One of the perks of my job is that I get to go to many conferences. In fact, I am virtually required to attend, and often asked to speak at conferences of various sorts. Most are sponsored by parachurch agencies of some sort. Most are worth attending, which places the average pastor in something of a dilemma. Given his limited resources, how can he choose which conferences to attend?
Some are drawn to speakers or locations, while others choose conferences based upon their themes. Some attend out of obligation (perhaps their church is associated with the organization that is hosting the conference). Many go for the fellowship.
The conference that I attended last Monday stands out as a noteworthy blessing. This conference is held annually by the First Baptist Church in Rockford, Illinois. It is known as the “Conference on the Church for God’s Glory.”
My first experience with the Conference on the Church for God’s Glory came about a decade ago. At that time it was rather a small affair, as one might expect from a conference at a smaller church in a smaller city. Over the years, however, the event has grown.
Several features make this conference unique. In the first place, it is organized by a church for other churches. In a day when many conferences are sponsored by parachurch or ad hoc organizations, First Baptist has taken leadership in ministering to other congregations. It is an opportunity for pastors to speak to pastors about things that matter to churches rather than things that matter to associations, missions, or schools.
Second, the conference is unusual in its theological commitments. Like other conferences of its kind, it represents a perspective that is Baptist, dispensationalist, and separatistic. But it also features perspectives that many do not associate with Baptist Fundamentalism.
The planners of the Conference on the Church to God’s Glory are unabashedly Calvinistic. They also tend to be Reformed in their understanding of progressive sanctification. They delight in the expository preaching of Scripture. Furthermore, they are committed to the restoration of sober worship at the core of the church’s ministry. As far as I know, this combination of distinctives is unique in the Christian world.
A third unique feature of the Conference on the Church for God’s Glory is the absence of any celebrity mentality. Having a national reputation does not necessarily disqualify a speaker from the platform, but the planners of this conference have no interest in going after the Big Names. Rather, they have filled the platform with people who want to serve others, who love to preach the Scriptures, and who have been thinking about important issues.
Another unusual element in this conference was its approach to music. In most conferences, the song service functions as a pep rally. The singing at Rockford was led by Scott Aniol, however, who deliberately chose theological hymns. Many of these hymns were a bit unfamiliar to many in the meeting. The effect was stunning. Once the attendees understood the thrust of the hymnody, they gave themselves to singing. The auditorium rang with the sound of men singing doctrine attached to ordinate affection.
One more characteristic of this conference was its emphasis upon fellowship. The day’s schedule was planned to maximize the face-to-face interaction of the attendees. Break times were ample (and snacks were plentiful). In one instance, a speaker agreed to cancel his presentation out of concern to allow time for attendees to fellowship.
The entire attitude of this conference contrasted with many Fundamentalist endeavors. For example, Fundamentalist conferences are sometimes dominated by demagogues whose concerns are less with the text of Scripture and more with their own pet issues. In this conference, the host pastor (Scott Williquette) began his sermon by encouraging his listeners to reject whatever in his sermon did not come from the text because, “if it is not in the text it does not deserve to be heard.” That attitude was shared by every presenter in every sermon and every workshop.
The attitude toward Calvinism was an even more obvious contrast. Over the past year I have heard at least two sermons from Fundamental Baptist conferences in which Calvinism was depicted as a virtual enemy of the faith. At the Conference on the Church for God’s Glory, however, a moderate version of Calvinism was simply assumed. God’s sovereignty and majesty became the basis for exhortations to evangelize, to preach, and to live righteously.
The Conference on the Church for God’s Glory has certainly grown over the past decade. This particular meeting was supported by the attendance of staff and faculty from several Baptist missions and educational institutions. It was also supported by the publishers: attendees went home with a big bag full of free books, and they were given the opportunity to order more at deep discounts. Pastors from across the Midwest supported the conference with their presence. One church even brought a whole busload of its leaders.
Why is this conference attracting attention? Probably because it meets a need. For too long, a certain version of Fundamentalism has been willing to tolerate non-biblical preaching, manipulative methods, big-shot leadership, and theological chaos. Those Fundamentalists have typically attacked expository preaching, biblical understandings of progressive sanctification, and especially Calvinism. For them, every Calvinist is a Crusading Calvinist or, worse yet, a hyper-Calvinist.
The Conference on the Church for God’s Glory not only proves those mistaken notions to be false but also provides a safe place for Calvinistic pastors to talk to each other. Furthermore, it offers a platform where men can give themselves to the exaltation of God and the exposition of the Bible. It presents an opportunity to fellowship with the many pastors and other brothers whose voices are rarely heard when the Big Boys get together.
Does Baptist Fundamentalism have a future? If it does, it is because of meetings like the Conference on the Church for God’s Glory. Thanks to First Baptist Church in Rockford and to Pastor Scott Williquette, those who attended the conference had an opportunity to observe something like a Fundamentalism worth saving.
Charles Webbe (c. 1678)
More love or more disdain I crave,
Sweet, be not still indifferent:
O send me quickly to my grave,
Or else afford me more content!
Or love or hate me more or less,
For love abhors all lukewarmness.
Give me a tempest if ‘twill drive
Me to the place where I would be;
Or if you’ll have me still alive,
Confess you will be kind to me.
Give hopes of bliss or dig my grave:
More love or more disdain I crave.
This essay is by Dr. Kevin T. Bauder, president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). Not every professor, student, or alumnus of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.