Bible Conferences: Obligations of Speaker & Hearer
During the Reformation, as young preachers were being trained and sent out, people complained about the quality of the preaching. Some things never change, do they? Martin Luther had little patience for such complaints, responding that the people of God 1) needed to appreciate the gift that God had given to them by providing preaching in the first place, and 2) that they needed to better prepare themselves to hear the word preached. As I understand it, Calvin echoed these sentiments, but was more forceful than Luther!
The same is true of conference speaking. Before complaining that the speaker was “dull”, “unclear”, or failed in some other manner, perhaps the listener should consider how they might listen better. More importantly, the listener should consider how they might pray for the speaker and for the audience.
I have the privilege of preaching on a weekly basis. It is the highest of honors. It is the most serious of responsibilities. It is difficult and demanding, while simultaneously being a great joy. In Acts 6:4, the Apostles specifically prioritize this responsibility:
“But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word."
But this article is not about preaching, it is about speaking at conferences. In addition to preaching, I have had opportunity to speak a Home-Schooling conferences and Biblical Counseling Conferences. While preaching is a difficult process, there are unique difficulties found in speaking in the conference context. Let us consider two examples:
As a speaker you are speaking to a group of people about whom you have no knowledge. What can you safely assume about them in order to find common ground from which to commence your presentation? What is the composition of your audience?
- How many in the audience are Reformed believers? How many are Arminian?
- What denominational associations are present? How many Presbyterians, how many Pentecostals, how many Roman Catholics, etc?
- What is the maturity level? Are you speaking to new believers in Christ or to those who have walked with Him for years?
- Are there unbelievers present?
The answer to such questions will help you, as the speaker, connect with your audience by allowing you to adjust your presentation to fit the knowledge and experience of those to whom you are speaking. Often simple survey questions (using a show of hands) at the start of your presentation will help you orient your presentation. By understanding your audience, you can adjust your content, word choice, assumptions in order to more effectively communicate the truths you are presenting. Paul made himself a servant to all in order that he might win those to whom he spoke.[i] Francis Schaeffer said that the “adjustment of language to fit the hearer” was an “act of love”.
Gaining the Trust of the Audience
Presumably, you have some level of knowledge or experience that qualifies you to speak. Apparently, the organizers of the conference asked you to speak because they have some level of trust in your ability and orthodoxy. Nonetheless, why should those gathered at the conference trust you? You are an unknown to them. You have no pre-existing relationship. I often begin presentations by “laying the cards” on the table. I am:
- A Presbyterian minister.
- Committed to the inerrancy and authority of the scriptures.
- Committed to Covenant Theology.
- Fully “reformed” in my Soteriology.
- Speaking to them with a goal: that they would be “transformed by the renewing of their minds” so that they think and look like Christ.[ii]
After laying my cards on the table, I then encourage them to be Bereans, telling them that while I hope they trust me, they should nonetheless be like the Jews in Berea who more “noble” than those in Thessalonica. Why were the Bereans more “noble”? They went to the scriptures to see if the things they were hearing were true to the scriptures! Who were they checking? The Apostle Paul![iii] If the Bereans checked Paul, the audience should certainly check me. Then, my challenge to them is: If what I say is in the scriptures – they are bound to believe it an obey it! If it is not in the scriptures, they should ignore me. This, I believe properly teaches a believer to take responsibility to think about all that they are taught and places the burden of an appropriate response into the context of their relationship with Christ. I am cut out of the process. I am taken off the “pedestal” and become one who hopefully has truth to offer, but is not so arrogant as to claim authority above the word. This, I believe, build trust.
Communication is a two way street. In the context of a conference, there a many barriers to effective communication, that are not present in the context of a congregation where you are known and presumably loved and trusted. When you attend a conference, presumably because you yourself wish to learn and grow, you come not to judge the speaker, but with humility, listening for the voice of the Spirit. Pray that the speaker will effectively tailor his content and word choice to fit the make-up of the audience. Pray for the audience to be subject not to the speaker, but to the word of God as presented by the speaker. Pray that the Spirit would give discernment to those listening, that they would see how the material is congruent (or not congruent) with the Word and would respond appropriately to Christ as presented to them.
Martin B. Blocki has served since 2003 as the Associate Pastor of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North Hills in Pittsburgh, PA since 2002. He is a counselor at the Biblical Counseling Institute in Pittsburgh. Rev. Blocki graduated from Indiana University, Bloomington (BME), Arizona State University (MM), and the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary (MDiv). Martin and his wife, Kathy, have two married sons, one daughter, and 2 grand children.