Truthfully, I’m not sure how many times I’ve attended Northland’s Heart Conference over the past decade. I’m sure it’s upwards of half-a-dozen. Sometimes I’ve gone as a speaker, sometimes as an exhibitor (representing Central Seminary), sometimes alone, and sometimes with companions. Rarely have I been able to stay for the entire conference—more frequently I’m there for a day or two. Never have I gone away feeling that my time has been wasted.
The key to understanding Heart Conference is in its name. It is not an ecclesiastical meeting. It is not a conference that focuses on current events and passes resolutions. It is not an assembly that is trying to change the world, not even the world of fundamentalism. It is a conference about the Christian’s personal relationship with God and growth in grace.
Heart Conference draws attendees from a variety of church fellowships throughout the United States. Most of the attendees, however, seem to come from the upper Midwest—Iowa, Minnesota, and the Dakotas—with many from Michigan and Illinois. Of course, Wisconsin is probably best represented. The crowd includes many pastors and other Christian workers, but Heart Conference is not just for ministers. It is mainly intended to help ordinary church members.
This mix of individuals makes for some remarkable fellowship. One of the strengths of the event is that it provides an opportunity to meet and interact with many others of like precious faith. The informal atmosphere tends to lend itself to transparency. Pastors get to introduce their church members to other pastors and Christian leaders, or they get to unburden themselves to their peers about their current challenges in ministry. It is not uncommon to see small, private conversations of two or three in which counsel is being sought or intercession being offered.
The crowd is also fairly diverse in its theological and methodological commitments—or at least as diverse as Baptist conservatives ever are. The variations lend themselves to good conversation. Around the tables one can hear lively but friendly debate over many of the issues about which fundamental Baptists differ. While the discussions can become spirited, I don’t recall ever seeing anybody walk away angry. The usual outcome is better understanding of other viewpoints and the sharpening of one’s own thinking.
This year’s theme was “Draw Near: The Devotional Life of God’s Servant.” Most years the conference is structured with both general sessions and specialized workshops, but for the 2012 conference the workshops were abandoned in favor of sessions devoted exclusively to preaching. Each sermon focused upon some aspect of the Christian man’s personal walk with God.
While I was only present for Tuesday and Wednesday of the conference, the sermons that I heard were some of the best to be found anywhere. The selection of preachers featured some of the best-known leaders within mainstream fundamentalism. Of the speakers I heard, however, none gave any hint that he was conscious of being a “big man.” Quite the contrary. Perhaps due to the camp-like atmosphere, the preaching reflected an amazing degree of humility and personal transparency.
On Tuesday night, Daniel Davey took his listeners into the epistle to the Galatians, emphasizing the role of the Holy Spirit in the life of faith. While avoiding any hint of quietism, Davey nevertheless emphasized that the Christian life cannot be lived by lists of rules. He reminded us that the Holy Spirit produces within us the love of Christ. That love, empowered and guided by the Spirit, leads the Christian into a form of obedience that transcends the necessity of legal regulation. Those who walk by the agency of the Spirit, he said, end up doing more than the rules ever required.
Sam Horn’s message on Wednesday was aimed at Christians who know that they have failed. Using the experience of Israel as an analogy to the Christian life, Horn pointed out that God does not simply overlook or excuse disobedience in His people. God may send severe correction, but even in the midst of correction the man of God should continue to hope. God’s steadfast love and unswerving faithfulness will again restore God’s child to a place of blessing.
Doug McLachlan spent most of an hour glorying in the cross of Christ, focusing upon three results of the cross as depicted in Colossians 2:13-15. By His death and resurrection Jesus has given us life, He has forgiven our sins, and He has disarmed the principalities and powers. This was a simple enough outline, but the entire presentation was bathed in and punctuated by McLachlan’s obvious adoration of the crucified Christ. One left this sermon feeling something of the splendor of Calvary.
On Tuesday evening, Tim Jordan spoke very plainly and simply about the contrast between Mary and Martha. He noted that Mary had chosen the “necessary thing,” and then focused on the difference between “having to” be with Jesus (as a legal requirement) and “having to” be with Jesus (as an inner compulsion). Preaching narrative is a task that challenges any preacher, but Jordan handled this story well. By the end of the message, every listener should have understood that the purpose of reading Scripture is actually to meet with Jesus and not to fulfill a task.
Regrettably, I had to leave the conference before being able to hear Dave Doran, Curt Lamanski, Craig Scott, or Matt Olson. It was a disappointment, because these men are some of the most challenging preachers I know. What I did hear, however, was deeply needed in my own life. Every session addressed a specific spiritual need to which I could point specifically. Though my presence at the conference was truncated, it remains one of the most spiritually helpful meetings that I have attended. Thank you, Northland Ministries, for your Heart Conference.
Father of Mercies, in Thy Word
Anne Steele (1716-1778)
Father of mercies, in thy Word
What endless glory shines;
Forever be thy Name adored
For these celestial lines.
Here may the wretched sons of want
Exhaustless riches find
Riches above what earth can grant
And lasting as the mind.
Here the Redeemer’s welcome voice
Spreads heav’nly peace around;
And life and everlasting joys
Attend the blissful sound.
O may these heav’nly pages be
My ever dear delight;
And still new beauties may I see,
And still increasing light.
Divine Instructor, gracious Lord,
Be thou for ever near;
Teach me to love thy sacred Word,
And view my Saviour there.