15 January 2014

An Open Letter to T4G

by Frank Turk

To my Dear Friends in Christ at T4G.org;

I waited and waited, but
nobody would join me for coffee
Everyone has an idiom in which his voice is most clearly heard, and unfortunately for all of us, mine is "Hitler Reacts" videos.

Just kidding -- mine is obviously the Open Letter.  I have taken a lot of flack from all sorts of people over the years for having the audacity to use a blog like this to write letters like that.  It has even made some wonder whether or not the Open Letter is a dead medium, a dead form.  Personally I love to write them because it gives both me and the readers of this blog the sense that we are actually speaking to certain people and not merely about them.  Moreover, I think I have a long record of using both gentleness and reverence in them (with a handful of exceptions that, frankly, prove the rule), so I am taking a break from my hiatus to write one to you.  I hope it finds you well, and in good spirits.

We're closing in on the early bird registration deadline (well: it's a month off), and it has caused my friends and I to have off-line chats about whether we are going.  I'm sure that's a common discussion happening right now as everyone tries to decide whether or not they have $1000 (registration, room & board, travel) to spend a week with 5000 (7500?  How many?) brothers and sisters in Christ.  I have gone in the past, so for the record I'm not casting any shade on those who will chose to do so this year.  (For those reading: if you choose to go this year, God bless you; may it bless you greatly; may it make you better disciples and better body parts in your local church [whichever part you may be]).  But, I'm not going this year.

Someone suggested I should have expected an invitation since other bloggers have been invited and I am an allegedly-famous blogger.  I think that's absurd on the face of it, to be honest: the "bloggers" invited to this event are actually proteges of the fellows instrumental in creating T4G, and I am not that; I'm not from SBTS, or CHBC, or from what used to be the Sovereign Grace network of churches, or a Presbyterian.  Given my close relationship to Phil Johnson, both public and private, it would seem more likely to see me invited to something GTY/GCC put on -- but Phil and I have discussed that, and I have no interest in being that guy.  And more to the point, I really am on hiatus from all things blog-related in spite of evidence to the contrary.

Maybe what those asking me that question were really asking me is this: since T4G is now a decade old, is it time for you to freshen up the mix?  For example, when we listen to the recording of Band of Bloggers last time, how fresh was that?  Was it really worth the price of admission -- even factoring in the Chick-fil-A and the free books?  Once we get past aggregating other people's work, and being famous for assisting better writers with getting their works into print, what are we seeing at BoB -- and why?  Would it help to include someone from outside the echo chamber those fellows represent to see what else could be helpful?

Personally, and to be as clear as possible, I have nothing to add that would freshen up that mix.  My currently-jaded perspective on how Christian celebrity works, and whether or not it's legitimate to cultivate such a thing, would not make that hour of discussion more helpful -- because I am self-aware enough to know that I am, currently, very jaded on that subject.  I am very weary and squint-eyed from disappointment in the public face of our faith.  I'm not yet 50 (but almost), and I would sound like a one-eyed centenarian misanthrope if you put me next to Colin Hansen and asked me anything about which both he and I could comment.  That would not be worth bringing me there to perform, or be worth anybody's money to pay and see.

But that question is still worth considering: what could refresh T4G and it's ancillary services?  What would revive, in the intellectual, catechetical or phenomenological senses, the vibe at T4G?  Maybe if you brought in that fabled faithful pastor who has been at the same church for 4 or 5 decades ...?

I can remember the first time I went, which was the second time it ran.  We were not filling the YUM Center yet but were still in the big room at the Convention Center in Louisville (I think it might have been the room the bookstore is in now, but that may be a faulty memory of it). You could hear the other men singing (and yes ladies: sorry, it was something like 99.9% men) in a way that (if you will forgive me for saying it) sounded like church.  It sounded like we were there together, and not merely there in attendance.  I actually accidentally one morning walked into the conference center next to CJ -- though I am sure he didn't know me from Adam, and I didn't realize it was him until we reached the end of the skyway.  It still had the sense, as you still propose it to be, of being a conversation among friends.

It's not really that anymore, is it?

