Advancing the Church 2011, Tuesday PM session

Before I get too far into this, I want to say that I’m not a pastor; I’m not a formal theology student; in fact all the formal training I had was four years of a Youth Ministries degree in undergrad. I’m writing this from the perspective of a blue-collar church member, a one-time “Young Fundamentalist” who doesn’t really have a label anymore.

I don’t really follow all the controversies in Fundamentalism these days. I know some of the key players but I really couldn’t outline their beliefs and the stands they’ve taken. That means I knew the name “Mark Dever,” and I was vaguely familiar with “9 Marks” (enough to know that the two were connected somehow) but beyond that I didn’t have enough exposure to form an educated opinion. So when I heard that Dever would be just up the road from my office at the Advancing the Church conference, hosted by Calvary Baptist Seminary in Lansdale, PA, I jumped at the chance to hear him in person.

In his opening remarks, Pastor Tim Jordan, senior pastor at Calvary Baptist Church, noted that it would be a “profoundly deep spiritual loss” if we simply came to the services and listened, and avoided the opportunity to network. I haven’t been out of school long but I ran into several classmates, both from college and high school, and spent quite a bit of time before and after the session catching up and swapping stories about how God was moving in our areas of ministries. I hadn’t realized until now how good it feels to catch up with people I haven’t seen in almost a decade and rejoice in the ministries they have.

As Pastor Jordan introduced Dever, he reviewed how he first came to hear about Dever’s ministry at a recent Together for the Gospel conference. He did note that it was amazing how quickly news got out about his attendance there, citing “SharperIron or SharperTongue, whichever it is” as the reason word spread so fast. (It was, of course, tongue-in-cheek, but it still drew quite a few chuckles from the crowd.) Needless to say, I didn’t flash my press credentials around him tonight. Jordan was careful to explain that while he and Dever might not necessarily share ministry fellowship in Calvary’s “tiny pond,” he felt that he and Dever were in complete agreement on the fundamentals of the faith and the Gospel, and therefore he felt it was acceptable to fellowship in the larger pond of the gospel.

Dever’s message was aimed primarily at pastors but there was more than enough meat for the rest of us to chew on. This being the “Advancing the Church” conference, Dever asked two foundational questions: What is the church to be like? and, Why should the church be like that?

My note-taking skills are not the greatest—I don’t usually take notes during messages—so I’ll spare you the outline, but the biggest thing that jumped out at me was the emphasis on unity in the Church, and not just within the four walls of the sanctuary. He began by talking about individualism and how church has become “no more than the expression of the passing interests” of the individual church members. He gave a high-level overview of the book of 1 Corinthians, stressing that, since the church is a manifestation of God in the world, the church should be holy, united, and loving, just as Christ is. Despite the three-point outline, he spent most of his time on unity, warning against becoming “fans” of separation, as the Corinthians had (1 Cor. 1:10-17). He said the world expects separation: they expect racially segregated churches, or churches that are split along economic lines, musical preference, etc. But unity, he said, is provocative. When the world sees the unity we share in Christ, sees Jews and Gentiles fellowshipping (or, in more modern terms, sees congregations that blur the lines between ethnicities and social standings), that’s unexpected and serves to glorify the One who has made us equal in Christ.

He closed with some admonitions to everyone in the room. He challenged us to reach out to the other Christians in our lives, regardless of denominational distinctives, and find ways to advance the gospel in our areas of influence. He warned us not to slander the work of our Savior in disparaging the work of other Christian churches. And he reminded us that, since we are all one body, how we treat others is how we treat Christ.

There were two other bloggers for SI in the audience; I’ll leave the theological dissection to them. From my perspective, Dever’s message confirmed what I’ve been learning for the last seven months about Christian unity—that it is entirely possible for people with specific theological differences to come together in spite of those differences and rejoice in how God is working and in how He chooses to accomplish that work…and maybe even do some gospel legwork together.

Unfortunately other obligations prevent me from catching any more of the conference. But if the “nuts and bolts” part of the conference during the day sessions are as refreshing as this evening session was, it would be well worth your effort to get the materials and recordings if and when they become available.

