It was a remarkable conference. They had no business. They passed no resolutions. They delivered no institutional reports, made no sales pitch, and received no offering. They simply preached and taught the Bible and enjoyed one another’s company. Oh, and they gave away books.
The meeting was the annual Conference on the Church for God’s Glory at First Baptist Church of Rockford, Illinois. First Baptist has hosted this conference every May for several years. The gathering has grown every year and is now attended by nearly two hundred registrants (plus church members and some others). While a few more could squeeze in, the crowd pretty well fills the church’s auditorium.
No wonder. This conference provides an infusion of fresh air into the ecclesiastical atmosphere of Illinois. It is not about issues so much as it is simply about biblical ministry. The preaching is almost exclusively expository and the preachers are almost all pastors (as opposed to institutional executives). They bring the perplexities of their recent experiences with them, and they challenge one another with biblical answers. They do not set out to provide scintillating displays of pulpit pyrotechnics. Instead, they set out just to preach the Scriptures.
Many of the attendees are old friends, but there is not a whiff of clannishness about the meeting. Both hosts and attendees are genuinely excited and appreciative of everyone who comes. In fact, the church makes a practice of praying for registrants by name during the weeks leading up to the conference.
Every version of parachurch politics is left outside. This conference is hosted by a single church, and it is not a large church. Consequently, it is not likely that attending the Conference on the Church for God’s Glory will be a major career boost. The movers and shakers do not attend, and consequently the meeting is not one where a person goes to be seen.
Pastors do attend, however—lots of them. This year’s guests came from many points on the map. As expected, many were from Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Minnesota. Others, however, came from as far away as Nova Scotia, Florida, Maine, and Nebraska. All guests were graciously received and cared for with a personal touch by the members of First Baptist Church.
The accusation has been made that the Conference on the Church for God’s Glory exists to promote Calvinism. That accusation is not fair. The conference did begin to flourish at a time when a couple of fellowships were expressing some rather vitriolic and misguided anti-Calvinism, and I’m sure that part of its appeal has consisted in providing a place where more Calvinistic pastors (whether four- or five-point) could escape the shooting. Still, non-Calvinists are welcomed at the conference. I cannot think of a word that a non-Calvinist would have found offensive this year—indeed, I don’t believe that Calvinism was even mentioned publicly (except for one passing reference, by me, to the fact that Calvinism had not been mentioned).
The same can be said of Lordship Salvation. The conference has featured several speakers who affirm a Reformed view of sanctification, but allegiance to that view has not been made a condition of fellowship. The controversy over Lordship Salvation was not even mentioned at this conference. The only reference that even came close was when one speaker opined that a person who is rejecting sanctification cannot be presumed to have received regeneration—and you don’t have to believe in Lordship Salvation to believe that.
The conference this year was devoted to encouraging pastors in the face of the challenges that ministry forces upon them. Bill Emberley focused upon the centrality of the gospel, emphasizing the theme “preferring weakness.” T. J. Klapperich delivered an exposition of Psalm 100, offering reflections about sober worship which should be required listening for every seminary student.
One of the most riveting sessions was Steve Thomas’s workshop on church discipline. Much of the workshop was a presentation of biblical principles and methods of discipline. During the last part of the presentation, however, Thomas talked about the experience of leading his church to place his own daughter under discipline, and then through the experience of restoring her to fellowship. Then his daughter told the story from the point of view of the person who undergoes church discipline. I hope that a recording of this workshop can be made available for pastoral theology courses.
Pastor Scott Williquette modeled the part of a gracious host. His sermon was an exposition and principlization of the Lord’s Gethsemane experience from Marks’ gospel, with application to perplexities that pastors face. Ken Endean delivered an exposition of Ephesians 3 pointing out the church’s role as a revelation of the glory of God.
Breaks were both frequent and long enough for good fellowship. First Baptist Church provided plentiful snacks and drinks. Meals were not included as part of the conference, but food was available on site and at nearby restaurants.
Special mention should be made of the conference music. First Baptist uses the excellent Hymns of Grace and Glory, edited by Joan Pinkston. This is probably the best hymnal available in evangelicalism today (Cantus Christi from Christ Church in Moscow, Idaho, is also very good). The services were led by Scott Aniol, who has mastered the art of selecting thoughtful songs that have the power to ignite ordinate affection. The congregation of pastors became a choir whose offering was very traditional, yet incredibly exciting.
Some conferences and organizations are defined by what they are against, but the Conference on the Church for God’s Glory is defined by what it is for. It is for biblical exposition, for local churches, for dedicated and thoughtful pastors, for sound theology, for sober worship, and for helpful encouragement. This conference seems to grow better with every passing year. It is one of the very few conferences that I can attend without fear of having either my doctrine or my sensibilities assaulted. I am already looking forward to attending next year’s meeting.
George Herbert (1593-1633)
I cannot ope mine eyes,
But thou art ready there to catch
My morning soul and sacrifice:
Then we must needs for that day make a match.
My God, what is a heart?
Silver, or gold, or precious stone,
Or star, or rainbow, or a part
Of all these things, or all of them in one?
My God, what is a heart,
That thou shouldst it so eye, and woo,
Pouring upon it all thy art,
As if that thou hadst nothing else to do?
Indeed man’s whole estate
Amounts (and richly) to serve thee:
He did not heav’n and earth create,
Yet studies them, not him by whom they be.
Teach me thy love to know;
That this new light, which now I see,
May both the work and workman show:
Then by a sunbeam I will climb to thee.