Maybe it is.  Maybe that's what actually causes some of the comments like the ones sent to me about who gets invited and who doesn't: real friendly relationships can cause those on the outside of them to feel somehow left out.  People feel like maybe they have something that belongs with such a thing as T4G, and when T4G ignores it (intentionally or accidentally; and sometimes "intentionally" can even mean "because there's no more room for stuff here" rather than something more tawdry like "not invented here") it seems like a sleight because other people and other "stuff" get included when others did not.  But that's what happens when people or things get famous: fans mistake fandom for friendship, and when it turns out that Mark Dever really has no idea who I am or whatever, it seems like a slight when it's not anything like that.

Yet when we think about it that way, the riddle of what T4G has become still doesn't get puzzled out. It actually gets harder to unpack because we're really not talking about church here anymore, are we?  We're not talking about real human relationships but the experience. We're talking about something that looks and acts more like the other events that fill the YUM Center.  I mean: it costs $1000 to go to T4G if you live right.  It could cost one $2500 easily by simply picking different meal options and hotels.  To the average pastor, $1000 is more than a week's salary -- in some cases, it's more than two.  It stops being a conversation between friends when the first checkpoint of self-selection into the conversation is which quintile of income can afford to join in, doesn't it?

Now, look: this is not an attempt to heap scorn on you fellows for price or venue or any of that.  I think that the audio files from T4G are worth the price of a decent double album (note: I just dated all of us since most of the young fellers reading this have never seen the glory of Pink Floyd's The Wall in real vinyl in real dust jackets), and I have honestly been edified by every T4G since its inception.  The words of the message are clear every time.  I am worried that maybe there is something else being said by the medium which needs to be worked out more completely than by a sidebar panel discussion.  One speaker self-exonerating himself and the panel by saying his wife keeps him honest and there are no superstars in his household is not a solution to this conundrum.

So as people think about attending your event, and follow it on Twitter, and look forward to the able-bodied messages and the impressive line-up of powerful speakers both new and time-tested, I'm asking you to consider what you have become -- which is somehow both more and less than a conversation among friends.  You have become influential across denominational lines, and somehow have also lost the physical appearance of a local church.  And in doing these things, you are shaping others in ways that are probably unintended -- and as with all unintended consequences, it is the father of all manner of children.

Please be good fathers to the children you have made here.  Be good servants of Christ, because I know your faith in Him is both real and good, and your hope for His final victory is the same as mine, and the only real reason we should care about what we are doing personally, both privately and publicly.  He's our savior, our king, and also our judge.  Let's all be judged worthy by Him when we at last see his face.

In His name, and for His sake, I thank you for your time and attention.







38 comments:

Kent McDonald said...

Frank, Even if it IS just an aside, or exception, to your self-imposed "hiatus", you have no idea how heartwarming it is to hear your written "voice" again for a moment. I know I am coming off sounding like a "fanboy" here, but I really don't care. When someone comes along who speaks the truth in love, who really does come from a heart of love for the gospel, for Christ and His kingdom, I don't ever want to be accused of not encouraging their voice to be heard clearly and often. I know you can get jaded and weary of the battle, and get scuffed up by detractors and snipers and such, but take heart. There are yet thousands who have not bowed the knee to Baal. Hang in their brother, and I will keep praying that God will fill your life with the renewing power of the Holy Spirit, Who gives refreshing seasons, and life and love and nothing bad. God bless you.

Frank Turk said...

Special thanks to Kerry, and to Jason Dohm, for the post-publishing proof reading.

Frank Turk said...

Kent:

In all seriousness, Please pray about my motives for doing any of this as in that I have found suspicious traces of bad things.

Thanks.

Michael Coughlin said...

Thanks for sharing from your heart, Frank.

Kent McDonald said...

Frank,
I hear you brother. Fame, or notoriety can be a blessing AND a curse at the same time. If we are introspective at all about what we do we can always find suspect motives because as we all know, "the heart is deceitful above all things." All we can ever do is let our motives be examined by Scripture and the Holy Spirit,and pray that He will faithfully reveal any underlying sinful motive so we can develop a penitent heart toward Him. How I wish God would characterize me as "a man after God's own heart." But alas, that would be a big fat lie and God won't do that. :) Just keep your heart tender towards Him as it appears you already do, and speak the Truth boldly. He will give you the grace to stand against the fiery darts. Love you, brother.

