Bible Conferences: Helps in Holiness

I had been a professing believer for several years when I entered college, but I needed to learn holiness. As Christians, we always need to keep learning holiness, but it was a crying need for me at that point in my development. I needed to learn not just about it, of course, but how to live it – how to practice separation from sinful patterns and devotion to God. If we are “transformed by the renewing of our minds,” as Scripture says (Rom 12:2), I had to begin by learning about it. I’d like to say I took the initiative to do a topical study, or that I pillaged my pastor’s library for every book he could lend me on the subject. Instead, God confronted me with the matter through a series of Bible conferences. It was an intervention I desperately needed as the weeds of the world and my sinful nature had wrapped me around tightly and were threatening to drag me down to the pit. When I reflect on how God used three particular retreats to greatly rescue me, I give thanks. My perception of the benefit of Bible conferences is therefore highly personal and, admittedly, subjective. Even so, I would venture what I consider a safe generalization. The benefit of a Bible conference is that it provides intense, focused teaching from a gifted teacher who has given sustained attention to develop a robust understanding of some area of Bible truth.

Let me share my examples, then develop my generalization. The first event I have in mind was a summer family conference on holiness. The next two were college winter retreats over a couple MLK Jr. Day weekends. The first of these was also on holiness, and repetition was fruitful. The second was on marriage, singleness, and sexual purity, from the Song of Songs. This material was highly relevant to me, not only because the Bible is always relevant for everyone, but because the presentation was directed specifically to my situation: young, single, tempted by fleshly desires, but desiring to be holy. The talks were given by a pastor whose church sat adjacent to a college campus.

These examples show the genius of conferences to provide intense, focused teaching. This is not to denigrate the weekly expository preaching of faithful, local pastors. In fact, all the talks that impacted me grew out of the normal pastoral ministries of those who spoke. I have great confidence in the power of weekly preaching to the same group of people. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be doing it. The Christian life cannot consist merely of mountain plateaus, either for pastors or their people. Without regular sowing and watering, a Christian simply won’t grow. There’s value, however, in taking a group of people and getting them to sit for a whole week or weekend of Bible teaching – with breaks, of course, for coffee, conversation, meals, sleep, and perhaps even recreation.

Consider how, in a local congregation, households of all shapes and sizes hurriedly pull themselves into Sunday worship, sitting as best they can through service, with young, screaming toddlers and aching, aging backs; they plunge on through Sunday school, rush home for lunch, sneak in a nap and perhaps second service, then head back into a week of work, school, and play. Perhaps they attend a midweek meeting; hopefully an elder visits or calls regularly; hopefully they also read their Bibles and pray on their own and as families; but when do they take time to focus on a subject of importance to their Christian lives? How often do they hear something in the regular preaching that grabs their attention, only to have it quickly diverted? Most of the teaching at conferences comes from local churches, and is initially developed and presented in that context, but given time to marinate, it can then be served up in a leisurely feast, often to a more segmented group, with distractions minimized by removal to a special location and an agenda devoted to specific goals. When was the last time you attended a conference, or encouraged people in your congregation to do so? Perhaps you could go and take someone along, a young person maybe, or someone else at an especially vulnerable or promising point in their Christian walk. The bottom line is this: pastors and people alike, don’t underestimate the value of conferences!

Steven McCarthy is pastor of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in Walton, NY, and a graduate of the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, PA. He is currently a Th.M. student at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, MI. He and his wife have two boys and are expecting their third child.

Steven McCarthy