Among the Successful Failures
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.
Off the path that led from the main auditorium to the exhibit space, there was a small outbuilding—the speaker's lounge. Inside, you were gently scrutinized for an appropriate pass, and then able to mingle with the conference elite. Speakers mostly, plus spouses, friends, and media, milling around in the purple mood lighting near white modern furniture. A side table was deliciously catered with southwestern-style wraps and sandwiches. A barista in the far corner ground out shots of fair trade espresso.
I'd been kindly welcomed by one of Exponential's organizers, who went out of her way to give me introductions, space to record conversations, and a brief interview. Meetings with speakers took place in a "holy of holies" of sorts—a cleverly camouflaged interview space hidden at the back of the lounge. We had lovely conversations, encouraging snapshots of big trends and important ideas.
That first day, I met one fashionably dressed missiologist in the main building after a promotional video shoot. As we walked back through the crowd to chat in the inner sanctum, he sighed. Looking down the sidewalk, we saw the speaker's lounge surrounded by the "normal" people. They ate and talked on the grass or at scattered picnic tables, occasionally pointing at a well known face that came or went from the auditorium.
"I love these people, but this feels wrong," my companion said. "It feels 'us and them.' It's all backwards. Like a celebrity cult."
We stood for a moment, and then picked our way through the crowd. Several necks craned after us. We climbed the stairs into the dim-lit, murmuring lounge, then ducked still further beyond that into the interview space. It was quiet in there. We talked for a long time.