You see, the conference is still very much on my mind two weeks later. I've downloaded the audio from each session (you can download it here), and I've re-listened to most of them multiple times, particularly Kevin DeYoung's sketch of John Calvin's life. Collin Hansen was also there (author of the sensation, Young, Restless, Reformed), as well as a couple other local pastors who led a variety of workshops.
Now, I've been in pastoral ministry for a few years now, and have attended my fair share of conferences and retreats. They usually have lots of singing and sobbing. Lots of "challenging" pep talks, seemingly designed to make sure that every pastor sees his church as inadequate and stagnant. A bunch of "breakout" discussion groups where we all lament how crummy we are at doing what really matters. And there's invariably some "expert" who jaws for hours about how his church chucked everything churchy and has grown from 35 people in a leaky rented banquet hall to 8,000 in a megaplex "worship center" as a result. Charles Finney would be proud.
In contrast, at the Calvin conference, we sang exactly one song: the doxology (right before leaving). No one uttered the (non-)words "organic," "missional," or "incarnational." "We listened to lectures about how the doctrines of grace are experiencing a bit of a revival (or, rather, the church is experiencing revival through them). Both the strengths and weaknesses of the current movement were discussed. We looked to the past, the present, and into the future without demonizing the past and without melodramatic proclamations that the church's future is bleak unless we change change change! (What kind of change? Why, the kind that makes us indistinguishable from the world, of course.) The tone of the day(s) was humility, hope, and patient endurance. Yeah, when you actually believe in the sovereignty of God, it's hard not to be optimistic.
But here's the ironic thing. The vibe at most pastors' conferences I've attended has been thus: You're all tired and weary from a year of inevitably unsuccessful ministry, so we need to help recharge your batteries. We won't talk about theology or Scripture or church history or any of that heady stuff--the last thing you need is to look backward. You need *real* food for your soul. You need a trendy "Starbucks church" philosophy. You need to be told that preaching is no longer effective and that your worth as a pastor is tied up in how many families you've managed to steal from that not-quite-as-hip church down the street.
Ugh. I always leave those things feeling absolutely drained. And yet I left the Magnifying God conference insanely energized. Why? Because the whole thing was built on the notion that it's not on our shoulders. God will extend His Kingdom and he will do it through the means that he has ordained. And praise God that we get to take part! God can and will use our churches, even if they don't sport fair trade coffee shops or host art house film festivals. Even if they've never been featured on the 6 o'clock news (Word and sacrament aren't viewed as headline grabbers by most). He can and does work through the preached Word, even when it isn't accompanied by sleek multimedia presentations.
At the end of the day, Calvinism is about the centrality and omnipotence of our God. So it makes sense that a conference about Calvin's legacy would center on the same thing. (That's why they called it "Magnifying God," not "Magnifying Calvin.") It also makes sense, in a paradoxical kind of way, that conferences designed around pastors and their perceived needs (i.e. "Magnifying Me" conferences) are a dead end, while a gathering designed around God and his glorious infinity, love, and grace still has me talking two weeks later.
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An award-winning preacher and Bible teacher, Zachary Bartels has been serving as pastor of Judson Baptist Church in Lansing, Michigan, for nearly ten years. He earned his BA in world religions from Cornerstone University and his Masters of Divinity from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary. He enjoys film, fine cigars, stimulating conversation, gourmet coffee, reading, writing, and cycling.
His debut novel, Playing Saint, has been called an “intrigue-filled thriller” (Library Journal) and “a page-turner from the very beginning . . . gripping and realistic” (RT Book Reviews). His next book, The Last Con (HarperCollins Christian Fiction) will be released in the summer of 2015. He lives in the capital city of a mitten-shaped Midwestern state with his wife Erin and their son.