A Critique of Conferences

Recently I listened to a conference speech online. Well, I listened to half of it. It was too boring to finish. The topic was trustworthiness. One of the points made over and over was that if you say you’re going to do something then you should actually do it. Wow! What an epiphany!

I thought, “Is this speech being give to a bunch of twelve year olds?” But no, it was being given to adults. And I thought more, “Do the people in the audience feel as though their intelligence is being insulted? They should.” The whole speech was delivered as though it was either being given to stupid adults or to inexperienced kids.

I’m usually not a fan of conferences. I don’t want to be mistaken as an ungrateful complainer though. I appreciate the amount of work that goes into organizing a conference, and I would never suggest that the organizers’ hard efforts are a waste of time (well, maybe I would). I also know that a lot of people really love conferences and truly benefit from them, and, not everyone thinks like me. In fact, I am in the minority it would seem. I understand the perceived importance of conferences. I understand people want to get together once and awhile, people who ordinarily don’t see each other, and remind themselves why they’re doing what they’re doing and why they need to help each other. I’ve met some great peoconference 001ple at conferences; people who I continued to work with for years afterward. I understand the leadership wants conferences to set the direction for the organization, and motivate the people, and cast vision and all that stuff.

However, I’m still not a fan. There are few things more boring and pointless than sitting in a chair for three hours listening to a speech you’ve heard a hundred times already. I don’t need to listen to a lecture given by someone who has no experience in what I’m doing. I certainly don’t want to spend three or more days at a conference, away from my work and home, lying every time someone asks me about how great the conference is, pseudo-enthusiastically yelling “Hallelujah!” every time a speaker does so, and then walk away from the whole thing feeling emptier than when I showed up.

When I think of conferences I’m often reminded of a scene from the film Waterworld. The earth is covered with water, but there’s a little girl with a tattoo on her back with instructions to find dry land. Problem is, no one can read the instructions. The bad guys, called “Smokers”, capture the girl. The Smokers live on a big oil tanker and how they get it around is by rowing — hundreds of men sticking long oars out the sides and rowing, just like with the old wooden ships. The leader of the Smokers gives an inspiring speech, holding up the girl in front of everyone, proclaiming that they will find the land and create a great future, etc… After the speech the rowers are so hyped that they get to work immediately and exuberantly. Meanwhile, the leader, still not knowing how to read the instructions, in private with his closest advisors is asked, “So which way we rowin’?” and he replies, “I don’t have a g–d–n clue. Don’t worry, they’ll row for a month before they figure out I’m fakin’ it.”

I’m not suggesting that leaders in conferences are “fakin’ it”. But, I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve come out of a conference hearing attendees proclaiming all the great things they’re going to do after being so encouraged by the conference speakers, and then never doing anything. I remember driving home from a three day Christian men’s conference, my intelligence freshly insulted, and my passenger, a railroad worker, declared, “I’m going to plant a church when I get home!” And I just smiled and thought, “No, you’re not.” Because anyone making a major decision like that, in an emotionally charged atmosphere such as a conference, is never thinking straight. And he never did plant that church.

The more honest attendees will be more level-headed, or even discouraged. I’ve known several people, who were already doing some kind of ministry, come out of a Christian conference feeling small and unimportant. I’ve heard laments like, “My ministry is hard work, and I wish I would have been able to meet people at the conference who were going through the same struggles I am, so that I could have talked with them and gotten to know them. But there was no time for that. Instead we just listened to grand speeches which included things like the leader yelling, ‘This is just the beginning!!’ over and over. What’s the point in that?”

My last article, Andragogy (Adult Learning), points out how adults, when attending a class or a conference, are not interested in generalities. They want specific teaching which directly relates to what they’re doing in life. They also don’t want to just sit and listen to a lecturer without having their own life experience and knowledge taken into account. What adult wants to sit and listen to a lecture that would better be delivered to a group of twelve year olds? Adults need to engage and speak and share. I know from personal experience that I would much rather sit in a small group setting, where everyone can participate, than sit in a large conference setting where you just, well, sit.

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Andragogy (Adult Learning)

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Obviously, teaching children (pedagogy) is very different from teaching adults. Below are some notes on how to teach adults…

  1. Adults are self-directed in their learning. Rather than passively listening to a lecture, adults like to be engaged in the class forcing them to take responsibility for their own learning. Adults like to discuss what’s being learned and provide their own input.
  2. Adults have a lot of previous knowledge. They need to know how this new material will tie into what they already know.
  3. For adults, the content must be relevant. Too much useless information will just make the adult student bored and the material will be forgotten. Adults need a reason to learn this new material. “How is this class going to help me get ahead?” is what the adult student asks. The course material must be relevant to the student’s life and work.
  4. Adults are goal oriented and want to know early on in the course how we’re going to get “from here to there.” Even if the content relates to their life and work, pointless “bunny trails” will only distract and frustrate the adult student.
  5. Adults are problem oriented and are attending the class to find answers to specific problems. If the teacher doesn’t have those answers, the adult student loses interest in, and respect for, the class.
  6. The class needs to be fun, but not in a childish way. Activities also should be used to engage the student, but not insult their intelligence.
  7. The teacher should strive to use visual (charts/diagrams/models), auditory (lecture), and kinaesthetic (hands-on activities) stimuli when teaching adults.

