It was not when my staff first posted a Facebook picture of me napping in a megachurch stadium chair that I realized my Christian-conference-going days were numbered.
It was when I realized they had a whole album of these pictures.
I love conferences. In my early days of ministry, The National Youth Workers' Convention changed the direction of my ministry and my preaching. I marveled the first time I stepped onto Willow Creek's campus for a Leadership Summit, and I grew because of my first Purpose-Driven Church conference. I still love Catalyst and Orange. Reading this, I think I almost needed a conference intervention.
While I'd still recommend big conferences for ministry development, my staff and I have gone in a new direction. This year we loaded up a caravan of cars and drove four hours into Las Vegas to tour five churches over the course of three days. We interviewed staffs, toured facilities, picked up their literature, studied best practices, and asked for needed references. We did an intentional, targeted, conference on the go.
We learned a lot. We gained insights into budgeting procedures, new staff structures, and a greater sense for God's work in the world. And also the knowledge that if you take your staff to Las Vegas, it might be wise to tell the congregation you spent most of your time in Henderson. This year's trip wasn't our first. Last year we toured Phoenix. Before that we went through a number of Los Angeles churches. I've suggested we next visit the post-Christian culture of San Francisco, but my staff keeps talking wishfully about Honolulu.
In short, we've invented a Conference on Wheels.
Engaging the "other" learners
The Conference on Wheels allows ministry staff to bring their individual learning styles, personal concerns, and pressing questions to a common context and probe for new insight. It provides a history of reference points that allows a staff to build a united vision and vocabulary. It brings tangible, concrete examples of ministry in the field to bear on the ministries back home. A public speaker can pour insight and information into an audience of listeners. But how often do you see the listeners raise their hands to ask the questions they really need answered?
There's actually some science to what we're doing. Howard Gardner's groundbreaking work on "multiple intelligences" exposed the fact that our educational system primarily rewards one form of learner—the auditory student who has the patience for lectures and the short-term memory necessary for test-taking. Gardner observes that one might have a kinetic intelligence for sports, a linguistic intelligence for verbal ability, a musical intelligence, or an intrapersonal intelligence, among others. Not all brains work the same way. In the more recent Brain Rules, John Medina observes that every brain is wired differently and in fact adapts through particular use, so people's brains come to function according to how their owners employ them.
The Conference on Wheels consists of three key elements: a tour, interviews, and debrief. Each addresses a particular form of learning in ways that can't happen at conferences.
The tour is a fascinating visual experience that gets our bodies moving. You can tell who the tactile and kinetic learners are. Visiting both churches and parachurch ministries, we wandered through lounges, tested the feel of pulpits (we bought a new one immediately after returning from one of these tours), and studied the effects of different lighting displays. We have a pretty good feel for what color palettes architecture firms and designers are playing with today. We always asked to see the main worship space and the children's and youth rooms, but it was illuminating to see how other ministries laid out cafes, designed overflow venues, and tooled their tech booths. After a tour of the facilities of a Christian architecture firm, we started tearing down walls in our office to create a more communal workspace.