I flew into Orlando on a night of wild rain. My first glimpses of Florida were through the thick mesh screen of an exposed walkway four stories up an airport parking garage. The whipping palms and the ankle-deep water awash in the roadways below were surreal to my Northern eyes. I couldn't stop thinking of Jurassic Park. In theme-park mad Orlando, they'd named the garage's floors after cartoon animals. As the elevator opened, I noted that my destination was "elephant."
I was in town for the Exponential church planting conference—the first of two conferences I was slated for in a single week. The second was a local Epic Fail event near Chicago. My goals were to promote Leadership Journal, make friends, and find stories worth telling.
A busy week, to be sure—and one that plumbed the heights and depths of ministry. You'd be hard pressed to find two more wildly different ministry conferences. Exponential, the "largest gathering of church planters in the world," is a thousands-strong ministry conference with A-list speakers, flawless production, and tremendous energy. Epic Fail is intentionally the "anti-conference," small, rough around the edges, and focused, well, on dealing with failure in life and ministry.
I had questions about the nature of ministry success and was curious what the two conferences would show me about it. I was in for a full week.
First Baptist Church in Orlando looks like a well-manicured government compound. It's a huge scattering of concrete buildings and outdoor staircases sprawling over 130 acres. The property includes a pond, a historic chapel, lots of palm trees, and lots of parking. It's a tribute to any ministry conference that it could fill such a space, and Exponential filled it, with over 5,000 attendees (plus an estimated 40,000 tuning in via webcast—in 93 countries).
The scale and execution of the conference were impressive from the speakers list (Alan Hirsch, Francis Chan, Craig Groeschel just to pick three, plus solid "up-and-comers" like 3D's Jo Saxton) right down to the details of production and multimedia. It was all polished to a bright sheen.
Sitting in the auditorium taking notes for this piece during a plenary talk, I typed this description of how it all felt: Slick, polished, state-of-the-art, heartfelt. Exponential is the popular kid in the youth group, handsome, athletic, with clear skin, a good singing voice, and just enough 'struggles' to highlight how spiritually awesome they are.
That comes across more sarcastic on paper than I meant it to. I don't mean to make light of excellence—and Exponential is excellent—but it was tuned to such a fever pitch of perfection that the (literally) one time that I saw something go minorly awry during those three days—it was a brief microphone problem I think—the speaker pointed to it as an encouraging example that Exponential's organizers were, after all, human. Everyone laughed.
The conference is a big draw. I met people from Africa, Asia, and Europe, entire pastoral teams and planting core groups, ministers past, present, and future. There were seminarians of all ages, hip urban missionaries with "Macklemore" haircuts and blue-collar boutique work boots, burned-out past planters who hovered with ragged eyes among the booths, all collecting free pens and entering giveaways. There were people looking for questions. People looking for answers. People hawking answers in the form of books at $17.99. It was a din of overheard conversations. Buzzwords like "mission-minded," "strategic," "incarnational," "disciple-makers," and "embedded ministry," hummed about the stage and in the foyers.