Related links…

Malcolm Knowles

Andragogy Homepage

The Pessimistic Paradigm

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I once had a four volume set of history books. All of the books were written by one British historian in the early 20th century. In the concluding paragraph of the last book, the author praised the future: the British empire was expanding, religion and superstition were fading, China would be taken in 100 years, wars were soon to disappear, and enlightenment was ready to shine forth over the whole world. And it’s interesting because on the page prior to this paragraph, the author described in detail the events which directly lead to WW1. The books were published shortly before that war started, so the author didn’t get a chance to take it all back. He had no idea.

The 20th century crushed a lot of people’s optimism. More war and destruction occurred in that century than ever before. And what replaced the optimism is a crippling pessimistic paradigm. Chicken Little has been busy. But it’s justified right? The world is getting worse and worse, is it not? The end must be near.

Imagine living in the days when the USA was being formed, or when the British empire was continually expanding. Imagine being a Christian directly involved in those times. Wouldn’t you have had a positive outlook on the future? You would not have been lamenting on the end times when you were currently helping to usher in the Golden Age, the Millennium. But look what’s happening now; the western world has turned from its faith, we have gay marriage, abortion, distrustful governments, electronic surveillance, terrorism, and relativistic morals. Surely the end is near.

Now that we’ve barely survived 1988, the Y2K bug, and the end of the Mayan calendar, perhaps it is a good time to take a closer look at this pessimistic paradigm. What shapes these paradigms? Why would people be positive in one generation, and then be negative in another. Obviously the events of the time determine people’s attitudes; if things are good, attitudes are good, and vice versa. This is obvious. But we forget.

As Christians we need to look beyond the ups and downs of human history, otherwise we will mistakenly determine our view of the future based on the spirit of the age. Our eschatology is not based on current events, it is based on what the Bible says.

And Jesus cried out and said, “Whoever believes in me, believes not in me but in him who sent me. And whoever sees me sees him who sent me. I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness. If anyone hears my words and does not keep them, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world but to save the world. The one who rejects me and does not receive my words has a judge; the word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day.”
~John 12:44-48

Jesus said He came to save the world. And to those who don’t believe, He said He would not judge them. This is interesting. It’s like walking into a room, and there are four people there you’ve never met, so you go and introduce yourself and shake hands with three of them. The fourth person you completely ignore and turn your back towards. This is what Jesus is doing to those who don’t believe. Those who don’t believe are excluded from the world, and Jesus came to save the world.

The Lord said to me, “You are my Son;
today I have begotten you.
Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage,
and the ends of the earth your possession.
You shall break them with a rod of iron
and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.”
~Psalm 2:7b-9

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
~Matthew 28:18-20

Did Jesus ask for all the nations? Clearly He did since in the Great Commission He commands us to go and disciple all the nations. So, God offers all the nations to Christ, Christ comes to save the world, and then He commands us to go and take all the nations for Him. I see a pattern developing here. Jesus actually intends to save the world, and use us to do it. But the pessimistic paradigm says, “No Lord. The world is just going to get worse and worse, and You’re just going to have to come and bail us out when things get too bad for us. Don’t You see the giants?!”

The word of God is our paradigm setter, not the world. Jesus has overcome the world.

“I have said these things to you in figures of speech. The hour is coming when I will no longer speak to you in figures of speech but will tell you plainly about the Father. In that day you will ask in my name, and I do not say to you that I will ask the Father on your behalf; for the Father himself loves you, because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God. I came from the Father and have come into the world, and now I am leaving the world and going to the Father.”

His disciples said, “Ah, now you are speaking plainly and not using figurative speech! Now we know that you know all things and do not need anyone to question you; this is why we believe that you came from God.” Jesus answered them, “Do you now believe? Behold, the hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each to his own home, and will leave me alone. Yet I am not alone, for the Father is with me. I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”
~John 16:25-33

Some Methods and Tools to Read the Bible

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There are two ways, I think, we should read the Bible. One is to study it deeply. This means choosing a chapter or a couple of verses at a time and reflecting on each word carefully. The second way is to read it in a more general fashion, like how you’d read a novel. The first way is to get you to understand fully what each specific author wanted to get across to his readers. The second is to get you intimately involved with the whole overarching plan of God.

One handy way to deeply study the Bible is to use a Hebrew and Greek lexicon. This way you can look up the original meaning of the words you’re currently reading in English. I wouldn’t recommend getting too caught up in this though. The people who translated the different versions of the Bible were experts in the Greek and Hebrew, and so, took great care in getting the proper meaning of the original into English. But still, if you’re curious about a word, you can look it up, and you might be surprised at what you find.

