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In which I have All The Feelings about conferences

conferences :: sarah bessey

I.

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.

 

II.

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.

 

III.

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.

IV.

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.

 

V.

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?

VI.

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.

 

VII.

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.

 

VIII.

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.

 

IX.

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.

 

X.

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.

 

XI.

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?

 

XII.

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?

Probably.

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.)

 

XIII.

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.

 

XIV.

This post is probably very foolish of me.

 

XV.

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.

 

XVI.

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.

 

XVII.

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?

 

XVIII.

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

Continue Reading · church, community, consumerism, faith, journey, women · 157

In which I get rid of my mobile phone (and learn a couple of things)

After yet another billing squabble with our mobile phone service provider, my husband asked me what I thought about cancelling my phone contract entirely.

And then I died dead of horror.

Okay, so not quite that bad.

But still. My phone? How will I text? How will I call people? How will I check my email when I’m out for the day? How will I find the closest coffee shop quickly? How will I get where I’m going without Maps? How will I occupy my children in church? Will anyone know I’m occasionally funny if I don’t tweet my wit?

Source: 9gag.com via Sarah on Pinterest

 

After a week of looking at our finances as well as our dreams for the future, I realised he was right: the phone needed to go. I don’t work in a traditional job, I don’t drive long distances, I really don’t use it much (or so I thought).

So sure, let’s get rid of my mobile. No big deal. I can totally do this. Right?

I’ve now been without mobile phone access for a month or so. And I’ve noticed a few things

Source: flickr.com via Sarah on Pinterest

 

I used that phone waaaaaaaay more than I thought I did. I had a hand-me-down first-generation iPhone (yes, the original ones with the round corners and no flash on the camera). I prided myself on “having boundaries” with my phone. And yet, that first week without my phone felt like withdrawal. Painful withdrawal.

I’m safer. British Columbia has a strict Hands-Free driving policy. Police will give you a ticket if you are caught with your phone in your hand while driving. And I was sure that I didn’t check my email or my messages – much – while driving. But  my most common time to want to reach for my phone after we turned off the service? While I was driving. I couldn’t believe it. (I thought I was smarter than that.) Apparently I was checking email at stop lights. I was “quickly glancing” at text messages that bonged in while barreling down the highway at 100 km/h. Once my phone was gone, my attention was more fully on the road. Or on CBC Radio (yes, I’ve got an unreasonable crush on Jian Ghomeshi, so what?)

I’m saving money. Our plan was for $50 a month, yet somehow, I always exceeded that plan to the tune of $70-80. By getting rid of our phone, we’re saving a minimum of $600 a year (but it’s probably more like $960/year). Craziness. We have some dreams about being more intentional, counter-cultural, and generous with our money so we’re doing everything we can to get the house in order as fast as possible. This is a seemingly small step that adds up over the years. I had no idea we were spending that much every month on my ability to check email while driving.

I can still use wireless access. Holla! Who knew, right? When we were close to pulling the plug on our contract, I admitted that the primary reason I love and use my phone is Instagram. I have a terrible camera in my phone but I love taking pictures throughout my day, and I love the Instagram community. I seriously contemplated hanging onto my phone for the purposes of Instagram. But then I realised, I can still use my actual phone with wireless access. It’s a bit limiting, absolutely. It takes the “insta” out of Instagram. But I still take pictures throughout my day, and then, when I’m home and on our wireless, I can upload them and still check out Instagram pics.

 

I’m not quite as rude to others. I can’t assuage my boredom at appointments. I can’t decided I’d rather be on Twitter than talking whomever is in the room. I can’t scroll through my phone in church. I can’t hold my phone like a shield at home group.

I feel less accessible. It might come across as a negative but, on the contrary, this is one of the greatest wins for me. Now, when I’m out, I’m out.  It takes away the sense of urgency for my online life. Email has to wait. Responding to comments has to wait. Tweeting has to wait. I have no idea what is happening on Twitter or in my comment sections for huge chunks of my day, and that is a great gift to enjoy.

It’s inconvenient. Totally and gloriously inconvenient. The first day I got rid of my phone, I had made plans to go to the theatre with my sister (Les Miserables, you know it). I waited and waited and waited in the theatre lobby but she never appeared. Normally, I would have texted her in two seconds. But now I waited. I went on a hunt for a pay phone  which was practically an adventure. After I found one, I deposited my quarter, dialled the number and promptly heard the operator instruct me to deposit another $3.60. I hung up. I didn’t need to talk to her that badly. Pay phones have gone up since the last time I used one, which was likely when I was 13 and calling my mother for a ride from the mall after trying on inappropriate and cheap club wear at Le Chateau. I went into the theatre, sat on the edge, and kept an eye out for her. She showed up five minutes after the movie started, apologetic and worried. She had gone to the wrong theatre by mistake, she couldn’t call me, we were both so sorry and relieved. That entire situation would not have happened if I had my phone. But on the flip side, I have become more careful about plans in advance and less prone to being late or cancelling. Without a phone, I have to honour the plans I make with people. Instead of being able to text with an “oops, I’m running late!” pseudo-apology excuse as I was prone for my lack of value on their time, I have to get my bum in gear and get there on time.