[node:bio/mounty body]

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JimD's picture

Thank you for your insight into the first night of the Conference.
I was wondering about the attendance of the conference?


mounty's picture

Thanks, Jim. Calvary's auditorium is deceptively large - it's one of those ones that's wider than it is deep, so it's hard to judge. The whole middle section was full, plus some folks in the wing sections, so I'd say...sunny side of four hundred? Calvary's auditorium probably seats around 1000 but it wasn't packed full. I was honestly a little surprised it wasn't better-attended, though being on a weeknight, folks (like me) would have had to come from work, and families with kids might not have wanted to keep everyone out that late on a school night (I didn't get out of there until about 10:00p).

Jonathan Charles's picture

I went to Leadership Conference a few times, and attendance seemed to be about 800. I know no one knows for sure, but do you think the smaller attendance is due to Calvary having taken a year off, and past attendees have moved on to other conferences, OR, do you think the smaller attendance is due to some opposing Dever speaking?

Todd Wood's picture

Now that phrase got even a few chuckles from me in Idaho this morning.

There is a verse that I memorized last week (I am on the Mount Calvary Baptist Church - Greenville memory program from their website):

"Whoever guards his mouth and tongue keeps his soul from troubles" - Proverbs 21:23

And here is the one I memorized this week:

"By long forbearance a ruler is persuaded, and a gentle tongue breaks a bone" - Proverbs 25:15

Thanks for the introductory note, Mounty. It is nice to get these updates from SI bloggers. In thinking of unity in Corinth, I am imagining one of the problems is the wealthy are ignoring the poor, creating a breeding ground for lawsuits and making a mockery of love feasts.

mounty's picture

I think most people who would be upset enough about bringing Dever in would probably be, at the moment, almost as upset about bringing in Kevin Bauder. So if indeed speaker selection played a role in lower-than-usual numbers, I don't think we can lay it all at the feet of one man. One other possible reason that a friend and I tossed around was, who would want to be in southeastern PA in February? Biggrin I did have to clear off about 3 1/2 inches of snow from my car before I went in to work that morning, and most of it fell the night before and through the overnight, ending early that morning. For people considering driving from anywhere south of Lansdale, that might have been enough to change or cancel their trip. Maybe flight reservations were changed because of the snow falling at PHL. The other thing to consider is, Calvary's reputation has taken quite a hit in the more conservative Fundamentalist camps - Jordan regularly attending T4G raised a few eyebrows, inviting Dever raised a few more. About half the songs we sang in the opening were Sovereign Grace (or SG knockoffs) least I think they were; I'm not too familiar with most of their stuff and ended up quietly staring at the PowerPoint for about half the song service. But SG music tends to raise eyebrows in the more conservative camps. Raise enough eyebrows, people will stop coming out.

If attendance truly is down (and not a result of a late service on a snowy weeknight in the coldest month of a mid-Atlantic winter) then I would say it's probably because Calvary is transitioning from one niche to another and as a result they lost the unquestioning embrace of the right, and the left still isn't sure where Calvary will end up. So when they throw a party, sure, attendance will be down. Plus, this isn't the Leadership Conference anymore. People probably wanted to see how this goes in its first year, and if their friends come back recommending it I think you'll see greater attendance in two years when they do it again.

That's all speculation, of course. Any deeper speculation and I might as well be tossing darts onto a wall filled with possible reasons. Smile

JSwaim's picture

On this thread an estimated attendance has been given of about 400 based upon the auditorium at Lansdale holding 1,000. I think the auditorium holds more than that, but I'm not sure. If it does, then the attendance estimate should be higher since the estimate seems to be based upon the percentage of people in the auditorium. Also, this was the first night of the conference. Attendance at this conference usually peaks on Wednesday and Thursday--the fully scheduled days--and is lower on the first night and, generally, on Friday.

mounty's picture

That may have been true for the Leadership Conference in past years but I think this conference is substantively different enough that we can't jump to conclusions about attendance trends, either. Wink And for the record, I am certainly not an authority on why people did or did not come out. It may very well be as JSwaim says, that attendance will peak later in the week. I'm just giving my observations based on what I saw and who all was in attendance last night. If someone higher up the food chain would like to email Sam Harbin and ask for official attendance numbers I'll gladly defer to whatever number he throws out. Smile

JSwaim's picture

When I was at seminary at Calvary, I cleaned the auditorium for a while. I'm pretty sure that it seats between 1600-1900, but I'm not positive. If it does, then your estimate of a crowd of about 40% comes out much higher. I'm not really upset about it because I realize its an estimate. However the conversation has evolved into "why is the attendance lower?" when we just don't know that it is. Another factor is that someone else estimated the crowd at 800, so the estimate of 400 makes it sound like the attendance has fallen by half! We're jumping to conclusions here. Let's keep the comment "Sharper Iron...or is it Sharper Tongue" a toungue in cheek comment and give it no basis in reality.

