bring us back to earth. So thank you for the encouragement, today. God is giving me the challenge of engaging fully with the life He has given me, to use my voice even if only 10 people are listening, to be courageously loving toward people in Academia, and cherish each moment of intimacy with Him here on the fringe, with the misfits, in the darkroom.

    Can’t wait to read your book. 🙂

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