I’m both more present and more private in my moments. There isn’t another option than the present moment. I can’t decide to check out on the conversation at hand if I’m bored. I don’t get to “quickly check” my phone while at the playground. I’m looking around the world more, my head is up, my eyes are open. I noticed my surroundings, the people, my tinies, my life again. I’m listening a bit better. I haven’t had to say “I’m sorry, I missed that – what did you say?” quite as often. I actually live the moment instead of Instagramming the moment. I can’t post a status or a tweet from everywhere I am, the temptation to take a picture of my food has disappeared (and everyone said hallelujah) and I have restored a measure of privacy and secrecy I’d forgotten to appreciate or notice. It’s nice to disappear. I like my secrets. Not having a phone has restored some balance, beauty, and perspective to my life.

 

One of my favourites, Heather of the EO, is launching a new podcast called Power Down with a couple of her friends. It’s about finding the balance in online writing/social media life with our creativity and our time. Check it out.

 

 

Continue Reading · consumerism, moments, simple living · 70

In which it’s Generous Tuesday (+ my video from Haiti)

Email or RSS subscribers, please click through to my actual site to watch the video – it’s the one we shot while I was in Haiti last month. (If anyone doubted Kris Rutherford’s film-making talents - and no one did or could but if - they need only see that he somehow managed to edit my sobbing and slobbering mess of an attempt into something that is very nearly coherent. Well done, sir.) 

 

Black Friday.

Cyber Monday.

Over time, our culture has added those weird labels to describe our perception of its meaning and purpose. Some of us are excited by those labels, others are disgusted, either way, these labels have eroded the true spirit of the holiday giving season: Generosity.

So we declare that today – 27 November – is Generous Tuesday.

Thanks to Pure Charity, individuals, non-profits, and businesses are coming together to remember what the giving season is truly about, and giving back. They’re coming up with inspired ideas and big plans to join in Generosity, and you can too. Tell people what you are doing and why.

Generosity inspires generous living, and it can spark a movement of transformation.

Haiti has taken up room in my heart, and our family is still moving things around to make space for the newness of our friendships there.

The Legacy Project is not simply aid nor is this a hand-out or an invasion, a grand gesture of absolution. No, this is Haitian-led community development born out of friendship and relationship, and I simply feel honoured to even be a small part of this thing


haitiblog_mollie_224
And I yearn to build this school for the tinies of Haiti with you.

Here’s how to participate:

  1. You can sign up with Pure Charity and help us reach that goal. Install the widget on your Internet browser to be notified when you’re at a Pure Charity retailer and/or register your credit card. If you need help, click here.
  2. Just this week, I ordered my family holiday greeting cards from Shutterfly and I received 4% of my purchase back to my Pure Charity Giving Fund. Then I ordered toys for the tinies from Chapters Indigo, and received 2.5% of that purchase back to my giving fund. Retailers from Apple to Target, Walmart to Barnes & Noble are participating.  I’ll donate the full amount our Haiti Legacy Project after all of my Christmas shopping is complete.
  3. You can also make an immediate one-time donation directly to the school project here. 

 It’s Generous Tuesday!

Let’s spread the word, shall we?

 

Continue Reading · consumerism, faith, fearless, Haiti, social justice · 13

In which we will subvert the system for good

Before I even start, would you do me a favour?

Would you watch that video just above these words? (RSS or email subscribers, you may need to click through to watch.) There, now. See? AMAZING.

You can make a real, tangible difference for real people. And you can do it by turning your consumption into generosity.

Instead of a holiday season of blind and mindless consumerism, we will use our daily spending to subvert consumerism.

Yes, we’ll use our spending to be generous.

You know how I love a good subversion of the empire….

And here’s how:

As (the wonderful, beloved) Mary DeMuth says, “This could revolutionize the way we think about our money. It’s a winsome way to capitalize on capitalism, by leveraging what we already do and spend to bring more giving funds to those in need.”

If you’d like to change the world with your spending-giving, here’s how to start:

  1. Sign up for a Pure Charity account. If you’re on Facebook, you can sign in through that, or create an account the old fashioned way.
  2. Install the browser plugin. This will make it so a Pure Charity icon will pop up when you’re browsing particular stores online (like Target, Gap, Amazon, Walmart, Macy’s, Priceline, even Groupon). If you purchase via the pop-up, a percentage of your purchase will feed into your charitable giving account. (You spend $, then make $, then give $).
  3. Register your main credit card with Pure Charity. This is the no brainer part of the process. Every time you use your credit or debit card at one of their participating merchants, you again receive a percentage of your purchase into your giving account.
  4. Then browse the projects (there are many) that you could potentially fund. To start funding, add your own funds to the account (via bank or debit/credit card). (In fact…I have just the project in mind….)
  5. Support your favorite project. (You can change the amount you support…it starts with $5 increments…by clicking the dollar amount and changing it.) These are time specific projects with a set amount of $. If that project doesn’t fund by the finish date, Pure Charity refunds the money back into your giving account.
  6. Share it with friends! There’s a strong social connection to this, where you can share buttons and widgets with your friends and followers, to generate interest in a cause you’re passionate about.

Now I admit it: I have a sneaky reason behind this. Oh, yes, I do.

I have something special in mind for your charitible giving account.

I’ll tell you more about our special Legacy Project soon….yes, it has to do with Haiti, and, yes, that horrible little video moment will be part of that announcement, and I am so excited to do this very real thing for my friends in Haiti – with you. I’m excited by the creative power of the people of God that are redeemeing and revolutionizing even our spending and consumption into something beautiful and generous.

Let’s do some good.

 

Continue Reading · consumerism, faith, Haiti, social justice · 9