One other comment: Kevin Bauder has probably spoken at this conference every year since its inception as the National Leadership Conference; so his presence is probably not contributing to the decline in attendance which may or may not exist.

mounty's picture

JSwaim wrote:
I'm pretty sure that it seats between 1600-1900, but I'm not positive.

That's very possible; I was restricting my estimate to just the main floor, though. I have no doubt you could cram another 500 people in the balcony.

JSwaim wrote:
One other comment: Kevin Bauder has probably spoken at this conference every year since its inception as the National Leadership Conference; so his presence is probably not contributing to the decline in attendance which may or may not exist.

True, but up until the last year or so he hasn't been a particularly polarizing figure. His recent comments about conservative evangelicals and some snafu a few months back over KVJO-ism that I still haven't quite wrapped my head around have soured his appeal to a good bit of conservative Fundamentalists.

No offense taken, though. I'm giving my own idle opinions and have no problem making room for other opinions when someone with better knowledge of the situation than I comes along. I'm probably wading out close to where my feet don't touch the bottom anymore, though, so I'm happy to stop speculating. Smile

ScottSB's picture

I have no idea about the actual attendance numbers, but on my recollection attendance seems pretty similar to the one time I visited Leadership Conference (three years ago).

JSwaim's picture

Baptist Bulletinhas posted some photos of the conference including a high balcony shot from the first session. I'd say 400 is a pretty good estimate for that crowd. BTW, I found the photos on the seminary's Facebook page.

Mark Farnham's picture

I attended every NLC (1995-2009), first as a pastor (1995-2002) and then as a professor here at the seminary.

A few comments as an insider and some personal opinions:

The highest attendance that I have confirmed is "approximately" 700. That was either the first year or the year the NLC addressed the Calvinism issue. From that point on, the promotional material for the conference mentioned that "around 700" people attend the conference each year. More realistically, the number was in the 500's and 600's. By the 2000's the attendance was slowly declining and the average attendance fell into the 400-500's.

It would be easy to speculate that the decline has been brought on by Calvary's "compromise," "change," "drift," or whatever. That evaluation seems so speculative and pejorative.

Here's my own opinion based on personal observation:

1. When the NLC was started in 1995, there were very few conferences that allowed free exchange of ideas, younger men to participate, and fresh ideas to be tried. The conference organizers, Tim Jordan and Dave Burggraff were both in their late 30's. Two young leaders starting their own conference was unheard of and it drew a lot of attention. Today there are more than a dozen conferences that resemble the old NLC in different parts of the country. The original pool has been diluted.

2. Fundamentalists attended evangelical conferences in the 1990's at great risk to their reputation within the "movement", so Calvary's NLC was a chance to escape the parochial nature of the established conferences, which were dominated by the old boy network of leaders in that day. Today, every stripe of fundamentalist attends all kinds of evangelical conferences with little regard for who is going to say what.

3. Calvary's reputation (both the church and seminary) was still basking in the glow of Dr. E. Robert Jordan's larger than life personality, influential preaching and tireless travel and networking (before it was called that). As Chief's influence declined with his health, Calvary's influence transitioned to our present pastor, Tim, who has a different personality and different gifts. While some mourn the loss of Chief's leadership, most of us here know that Calvary could not have continued without a change and without Tim's ability to organize the vast ministry Calvary had become. Like many successors to influential men, Tim was absolutely necessary to keep the sprawling enterprise from falling apart and to move it into the future. Just as Chief had been a man of vision who explored new territories and opportunities, so Tim has done the same.

So, my view of the decreased attendance is more nuanced than the simplistic answer of "compromise kills," and I think it is a far better explanation.