Kent

Michael Coughlin said...

On a semi-un-related note, if anyone knows why my picture doesn't appear next to comments, let me know so I can fix that.

DJP said...

That is the fix, Michael.

< ba-dum bum >

Frank Turk said...

Michael:

The new filter we have installed blogs adult content. Because you look like an adult, you're blocked.

Webster Hunt (Parts Man) said...

In as much as you are able through the medium of a blog post, you've encouraged me. I hope the guys you and Dan know from T4G receive it in the way you've given it.

Pastor Jason said...

Frank I was so encouraged by what you submit in this blog. I too have been exhorted to persevere through the video/audio feeds of T4G. I have long wanted to actually go and attend the conference. But it does feel of late like it has drifted a bit from what it was created to do. I am not at all knocking it or the men who are involved. I have a great respect for the men who are the core and have had the change to observe a couple of them in more "off camera"settings to see that they are genuinely humble servants of Christ. I had plans to attend this year, the church I Pastor offered to send me, but as I looked at the needs of our church and the upcoming year (pending roof repair for the entire campus, plumbing needs in the education bldg, ever rising insurance premiums, etc) I simply could not in good conscience justify such an expense and certainly could not afford it out of pocket.

I don't know if there is anything that could be done to make this a more reachable event for many Pastors in similar situations, but it is a bit frustrating nonetheless.

Thanks for your words brother.

jesuslecture said...

Great post! Written with humility, gentleness, concern, and love. I also agree with many points listed about the direction of this conference and all I can think is, "thanks Obama".

God bless and keep it up Frank. By the way (aside from the overall message of the blog) this was the best line I've read in a while, "I'm not yet 50 (but almost), and I would sound like a one-eyed centenarian misanthrope if you put me next to Colin Hansen and asked me anything about which both he and I could comment." Ha! Love it!

Frank Turk said...

Credit where Credit is due: Phil Johnson taught me everything I ever wanted to know about being a one-eyed misanthrope.

Frank Turk said...

To the question of how this can be more affordable, let's be honest that T4G has always been on the cutting edge of supplying the audio from these talks quickly, efficiently, and for free. The only ones I think who do it better are the folks at GTY who livestream everything for free.

You can get the messages for nothing, and that is to the credit of the men who run this thing. The question is if the conference itself is becoming its own objective, and if it is creating something it never intended to create.

Jim Pemberton said...

I must say that I can't afford the time and expense to be a conference Christian. I'm not influential, nor can I contribute much to the influence of someone else. In one respect, I'm glad for the normalizing effect among the small percentage of influential Christians that such conferences as T4G have. In another respect, you are correct regarding unintended consequences. Conference Christians form circles of influence that demonstrate in stark contrast against any other message proclaimed how unimportant the rest of us are.

Now, of course, God needs none of us. But he does call all of us to minister. However, unless any of us get our virtual merit badges so that we can be included in the right circles, we apparently aren't properly equipped to accomplish great things in the eyes of the people on the inside who can mobilize support. So the only recourse is to sit back and let the ones on the inside do all the work.

Frank Turk said...

Pemberton obviously gets it, and the key phrase there is "great things."

When we finally get what is a "great thing" to God, we'll be just fine.

Paul Holden Victory Fellowship Baptist Church said...

The elements that you speak of regarding T4G exist in most other conferences and even denominations, particularly the issue of the "old boys club", those who have arrived on the basis of the man's charisma and church attendance. I have had this beef with my own denomination in its national council leadership selection process. Like yourself and edging towards the 50 plateau I have become quite jaded with Pastoral/Leadership conferences where I and my fellow attendees are subtly exhorted, "you're just the little guys."

Robert Pruitt said...

