Thoughts on Marketing and Conferences
The key problem for conferences in the USA is that of 1 Corinthians, i.e., superapostles. American culture is obsessed with celebrity and we need to be aware that the American church is thus likely to be very susceptible to this.
Now, I am aware that hero-worship is the sin of the worshipper, not necessarily the hero. The factions in 1 Corinthians who claimed to follow Paul or, even more so, Jesus as their celebrity guru were clearly not encouraged to do so by their chosen leader. Likewise an alcoholic barman who gets drunk on the job is himself responsible for his drunkenness; but if the bar owner hired him knowing of his drink problem, the bar owner too shares in the guilt. Thus it is in the highly celebrified culture of the USA: church leaders who know that their people have a tendency to the sin of idolizing their heroes need to take account of that fact in how they decide to behave. So here are my suggestions:
First, market conferences on the basis of content not speakers. Send a clear signal - from the design of the webpage to the wording of the fliers - that it is what is to be said, not who is saying it, that is important. Indeed, maybe one could be really radical: do not even let people know who is speaking; just tell them the titles of the talks. "Ah, but then no-one will come!", you say. Well, if that is true, then the case for saying that conferences are all about idolising celebrities would seem to be irrefutable. For me, I believe many people would still attend. They will want the encouragement and the fellowship and the battery recharging. If your organization has a reputation for excellence, people will know that you will have assembled a great team even if you do not tell them the names.
Second, why always bring in the unrepresentative guys from the huge churches? Instead, bring in at least 50% of your speakers from churches of, say, 300 people or less. They do, after all, represent the majority of churches in the country. OK, nobody will ever have heard of them and, by worldly standards, they may look like failures and losers - but remember: you are not telling people who is speaking any way, so there is no need to worry about how to market this.
In fact, the great genius of the anonymity of the conference speakers frees you up to bring in nobodies. These nobodies, of course, will have experiences of pastoral ministry that really connect with most of the audience. I preach and sit on session in a church where I know everybody's name and I am aware of pretty much all the pastoral issues in the congregation. My preaching takes account of my audience in a way that the man preaching to an anonymous ten thousand does not. That man cannot answer the questions I want to ask about pastoral ministry because he simply does not have the categories to understand my world. In fact, the megapastor can probably not tell me anything I could not just as easily get from a book. The man struggling to get the church to make budget, counsel a couple in marriage difficulties, put together an order of worship each week, mediate between warring personalities in his congregation, preach twice on a Sunday, and be available for any pastoral crisis that might erupt - that man can speak directly to the experience and the world of most pastors of whom I am aware.
Third, do everything you can to make the speakers just people in the crowd. No special seats for them, no special dining arrangements. Just let them melt back into the masses once they have spoken.
Ok, we all know none of this is going to happen. But it should, if we are really serious about both providing good conferences for people to attend and not encouraging the celebrification of the church. And, of course, reflecting on why it won't happen might in itself be a very instructive exercise.
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