The Conference circuit is a rather odd duck. It includes events sponsored by para-church organizations, and events sponsored by churches. It includes speakers who work for para-church organizations, and speakers who serve as pastors. And speakers who are both. The talks that are given typically have some connection to the Bible, but typically are not sermons.
The circuit, perhaps because it is an odd duck, is also fraught with danger. We communicate something before we even open our mouths, just by being there. And when we are in the audience we tend to hear things before anything is even said. John Piper, for instance, is widely respected in the evangelical conference world. Those who are less enamored of him, at least of late, are likely to be most unhappy because of some of his recent choices in whom he invites to his conferences. After inviting Doug Wilson, Mark Driscoll and Rick Warren one almost gets the sense that there is at Desiring God an Endowed Chair of Lightning Rod Invitees.
Should we conclude that Piper, if not agreeing with everything ever spoken by these three men at least isn’t terribly concerned about it? Whatever we conclude, would we conclude something different about the other men who were invited to Desiring God, and accepted? Is Sinclair Ferguson somehow guilty of Mark Driscoll? And if so, what are we to conclude about those who weren’t even there, but invite Piper to their own conference, or invite Sinclair Ferguson?
The truth of the matter is that inviting someone to speak, is at least some measure of an endorsement., but how much so? Accepting an invitation to speak is a smaller measure, but how much so? Sharing a platform may be no endorsement at all. We get into trouble when we try to create canon law, to act like the church in exercising the keys, complete with fitting punishments, out of such a stew. We try to impose the para-church equivalent of excommunication, and then impose smaller sanctions on those unwilling to honor our judgment.
It only gets worse when you begin to recognize the existence of teams out there. One could argue that the whole of the Reformed world not only parallels college football, but parallels the whole conference/bowl game issues that are so much in the news. Is The Gospel Coalition the SEC, and Reformation 21 the PAC12? Is T4G the Big 12 and just how long are those sanctions going to last anyway? And what do we do with these upstarts that, like Boise State and Utah want to come play with the big boys? Do we lower our standards to get this young recruit in, who is sure to draw a whole better demographic? We have seats to fill after all, and donor/boosters to keep happy.
Conferences make for lousy politics, though they can work quite well as conferences. That is, much of the confusion dissipates when we remember and act on the simple things- why not try to serve your constituency by bringing them teachers who might help them grow in grace? And why not choose the conference you’ll attend not by the fame of the speakers, not by how many fan-boys they might have, but by who might help you grow in grace and wisdom? And why not let go of the incessant need to judge this one because he invited that one who in the past shared a dais with that other one? The simplest solution is this, having our Bible conferences be about the Bible. It, I’ve been told, is quite powerful.