Why does anyone need to hear over and over and over
We need to evangelize
We need to present the Gospel
We need to evangelize
We need to preach the gospel
Everywhere to
Everyone
Every forum
Every day
Whatever happened to Francis Schaeffer and rearticulating the Christian life to a changing world generation by generation issue by issue since we do not chase the world but manifest that we are the Light of the World

If you cannot answer that then save your $1000

DJP said...

Just hearing Lig Duncan, alone, is about worth the price of admission.

Both times I went, what Lig had to say touched and moved me deeply, to the point of tears.

Jason Dohm said...

Not enough has been said about the sidebar, "I waited and waited, but
nobody would join me for coffee." That is abstract and hilarious, and deserves comment.

Frank Turk said...

Jason:

While I composed that graphic, it was wholly DJP's idea, for which he should be fully credited.

Never again will I post an Open Letter without that graphic to fend off the hordes of polite concessionists.

Frank Turk said...

Also Jason:

Ryan Bell FTW.

Morris Brooks said...

First, the disclaimer, I am going this year. I did not go last time for the exact reasons Frank elucidated, and because I was disappointed the time before that with the overall quality of the preaching/messages; which I believe is a problem with many who get on the conference speaking wagon...they have conference fatigue, and they wind up speaking, not ministering in the power of the Spirit.

My motive for going this time is to observe the people and discern what the trend is among those who attend.

Also, what do you do when you have a tiger by the tail? T4G has become an event, and I don't think the Fab 4 planned it, or saw it coming; but now that it is what it is, what do you do with it? My one suggestion would be to not bring in the evangelical divas, but to bring in people that have something to say, not a rehash of their conference speech. That would probably cut the attendance way down, and maybe restore some of what has been lost.

Jules LaPierre said...

I believe the term is polite cessationist hordes.

Paul Reed said...

Lot of interesting items in this post. A couple of items reminded me something my older sister is going through with her daughter (my niece) the last few weekends. My niece has just turned 13, and the group of girls that she used to hang out with have become the "popular" crowd, and have sort of left her. Lately, this group failed to invite my niece for their monthly slumber party. It's very easy to tell she's distressed about not getting invited. She talks about it a lot. She tries to hide it by talking about how much of a monolith the group has become, and her ramblings against this group have become the classic "sour grapes" stories. The interesting part is that my sister could "fix" this situation with a phone call. She's friends with many of the girl's mothers. And yet, she is wondering if there is a certain amount of maturity that we should expect from her daughter now that she's 13. Basically to be content that's she's not popular and that's she not going to be invited to every event she wants to go to. It's a complex situation.

Frank Turk said...

Paul --

just out of curiosity, do you think that the most mature thing to happen in your anecdote is that the shunned girl should not be hurt, and the other girls should just go on as if they were never her friend?

If DJP and Phil did to me what you say happened to your niece, I'd say (at least) that an apology is in order.

LanternBright said...

So what I'm taking away from your last comment, Frank, is this:

TEAMPYRO SLUMBER PARTY!!!!

Kerry James Allen said...

Frank in a pillow fight? It's a complex situation.

Rachael Starke said...

This was not quite the de-hiatusing I had hoped for, but the caption under the photo made up for that one hundred fold. Only the fact that my coffee cup had already been emptied saved my laptop from a terrible fate.

As for the format, given that it was you I can credit for making "you, personally" a factor in the way I have grown in my understanding of what the Bible actually is (an open letter to me, personally), phooey to the cranks.

And as for the substance, maybe it says something else about you that I can't remember whether it was your or Carl Trueman who went all-in on calling out Christian reformed celebrity culture, but it stuck. I look with hope, now, whenever I hear of a new conference, for an unfamiliar name, or a face that is over forty-five. Hopes always dashed.

I do think there's something about the physical experience of being with literal thousands of other believers, especially during the singing. It's like a rehearsal for heaven. Good thing the real thing won't cost four digits.

Logan Paschke said...

Mr. Turk,

Brilliant article. It was a tremendous blessing to meet all three of the world-famous Pyros at the 2012 T4G conference.

The impact of Pyromaniacs on my spiritual life has been noteworthy especially in the areas of how to communicate truth well on the internet and in other general areas.