Here’s an example:

Romans 8:15 says,
“For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!'”

We read the word ‘adoption’ and assume that it simply refers to kids with no parents getting parents. But it means something different. The Greek word, ‘uihothesia’, means the establishing or setting in place a male child into the position of being a son. And what Paul was likely referring to is the Roman practice where a father would officially set his oldest son into the place of being the legitimate heir to the family. A male child didn’t automatically become an heir simply for being the oldest biological offspring, and the father could cast him out of the family if he wanted to. It wasn’t till the boy was older, and had proven to his father that he was worthy of the family name, that the father would officially name him the heir. Once the boy was set in place he had all the rights, privileges, and burdens of that family. He was seen as being one with his father and having the authority of his father.

Now when we apply this analogy to the modern Christian, the term ‘son’ becomes gender neutral, and the ‘adoption’, or setting in place one as God’s heir who has rights and authority as His heir, appertains to all believers. This changes our understanding of adoption from being, “I was an orphan and now I have a daddy who loves me” to being, “I was not rejected by my Father, and now I have all the rights and privileges of being His son, His heir.” And when you begin to study what having His authority means, you will begin to understand how profound this ‘adoption’ really is.

A tool I use for this kind of study is “eSword“. It is free for PC, and there is an app for iPad, which is not free, but I bought it and use it all the time.

A tool I use for my general reading of the Bible is a reading plan called “Professor Grant Horner’s Bible Reading System”. This plan is designed to get you to read from all over the Bible each day. The plan suggests you read ten chapters per day, but you can set your own pace. Click here to read about the plan. I like this plan because it gives you a good bird’s eye view of the whole Bible and you will see scripture supporting scripture — all of the Bible tied together.

Another tool is, as you’re reading the New Testament, when an author quotes an Old Testament passage, you may have a Bible which gives you what that OT verse is. For example, Paul, in 1 Corinthians 15:27, quotes Psalm 8:6. Now if you flip to the Psalm verse you won’t see in your Bible a reference to 1 Corinthians. So, write it there yourself. Now, every time you read the NT and see a reference to the OT, go to the OT and write in the NT verse yourself. Once you’ve done that for awhile you’ll find as you’re reading the OT all sorts of references to the NT. Why is this helpful? Because then you’ll have Jesus, Paul, Peter, John, and the other NT writers teaching you how to understand the OT passages. Every time you come across one of your written references in the OT to the NT, go and look it up, and the NT writer will tell you what that OT verse is really saying. Now, again, you have a tool to give you a clear overarching view of the plan of God.

There are lots of good ways to read and study the Bible. I love studying the Bible and can spend hours doing it. These are just a couple of ways I do so.

Four Pinheads or Why We Need Human Teachers

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When you listen to and read one thinker, you become a clone… two thinkers, you become confused… ten thinkers, you’ll begin developing your own voice… two or three hundred thinkers, you become wise…
~Tim Keller

But we request of you, brethren, that you appreciate those who diligently labor among you, and have charge over you in the Lord and give you instruction, and that you esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Live in peace with one another.
~1 Thessalonians 5:12-13 (NASB)

One of the gifts God gave to us is teachers (Ephesians 4:11). And He gave teachers to equip the saints for the work of service and to build up the body of Christ. The bible tells us to appreciate and highly esteem these teachers in love. This, of course, applies to the living breathing teachers in our lives now, but also to our teachers long since passed.

In 1 Corinthians 1:10-17 Paul is rebuking four kinds of pinheads…

Pinhead #1: “I am of Paul!”

Paul: “That’s very flattering, but you’re being an idiot.”

Pinhead #2: “I am of Apollos!”

Paul: “I like Apollos, but you’re being an idiot too.”

Pinhead #3: “I am of Peter!”

Paul: “Peter is a good man, but knock it off!”

Jimmy: “I like turtles.”

Paul: “Thanks for your input Jimmy.”

Pinhead #4: “I am of Christ!”

Paul: “Well, you might think you’re the right one here, but perhaps you’re the biggest idiot of them all.”

Pinheads 1 to 3 were elevating human teachers to too high a level. Pinhead #4 was doing away with human teachers all together.

The bible teaches us we need teachers, because we’re not going to get it right, off on our own, with just our bibles. We need guidance. The problem isn’t simply “I am of Paul”, because we’re all “of Paul”, he wrote most of the new testament. The problem is elevating Paul to a position that he is unworthy of and then vicariously claiming that unworthy status for ourselves.

We do need to be only “of Christ”, of course, but under Christ we can safely also be of Paul, Peter, James, Wesley, Calvin, Piper, Keller, and Pastor __________(fill in the blank), and we can be safely not guilty of what Paul was rebuking the Corinthian church for.

Photo credit: http://www.photo-dictionary.com/phrase/6552/sewing-pins.html#b