T4G made me look like a girlyman
When invited to do a breakout at T4G, I had initially said no, not being a big conference person. I was ultimately persuaded by the fact that the preponderance of attendees are officebearers in the church; and by the fact they put the guy who cries on my case (yes, that bit is truly pathetic, I know). Last Sunday, as I packed my bag to leave, my wife asked me if I was looking forward to going. No, I replied, but it will give me something to write about.
Indeed it did. And not quite as I expected. I went a sceptic; I returned encouraged. For what it is worth, here is my take:
I was reassured by what I saw that T4G is in the game of putting on a good conference every two years and not in becoming a movement or setting the agenda for any church or churches. It is just that: not a movement but a conference. Just look at the webpage: it looks great but it is hopeless, magnificently hopeless. It hardly changes from month to month and it did not even have the schedule up by the time of the conference. That is indicative of an appropriate modesty of ambition. It is just a biennial conference, not a movement or a source of primary identity.
Yes, the men at the plenary sessions are 'celebrities' in our small world; but they were not on the platform simply because of that fact. There was no swagger in evidence; all, in their different ways, spoke powerfully about the gospel; nobody indulged in magnifying their own name; and my guess is that none of these men will do anything which embarrasses T4G in the next twelve months. Yes, T4G needs names to fill the venue; but just being a name with 500 000 twitter followers and a knowledge of Calvinist patois is not going to get you the chance to speak. The swaggerati were nowhere to be seen.
My general conclusion on this point is that celebrity is clearly here to stay; the key point is that those who have such celebrity cachet acknowledge it and leverage it for good. By 'good', I mean direct people back to their own churches and set examples themselves as those who are committed first and foremost to their own people, congregations and denominations. T4G was quite a contrast to the recent reports of an extra-ecclesiastical high-profile meeting of Christian evolutionists, where celebrity appears to be being leveraged to set the agenda and impact the doctrinal testimony of churches. Nothing I heard at T4G indicated that anyone here had that kind of ecclesiastically subversive ambition.
I was also impressed that being 'on message' did not seem to be part of the agenda either. I was free at my breakout and panel sessions to launch salvos against multi-site and even against reductive 'gospel-centred' ministries and movements. The interaction on such was good natured. I was impressed that, when I made my usual speech on the problem of celebrity, David Platt and Matt Chandler were asked to respond and did so in a manner that showed real humility and self-examination. I pray that I can do the same in light of the things which they said.
The highlights for me were C J Mahaney's sermon on discouragement (though everything I heard was good) and the countless encounters with people in the coffee bars and corridors. I had more conversations on polity in three days than I have had for a long time. Whatever is going on at T4G, my experience is that it is raising the profile of polity and distinctives, not eliding them for the sake of 'unity'. On Thursday night, post-anti-celebrity session, I appreciated the good humour of the 75 or so people who, with a wink in their eye, asked for my autograph (which requests I declined with equal irony). My ministerial friends 'Boy Band' and 'the Man that Derek Thomas Could Have Been' have now dubbed me simply 'the Anti-Celebrity Celebrity.' Some are born hypocrites; I have found hypocrisy thrust upon me.
So how did T4G make me look like a girlyman? Flying back on Southwest, I took advantage of their most civilized free baggage allowance but then, having passed through security, remembered the words of C J Mahaney to husbands: do something nice for your wife to thank her for shouldering the family burdens while you were away. So I bought my wife a bag - and then found myself wandering round both Louisville and Chicago O'Hare with a great pink, flowery carrier bag. Most uncomfortable.
And I intend to go to T4G as an attender next time. It is big but it is just a conference, not a movement. It knows its place and it is modest, or as modest as it can be, given the nature of the event, both in style and ambition. I'm glad the 'guy who cries' was put on my case.
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