The conference was gasoline on the embers of the calling God had on my life to pursue being a servant leader of the Church through pastoring.

This happened more through the relationships I made by staying with a bunch of guys (that I had never met before) who were believers from Iowa than the preaching itself (though it was, as usual, very biblical and powerful).

Soon after, I left my job to go to seminary to become equipped for future ministry.

I think there's an inherent desire to have "Bigger is Better" when smaller regional conferences would be far more effective in actual impact.

Imagine a Southwestern Conference, one or two well-known nationally pastors and the rest being local state pastors (AZ, NM, NV, SOCAL, etc).

The result would be greater cooperation and connection in the local areas of ministry.

I don't think they will go this direction unfortunately. Even though it would save the average pastor/conference attender a lot of money and have a greater local kingdom impact.

theoLogan

Paul Reed said...

@Frank Turk

It wasn't clear from my post, but the group that "rejected" my niece aren't her friends, but rather acquaintances. She's got some really actual friends, but she's at that age where she's obsessed with popularity. She wants their friendship and approval because they are the "in" crowd who are the most popular, and no other reason (which my sister says she has admitted several times.) We both love her to death, but she's the type that brags about how many twitter followers she has. She also has this sort of inferiority complex. And she covers it up by trying to find every possible criticism against this "in crowd" group and is just obsessed with them. Probably something that will pass once she turns 14 or 15, but my sister is naturally concerned. Anyway, probably a lot more information than you wanted to hear.

Michael Coughlin said...

@Paul - I think the question/concern is this:

Did you intend for your analogy to be interpreted as saying DJP and Frank are the little girl who wants to be popular but since she can't be she just rails against the popular girls with little or no valid cause?

If so, you veiled it poorly, and I would be offended if I were the brother to whom you were referring.

If not, then there is possibly some needed clarification in order to avoid offending good brothers.

I think Frank would see himself as someone who is providing valid criticism of a movement independent of his perceived inclusion in it. I trust he'll correct me if required.

I can see your analogy being intended either way, so I honestly ask - what did you mean to convey?

Solameanie said...

The timing of this post is most interesting. It sort of touches on the cusp of some things with which I've been struggling a lot lately, but I'll not get into specifics because it would take a tome to explain, and the knee-jerk reaction would be that I am invalidating a whole bunch of things we do today that run under the banner of "like ministry."

I am increasingly convinced that a whole lot of time, money, etc. gets spent on things that may well be "good" in and of themselves, but I am wrestling with the long-term impact on the church. Are these "activities," for lack of a better word, really in keeping with working, living, acting, and interrelating as individual believers working in and through local churches? Are these "activities" building up individual believers and building up local churches, or are they building up something else at the expense of the local church?

So much happens today outside of the context of our local little body of believers in favor of the big event, the big banner, the nationwide attraction. But when I read my Bible, I see local churches being planted, with local elders being appointed. When believers in local churches in other regions have needs, the word gets out and other local churches with more resources band together and send help, sometimes with an accompanying delegation. But that's all. And somehow the Lord added to the church daily, the Gospel was proclaimed, new churches were planted, and the work went on. And individual believers were transformed and conformed into the image of the Son through the Spirit working in their lives through His Word.

I won't say any more than that, but I think you can see where I am headed. When I say "struggle," I mean it. I've been involved in a lot of worthy things formed for worthy intentions, and these things have done a lot of good. Yet I consider nations and places that lack the resources we lack to put on the big spread, and in many cases believers and churches in those locations seem far healthier spiritually than we are.

Who knows. Maybe I'm all wet and I'm obsessing needlessly over the subject. Maybe not. It's like I feel I'm on the cusp of an epiphany of sorts, yet said epiphany could well go too far and function like a wood chipper when a laser scalpel would serve much better.

I'll bet none of this made sense.

Solameanie said...

Dan, your point about hearing Lig Duncan and the result is one reason why I'm having the struggle I'm having with the "big event" mentality. There truly are wonderful things that happen at these events. The Bible is faithfully preached/taught, men and women of God are edified. All good.

