As I write this I am sitting in the backseat of a van travelling north on I-75 toward home. I was one of over 600 Canadians to participate in this week’s Together For The Gospel Conference in Louisville Kentucky. This was my fourth T4G Conference and once again I found the experience to be edifying, encouraging and somewhat overwhelming in terms of the scale, the pace and the flow of information. As much as anything, this post represents my efforts to process and organize my own reflections.
Let’s start with the good.
I had more or less given up on pastors’ conferences before I first went to T4G in 2012. All my previous experiences had been terribly disappointing. I went to several Willow Creek Conferences and found them excessively pragmatic and generally unedifying. They seemed to operate as though unaware that Jesus said to his disciples:
You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. (Mark 10:42–43 ESV)
Many of the speakers were from the business or political worlds and a number of them were not professing Christians of any kind. My last “pre-T4G” conference was the Catalyst Conference in Atlanta. It was there that I decided that perhaps I am not a pastors’ conference sort of guy. I left discouraged with the state of the church in general and the pastoral ministry in particular.
Several years later a friend invited me to T4G. He told me that it was not like your typical pastors’ conference. They didn’t bring in Christian athletes to talk to us about winning the Superbowl or businessmen to talk about how to manage our organizations – they brought in preachers who spoke to us about the Word of God.
I decided to give it a try.
T4G 2012 was like a breath of fresh air.
The teaching was biblical, the fellowship was genuine and the singing was like a foretaste of heavenly glory – and to top it all off I went home with a suitcase full of free books – I was home!
T4G has continued to work from that essential script and T4G18 was no exception.
The content of the sessions this year was particularly good. Ligon Duncan preached perhaps the most edifying and challenging sermon I have ever heard – find it here – and John Piper and John MacArthur were at their veteran pastor best – offering deep insights into the text and encouraging counsel for younger gospel ministers. I was well fed and well cared for and very thankful.
The singing was rich and fulsome, led again this year by the incomparable Bob Kauflin of Sovereign Grace Music. There is nothing quite like the experience of praising the Lord alongside 12,000 brothers and sisters in Christ – many people will tell you that it is worth the drive to Louisville just to hear the sound of those voices and to feel all around you the presence and the pleasure of the Holy Spirit – I’ve never heard or experienced anything quite like it in all my life.
Most legitimate Christian experiences are improved by sharing them with others. So it is with T4G. For the last three conferences I have made an effort to use this event to build community among my fellow elders and leaders at the church. The drive down provides an opportunity to talk, pray and engage in a way that it is difficult to do in the thin margins of a typical week of church meetings and services. The walks to and from the sessions, and the many times sitting together at meals, allowed us to unpack the content we had received and to discuss personal response and application. One of my elders said to me after the last session with John Piper: “Attending this conference should be mandatory for every member of our Board”. If you learn together it becomes a great deal easier to lead together. It gives you a common language and a common base for decision making and prioritization
For these and other reasons I am incredibly thankful for the efforts of the leadership team and for the many hundreds of volunteers who made this event possible.
If I had a criticism of T4G in the past it was that while there was a tremendous emphasis on the content of the Gospel there was very little attention paid to the consequences of the Gospel. In part, I imagine, this was due to a concern to fight back against those voices looking to shave off certain less attractive elements in the old, old story – but nevertheless – it felt at times as if more could be said about how these great truths should impact how we live in the world, before God and with one another.
This year that imbalance was decisively addressed.
David Platt preached one of the most powerful messages on racism that I have ever heard. (Find it here). At great personal risk he spoke specifically and courageously from the text and into the hyper-charged debate around black/white relations in the United States of America. He rebuked the church for failing to speak out against injustice and for perpetuating and even widening the racial divide in his country.
It was nothing short of prophetic.
Matt Chandler addressed the issue of personal holiness with no less candor and conviction. He rebuked the Evangelical church for playing with sin as one might play with a wild animal. That this wild animal has now grown and turned upon us should strike no one as surprising. The Evangelical witness is obscured by scandal and hypocrisy because we have failed to preach on the implications of being brought into covenant with a holy and righteous God. He carefully defined the difference between morality and moralism and between legalism and a concern to use the law as a guide to loving God and loving neighbor.
