How to Attend a Conference: Incarnational Reflections on Keeping Conferences Holy

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I am a conference junkie. It’s part of my Wesleyan heritage. In the Wesleyan tradition, we value conferences. Wesleyans have seen the value not just of thinking of conference as a noun, but as a verb. Conferencing is something Wesleyans do. Not only is conferencing something we do, it is something God does with us. It is holy conferencing.

John Wesley didn’t have in mind the contemporary form of conferences, of course. Rather, they started out as annual assemblies of circuit pastors. Alongside Bible reading and corporate worship, holy conferencing was a means of grace—a special place of God’s Spirit guiding and forming in truth as well as conversational practice. It was a place to grow in humility and maturity.

Our conferences have become much more frequent. The Willow Creek Summit, the Purpose Driven Church conference, the Chick-Fil-A Leadercast, Drive, and a host of others can leave pastor—and all others targeted for such events—spinning. Suddenly, what is holy is in danger of becoming profane when it is frequent. The challenge is not a lack, but a plethora of conferencing opportunities. Combine physical mobility with technology and there is hardly a conference that is unattendable. With the tradition of conferences being holy and in light of their contemporary frequency, we must ask, “How do I conference?”

Here are five Incarnational suggestions on keeping conferences holy.

1. Let your body dictate your presence.

Let’s face it. Holy conferencing can be profaned when it stops being a place of retreat and becomes a place of wilderness where the enemy presents distraction after distraction. Nothing can turn a retreat into the wilderness like a tablet, a smartphone, and a laptop. We have not fully wrestled with the truth that to be present technologically is to be absent bodily. Rather than being two (or more) places at once through technology as we suppose, we are nowhere. But our bodies matter. In the Incarnation, the Son of God took on flesh in Jesus of Nazareth and forever gave up his freedom to be in two places at once. If our conferencing is to be holy, we must be present.

2. Bring someone.

I know, I know, I know. Live tweeting, texting, and Facebook updates are to pass along the conferencing experience. Without the appropriate device, discipleship potential is stifled. But the Incarnation challenges us to keep our holy conferencing physical. The body of the person next to you matters. Their body language, laughs, sighs, and scribbling hands tell you something about them; these are things you simply cannot tell without a body present. If you want to pass along the conferencing experience, then be present and bring someone with you. If our conferencing is to be holy, we must bring someone and listen to them—all of them.

3. Grow a third eye.

The Gospels are full of the ways Jesus used his body: He saw, touched, listened, ate, spoke, and walked. Jesus even wrote. I cannot remember who let me in on the secret, but it’s true: A pen is a third eye (or a third ear). For conferencing to be holy, I must involve my body. All of my body. If something is worth writing down, I write it down. I use my body to make a mark. Specifically, I use a star system. As the idea strikes me as increasingly important, I mark it with a star. As it recurs or draws to my attention again, I make another star. When something gets three stars, I know I’ve marked it well enough.

4. Go home.

When the conference is over, leave. Put your notes away. Let your body sift through the conferencing experience. This helps you realize that what you experienced at the conference was holy. It was a different kind of time and space. The sifting experience is neither productive nor efficient. You will forget most of the content you heard. Yet, this forgetting process is part of what it means to be a physical being. Human beings cannot contain infinite information. Just as our bodies cannot store mass amounts of food without being unhealthy, we should not expect our bodies to store mass amounts of information to be used at our discretion. God has not designed us to store up what is holy. Manna spoils. But what is holy can be re-experienced. Just as the baptised body is reminded of its own baptism at the baptism of another, so the holy conference can be re-experienced as holy if the conference is truly left. So, after a few weeks, take your notes out and review. For me, ideas that get three stars get reflection, perhaps new writing through journaling, and are then properly filed. A body of holy conferencing is built. Then, I forget the rest. I let it go. I toss most of my conference notes in the trash. It’s a reminder not to save the manna. If our conferencing is to be holy, we must leave the conference.

5. Conference again.

The broken body of Christ shapes the church body on a regular basis. Holy conferencing is not simply an event, but an ongoing activity. Just as our bodies are ongoing systems of activity, likewise for our holy conferencing practices. In God’s wisdom, God set six days for work and one for Sabbath. Our bodies are meant to be active and not always at rest. Just as out-of-rhythm Sabbath is not healthy for our bodies, neither is improperly paced holy conferencing. You will “burn off” the nourishment of holy conferencing and need to be refreshed and refueled. Or, perhaps, you will yet be living off the stores of the previous conference and not yet in proper rhythm for holy conferencing. In proper rhythm, holy conferencing will shape your own practical holiness and your experience of the next conference will be shaped in ongoing holiness. If our conferencing is to be holy, it must be ongoing at proper pace.

In each of the synoptic Gospels the Holy Spirit lights on Jesus’ body at his baptism. In this moment, the voice of Father sounds. Both Mark and Luke record, “You are my Son, whom I love.” It is a holy conferencing moment. And Jesus’ body is at the center. We are surrounded with holy conferencing moments. Is your body at the center of these moments?

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Assistant Professor of Christian Ministry and Pastoral Care at Wesley Seminary at Indiana Wesleyan University. He and his wife, Heather, have three children. Aaron is the author of Putting the Plot Back in Preaching (Seedbed), co-author with Tim Perry of He Ascended into Heaven (Paraclete Press) and editor of Developing Ears to Hear (Emeth Press). Aaron completed his PhD in Organizational Leadership (Regent University). Follow him on Twitter @aaronhmperry

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