But there's still that little nagging thing in the background bugging me that we're too much into the "big event" vs. what happens in that little congregation of 25 people, and what impact is that little group of 25 having locally. (And I'm part of a large church, BTW). More often than not, the little group of 25 thinks they need to host some sort of big name event or person to draw a crowd in hopes of growing that little group of 25 into 50 or 100. Somehow it wasn't necessary in Bible days. What's happened to us?

Frank Turk said...

'Meanie --

I think that's the tension here. I mean - Mark Dever co-hosts this event. He's 9Marks, and they are sort of crazy about the local church. They helped me sort out my feelings and beliefs and *confidence* in the local church.

One thing that happens at the start of each of these T4G events is a quick (and somewhat imprecise) canvass of the crowd for oldest and youngest pastor, and then the one who traveled the farthest. That moment really captures the true spirit of the event because it looks and feels like a homecoming when we are looking and the scope of the people who are here as we can (in a very small way) honor the youngest for his new and holy adventure, and the oldest for his life of faithful service. It's stuff like that which make T4G special.

And I really get it that there are moments at these things which are somehow encouraging. I have gone. I was encouraged. There are good words spoken most of the time (Piper last time was not his best work). In some way, it can be a way to give a message to local church servants that they are not alone, and they are also in the same boat as Ligon or CJ or Mark are in terms of the daily fight to shepherd God's people.

But: this thing is an event. Events, as you have said, are really unlike the local church and in some ways are antithetical to them. It's easy for them to undermine the right vision of church and church life.

That's the challenge, and I think it's not just a challenge to the proverbial 4 friends who founded this thing. It's a challenge to those who will go to use a good thing (which is not a necessary thing) the right way.

Mike Jones said...

I hear what you are saying, but I think it is off-base a bit. Take this for what you will:

1. We came from Canada; over 300 Canadians attended T4G 2014 and were able to connect in various ways at this event. This is absolutely essential for ministry in Canada. We do not have any sort of venue for this kind of networking in Canada. Tim Challies was at two such events with us; I actually managed to connect a church thousands of miles away with a seminarian who could put him in touch with potential interns. I met these believers randomly at a mess hall table.

2. The Kentucky tourism bureau required that T4G be hosted in the Yum Center; it wasn't their idea.

3. Most of the work is done by volunteers. My guess is volunteers or SBTS/Sovereign Grace Ministries events staff handle the audio. So there is little in the way of cost savings that you're going to find.

Moreover, students and internationals receive a significant discount.

4. As for being too celebrity, I can see how there might be that perception, but I don't think it holds for the actual individuals. One thing that struck me in this regard was that Mark Dever invited everyone at T4G to our humble Canada connection event at the local church I attended in Louisville. He mentioned my 'small-time' pastor by name, and encouraged people to go. Somewhat fortunately, we did not have 7000 people show up… that would have been practically challenging.

I could go on, but perhaps it adds a little perspective.

Frank Turk said...

Mike --

Thanks much for your feedback.

I think your concerns miss my disclaimer:

"This is not an attempt to heap scorn on you fellows for price or venue or any of that. ... I am worried that maybe there is something else being said by the medium which needs to be worked out more completely than by a sidebar panel discussion."

My reaction to the idea that Canadian Christians need an American non-denominational conference in order to properly network, and what that means in terms of the efficacy of the local church, will have to be left for another time.

Mike Jones said...

Ya, perhaps.

I just think the problem is more heart than a matter of the conference.

"My reaction to the idea that Canadian Christians need an American non-denominational conference in order to properly network, and what that means in terms of the efficacy of the local church, will have to be left for another time."

Apparently not. I don't even know what to do with this. Our local churches are dying off, and they few and far between. Many congregations are pastor-less. There is a brain-drain among conservative evangelicals to the south.

Why would you get all critical? Where's your compassion for Canadian believers? It is a spiritual WASTELAND up here.

T4G was a bright enough beacon to get people together, and we're thankful for that. We're thankful for that American non-denominational conference, because we are able to serve each better for it.

Frank Turk said...

I'm happy to let that stand as the last word on this post.