The Gospel Coalition conference has come and gone, and thousands of pastors and church leaders have now returned to their posts, eager to put into practice all that God taught us.
Last Thursday afternoon, I packed my bags and headed back to the airport. Watching the Chicago landscape speed along from my seat next to the train window, I saw people coming and going: some looked like locals, others like tourists, but regardless of where they hailed from, many were probably lost and running from Jesus.
Chicago is big. The dispersion of 5500 believers into this sea of millions of human faces seems like merely a drop in the bucket.
For three days, thousands of young pastors and church leaders sat under profound, biblical teaching. We were drenched in the truths of God’s Word and blessed by the opportunity to meet with likeminded believers. We were challenged to deeper devotion, encouraged in our walk with Christ, and infused with passion for proclaiming the riches of Christ’s atonement to impoverished humanity.
The conference was like a nuclear explosion of gospel truth. Being in the middle of that kind of gospel intensity was thrilling.
But on the train back to the airport, the sound of our voices mingled in praise lingered only as a faint echo in my mind. The conference experience was beginning to fade. The intensity of gospel celebration was supplanted in my heart by the immensity of the lostness that engulfs the streets of Chicago. Even as we were gathering to sing praises to our Savior, the vast majority of the people in Chicago do not know the Jesus whose presence we sensed so palpably. Most don’t even know what the gospel is, much less a conference called the Gospel Coalition.
The enormity of the Great Commission leaves us feeling overwhelmed and helpless, but I think that may be the point. We aren’t supposed to hear the gigantic command (“Make disciples of all nations”) apart from Jesus’ preceding statement (“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me”). The magnitude of the task is matched only by the magnitude of Christ’s power. And reflecting on that power brings me back to the reminder that our gospel retreats are meant for gospel advance.
There are many reasons why conferences are important to pastors:
- We need the mutual strengthening that comes from face-to-face conversation.
- We need the opportunity to sit and listen to the Word preached.
- We need to be reminded that the kingdom of God is vast and that God is working in all sorts of ways through all kinds of people.
Conferences help us envision ourselves as individuals taking part in a bigger movement, a procession of the gospel that moves from God to us and then through us to the people around us. It’s no wonder we enjoy the occasional retreat. We need to be refreshed and have our spiritual batteries recharged. God works in us so that He can continue to work through us.
But I fear that many of us enjoy the explosive experience of a conference so much that we want to linger around Ground Zero. We can begin living from conference to conference. The gathering becomes the end rather than the means to something greater.
Eventually, conferences can assume a concert-like atmosphere. Instead of listening to our favorite band play live, now we listen to our favorite preachers in person. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying the immediate teaching of a favorite pastor or theologian, but a gospel-centered conference is – indeed must be – different than a concert in a very specific way.
Concerts are all about the event, the live experience, the immediacy of the band in front of cheering spectators. Conferences like the Gospel Coalition, however, are intended to be a catalyst for something much bigger than a group of 5500 people saying “amen.” We are united by the cross that leads forward in mission. We come together momentarily in order to scatter for a lifetime. We seek spiritual refreshment, not merely so we can bask in the glory in the experience, but so that we can invite the thirsty to taste the Living Water. We retreat in order to advance.
Brothers and sisters, may we not live only for the retreat, but for the advance. May our times of mutual strengthening and encouragement be for the proclamation of Christ crucified and raised among those who do not yet name Him. And may the fallout from the nuclear explosion of gospel truth encompass our towns and cities, our states and countries, our nations and our world.