Last week, February 10-15, Marcia and I attended the National Pastors Conference in San Diego. No comments please about why a pastors conference is held in February in San Diego. The organizers are not stupid. Do you think 2000 pastors and spouses would have shown up in Anchorage in February? We missed the first day due to travel. Early Wednesday morning we went to the Bible study taught by Gordon Fee who Marcia had for New Testament at Wheaton College and I had for several seminary classes at Gordon-Conwell. It was great to see him and his wife, Maudine, and one of their children, Cherith, who is a seminary teacher now herself. Dr Fee opened up Revelation 4-5 (his Revelation commentary is out soon). Fee pointed out how the awesome vision of the throne of God in chapters 4-5 is going on simultaneously with the trials of the churches described in chapters 2-3. Chapters 4-5 is the "view from above". As churches struggle, 4-5 is the reality that strengthens us as we engage the struggle. He encouraged us to join in the singing of the text at the end of chapter 5. We are part of a mighty chorus; Fee reminded us that "thousand" is the highest number available in the Greek language. Singing God's mighty victory encourages us in the midst of every struggle. To pastors he said: "our best preaching and teaching comes out of our worship otherwise it is only the best work of our studies on display." "Be worshippers first!"
Then we went to worship and to our first session. The music by Sons of Korah was uplifting and inspiring as it accompanied the words of the Psalms.
In the afternoon, I went to a seminar by Chris Wright. Chris is from the UK and has worked with John Stott, the rector of All Souls, for years. He is a brilliant scholar who has an unparalleled mastery of the Scriptures. He unpacked the "mission of God" for us. I don't know how many times I have heard a mission speaker challenge us to ask what we can do for God? Wright turned it around and said the right question is what kind of "me" does God need for his mission. What kind of church does God need for his mission. For it is His Mission. From Genesis to Revelation, Wright "briefly" illustrated the Plan of God for mission. His book, The Mission of God, goes into the details.
The next morning Ben Patterson, campus chaplain at Westmont, did the Bible study on the Psalms. We don't know how to pray corporately. We give up on prayer meetings. We think the only "good" prayer is spontaneous. We need the Psalms. Patterson talked about memorizing the Psalms. How's that for a challenge?
Cathleen Falsani is a Wheaton College grad and the religion reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times. Cool job, I thought. She just wrote Sin Boldly and was giving copies away at her workshop. So I went. She talked about grace and like a reporter told a lot of good stories. People like stories. Why don't we preachers use them more? Like Jesus! She was going to do a seminar on gospel images in the Coen Brothers movies the next day and I wanted to go because O, Brother Where Art Thou is one of my all time favorites movies. I wound up going elsewhere but Marcia went to that one so you can talk to her!
Will Willimon who was the chaplain at Duke University for years and is now a Methodist Bishop in Alabama spoke at night. He was great. Some of the speakers made it sound like it was such a hard job being a pastor.... and tried to encourage us... while Willimon said stop whining, do your job, it's your calling! Reminded me of something Patterson said: a pastor friend of his told him he was leaving his present church because it wasn't a good fit. Good fit! Baloney, he said. No place is a good fit!
Next day I went to a panel of some heavy hitters who were discussing the role of the Bible in the church. First question: Is our gospel too small? They agreed it was. It reminded me of the book by NT Wright we are using in Sunday School, Surprised by Hope. If our gospel is just about how to get "me" to heaven, then it is too small. This is the gospel... Colossians 1:23 says.... it is big, addressed to all creatures under heaven. The cosmos is reconciled, Christ is head of all things, including the church and yes, you and I are part of it too! Church is not a bucket to collect all the Christians in. We are part of The Big Plan of God; we are included in His Plan of a new creation. Someone else noted: "we are sound bite Christians; we operate our entire Christian life on a few verses we take out of context." We are looking for sermons that make us feel good. (This panel and Chris Wright's talks made me want to run out and get our church a program to read the Bible together from Genesis to Revelation. They have such programs! We need to get ahold of the Big Picture.)
One panelist challenged us and our churches: how many can summarize the Bible Story in 60 seconds? Can you?
Shane Hipps is a Mennonite pastor in Phoenix. Who knew they had Mennonite churches in Phoenix. And who knew Mennonite pastors were tech savvy? But this guy sure was. He worked in an ad agency for 7 yrs making commercials for Porsche before he became a pastor. So I went to a couple of his seminars. He was not anti or pro using technology in churches. His main theme was use discernment because every bit of technology you introduce into the church has consequences and will shape what you are doing - sometimes in ways you did not expect and did not want. New technologies are here. We have to deal with it. He reminded us we have several generations of technology users (actually different cultures) in our churches. And it is not easy to communicate across those generational gaps or across those cultures. More than ever churches need to be asking how our technology is helping or hindering our sense of community in the church. The internet does not foster community; there is no such thing as virtual community. The most important thing the church has to offer our contemporary society is community, the Body of Christ. In an effort to be relevant and contemporary, don't forget that.
Maybe the most basic learning I got in these few stimulating days away is that the church still needs to major on what its strengths have always been: prayer, the Word of God, offering a place to belong in the Body of Christ, and serving the world. As the world changes, our needs really do not. God's mission is the same as it has always been and we are part of it.