I was blessed to be in Chicago last week for The Gospel Coalition Conference. I am grateful to my church for allowing me this kind of time away not as vacation but as "continuing education" and pastoral enrichment and for providing financial assistance in my going. This was my 2nd time at TGC and including Together 4 the Gospel last year, it was only my 3rd conference as an attendee since 1996. I am relative newbie to the conference scene, but I have come to love the tribal feel and the philosophical emphases of the gospel-centered megaconferences that TGC and T4G are. Here are some of my thoughts on last week's conference:
I was super happy my wife Becky got to attend with me last week. This was her first conference since 1996 (when we attended the Willow Creek Leadership Conference, also in Chicago, with our church from Houston), and I was not just grateful for our time away together, but I was grateful to be able to share the experience with her. The last couple of years at TGC and T4G, I found myself thinking over and over, "Man, I wish Beck was here to experience this with me." I'm glad this year she was. We had a great time, and even though we were very busy with conference sessions and fellowshipping with plenty of other men, it was actually very romantic.
Last year I shared a room with Jonathan McIntosh, and as sexy as that dude is, I really enjoyed this year's hotel room vision more. :-)
You can read my wife's reflections on her first conference here.
What I've learned is that a lot of guys go to these conferences and don't mind skipping the plenary sessions in order to hang out with each other. I do tend to skip one or two sessions, but the preaching is one of the biggest draws for me. I preach nearly 50 weekends a year, so my opportunities to sit under live preaching are very few and very far between. I do listen to the occasional podcast, but I have discovered that audio is no substitute for my heart's appetite for live gospel proclamation. Even as I lead my church to allow me to share the pulpit more and more with others while I'm not out of town preaching elsewhere, I crave being fed the Word of God, and I know that I can trust TGC and T4G to showcase some of the best gospel-centered, Christ-exalting preachers in the nation and world. Some might skeptically call this celebrity worship; I simply call it reliable. While I greatly enjoy and admire Tim Keller and John Piper and Mark Driscoll, et.al., above all, I know when I see their names listed, I can count on solid, soul-nourishing preaching.
At this year's conference, we most enjoyed the main session talks by Keller, Alistair Begg, Conrad Mbewe, and Matt Chandler. We attended two stellar breakouts, the one on "Justification vs. Self-Justification" by my friend Ray Ortlund and the killer talk on "The Spirit-Filled, Missional Ministry of Jesus" by Mark Driscoll. I had a meeting during the third breakout slot we signed up for, so I look forward to the audio from C.J. Mahaney talking about pastoral discernment.
Darryl Dash rightly says this is the real benefit of TGC. Just as important as the preaching to me were the sweet gathering times in which we got to deepen and begin friendships with likeminded pastors and church planters. From between-session gabbing to meeting readers of my blog/tweets/books, lunching in the hotel with old colleagues to hanging at an Irish pub with new colleagues, one of the sweetest fruits of the conference is the sense of belonging. The feeling of togetherness was great. Two nights in a row Becky and I hung with Acts 29 pastors and planters, as well as other "connected guys" like myself, and I was just reminded again and again how special this tribe of men (and their wives and families) really is. This was Becky's first experience with A29 immersion :-), so it was very helpful and encouraging to her as well. She got to experience for the first time what I experienced for the first time in Fall 2009. Acts 29 dudes and their compatriots are a band apart. And for a pastor in Vermont, where fellow tribesmen are not close by, face time like last week was precious.
The Vision and Vibe
There is just something surreal and extra-real about standing in a room singing praises with 5,499 other souls exalting Christ. There is something exciting, exhilarating, enchanting (in the good way) about sharing space with thousands of young men and women, of different denominations and traditions and ethnicities, all sharing in a passion for the gospel. It gives me hope. It helps me feel connected. It sends me back to my rural church in my little town in my thirsty state with a vision for what God can and will do through his church to make the glory of his Son known in every crack and crevice of creation.