It was rare and refreshing.
While very few evangelical, reformed-ish churches openly preach antinomianism (the idea that because we are saved by grace, law and holiness are irrelevant) a great many openly practice it. To hear this rebuked powerfully, prophetically and pastorally was a sign of the Lord’s favour and kindness upon us.
As a member of the Executive Council for TGC Canada I was greatly encouraged by the courage shown by our friends and colleagues at T4G. We have discussed and debated at length the relationship between Gospel content and Gospel consequence. Gospel content is generally applauded by our kind of folks. The more times your article uses the word “imputation” or “substitution” the more likes, Tweets and favourable comments you are likely to receive. But when it comes to pressing the Gospel into lives and decisions and priorities – the outcome is far less favourable. As pressing on the nose produces blood so pressing on morality produces conflict. While we rightly desire to avoid politics, we must not avoid consequences. The Gospel has consequences. The Gospel makes demands. The Gospel is free but it makes us slaves and servants. To hear those demands and obligations spelled out so clearly at T4G was a great encouragement and a subtle rebuke to this polite and deferential Canadian.
Every time I travel to the States or consume American content on-line I feel the need to engage in a certain amount of editing and contextualization. America is wonderful but different. It has its own unique opportunities and some very significant challenges. It has a very different history and a very different position and role in the modern world and those differences create strengths, weaknesses, assets and liabilities – and the wise Canadian thinks very carefully about those things on the long drive home.
In years past I have driven home thinking about the gap in terms of the outer ring of Christian community that exists in the United States but that does not exist, to any great extent in Canada. American churches deal with a penumbra of nominalism that can function as either a blessing or a significant curse. It can be a blessing in terms of added weight and gravity in cultural affairs but a curse when it comes to knowing who is truly saved and who is merely drifting along on the current. In Canada, the current is decidedly against us and has been for a great many years such that there is very little “fringe” left in most Evangelical churches. That changes how we speak to our people; it changes how we do evangelism and it changes how we conduct ourselves in the public square.
This year I am driving home thinking about blind spots.
The reaction to David Platt’s message about racism was decidedly mixed. Many hailed it as prophetic, timely and courageous – others mocked it and reviled it as gross political pandering. The discussion online was particularly unattractive. There is still an undercurrent of racism in this country that I cannot understand or sympathize with as a Canadian. It has not been eradicated from the church though I rejoice in the knowledge that it is now being targeted, openly and courageously, by its better leaders.
Thanks be to God!
However, as a Canadian, and therefore given to self doubt and personal recrimination, I cannot help but wonder what blind spots persist in our churches at home. I can easily spot the wart on the back of my American brother but what about my wart? What am I not seeing? What cultural assumptions remain unchallenged by the Gospel in my life?
In my family?
In my church?
We spent a fair bit of time in our group talking about the Native issue – surely we haven’t thought through that as far as we should. We spoke about the whiteness of our town and the limited opportunities for racial integration. We tried to learn from what we saw and felt among our American brethren but I suspect that our most dangerous blindspots lie elsewhere. That’s the nature of a blindspot – it can be terribly hard to see.
I leave this discussion and this discovery, more resolved than ever to “live in the world of the Bible”. I feel that my best chance of locating and eliminating my own warts and hidden faults is to open myself to the full inspection and rebuke of Holy Scripture. I also resolve to engage more with solid, Bible believing brothers and sisters from other cultures. It occurs to me that if I was able to see the blind spot of my American brother, perhaps a brother from Honduras or a sister from Sao Paulo could see and identify mine. I want to engage more with the Filipino members of my own congregation and I want to spend more time with my Korean Presbyterian friends and colleagues. I want to invite them to speak to anything they see in me that I might not see in myself.
If I make it home through this ice storm I hope very much to attend the T4G Conference scheduled for April 14-16, 2020. I have been blessed, fed, stirred and shaken.
Thanks be to God!