This week I’ve been away at the HTB Leadership Conference held at the Royal Albert Hall in London. It’s the second time I’ve been, last time was 2 years ago, and it was bigger and better than ever. It was hosted by Nicky and Pippa Gumbel of Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB), and they had a series of remarkable guests, a few I’ve heard before and a few new faces.
The theme for the conference was friendship- friendship with each other and with God, and how this can strengthen your church. Nicky Gumbel taught that friendship is the key to fruitfulness, the key to building strong churches, and strong churches are the key to evangelization. People will come to church for many reasons but they’ll only stay if they make friends. I can definitely see this within my own churches. The church communities that are the strongest are the ones where people want to be around each other, where they make friends in church, and they’re missed when they’re not there- as a person not as a statistic.
The problem of course is that you can get stuck in a destructive cycle. If you start with a church with a small group of people in the same demographic, then, even with the best intentions, they are likely to only be able to attract and make friends with people in the same demographic as themselves. It’s widely taught that you have the most influence with those 10 years on either side of your own age. So if you have a congregation of primarily 70 year olds, then you’re going to struggle attracting anyone outside the 60-80 age range. If your church wants to be welcoming and attractive to all age demographics, then you need people in those demographics to attract them in the first place. I don’t know how you can do this unless you’re lucky enough to have people who are in a minority come to church, and stick with it despite potential difficulties, to attract people who they would naturally gravitate to as friends.
As a (relatively) young person within the church, I’m used to going to church and having no one within 30 years of my own age, and I’ve got used to it and worked out how to make myself a niche position. But it’s not a situation I would encourage others to be in. It’s difficult to build up the relationships needed with other Christians to take you through the hard times, you really do need people who are close enough to your circumstances to understand what you’re going through. The strongest Christian community I’ve been part of was during my time at university, where I worshipped at a student church. There are problems with that though, as we were lacking in older Christians who had gone ahead of us and could teach us in hindsight.
The conference seemed to be strongly focused towards encouraging leaders. That it is a struggle in church leadership sometimes but we need to keep going in what we’re doing. You have no idea what you are achieving, what the fruitfulness of your actions in the long term will be. Nicky told the story of Nicholas Winton. He was on a ski-ing holiday at the start of the war in 1938, and a number of Jewish families asked him to help them get their children out of Prague. He was able to persuade the British government to agree to taking the children, and managed to get 669 children out of the country in what was known as the Kindertransport. Most of their parents died in Auschwitz. Nicholas carried on with his life, and many years later his daughter found a suitcase in the attic with a load of documents and pictures of children. She passed them on to Esther Rantzen who was presenting That’s Life! She tracked down the children and invited them to the studio, where he was reunited with them, many of whom never knew who had rescued them. It turned out that there were 7,000 people, with their children and grandchildren, who would not have survived or never lived, if Nicholas hadn’t helped them.
The first speaker was Bobby Cheema QC, who works for the senior treasury council- for difficult, high profile, sensitive and complicated criminal prosecutions. She spoke about her experience of being a Christian in the legal profession and her discovery that the key attributes of a leader should be clarity of thought- be clear in where you’re going, what you want to do, and what you’re there for; honour- honouring those you lead, lifting them up, giving them credit, taking the blame, mentoring, discipling, believing in them; courage and fearlessness- Jesus lay down his life for me, I have a life I want to lay down too, it’s not really about me. She was a brilliant speaker and it was fascinating hearing about how she reconciles her faith with her work.
The most inspiring speakers though were Rick and Kay Warren, the founders of Saddleback Church. A year ago their son committed suicide after struggling with mental health issues all his life. They talked about their grieving process, about understanding mental illness and the hope that they hold on to. Rick spoke about how grief is a gift from God, it’s how we get through painful changes. Life is full of loss so we need to learn to deal with grief or we get stuck at the stage it hits us. We grieve because God grieves. He also pointed out that we can learn a lot from depressed Christians because people who live with strong depression are often the most courageous people. For some people the valley never goes away- they can teach us how to keep going when the darkness doesn’t lift.
Kay Warren then talked about the difficulty she had with forgiving the people who were responsible for her sons death. She realised that forgiveness is for our own good not the person we’re forgiving. Not forgiving someone only hurts ourselves- it’s like taking poison and hoping the other person dies. Aside from that, we don’t have the liberty of refusing to forgive someone- we have been forgiven by God, we cannot hold back what’s been offered to us.
They ended up by urging people suffering from mental illness to remember that your illness is not your identity, your chemistry is not your character, you’re so much more than biology. The church should be standing up for mental illness- not just ‘you’re welcome here’ but ‘we want you here’. Like any illness, God does heal mental illness, but not every time. We’re all going to be healed but we’re not all going to be healed here. There are 7,000 promises in the bible and God has an eternity to fulfil them.
There were talks from the Bishop of London, Clare Chapman, Brother Luigi Giola, and another brilliant talk from Kay Warren. The worship was amazing- so much more lively than what I’m used to in Wales. There were some new songs that I didn’t know but some that I love. Worship was led by Matt Redman, Tim Hughes, Ben Cantelon and Luke Hellebronth- most of whom I’ve seen before, and are brilliant.
The conference finished with another inspiring talk from Rick Warren, encouraging us to love our churches. The church is the body of Christ- you cannot be like Jesus until you learn to love the church- you can’t love Jesus without loving his body. The purpose of the church is to bring people in, build them up, teach them how and send them out. You judge a churches health on its sending capacity not its seating capacity.
He finished talking about the story of Moses at the burning bush where God turns his staff into a snake. There is a significance of a staff. Each profession has a symbol. The symbol of a shepherd is a staff, it represents Moses identity, his influence, and his income. By changing the staff, God is saying to Moses, if you give me your identity, your influence and your income, I will make them come alive and do miracles, but every time you pick it up it becomes you again. Moses went on to use this staff for every single miracle in his life. What’s in your hands? Where do you get your identity? What’s your influence? Where do you get your income? If you give it to God he will do miracles that you won’t believe.
The conference was so inspiring, as always, and I can’t wait until next year.