What might be the new normal for conferences as we come out (God-willing) of Covid lockdown? Will we rush back to how things were BC? Or are there things that we’ve learnt through this time which we’ll want to retain?
The first thing to say is that we’re definitely going for a residential conference at High Leigh next January for Maximise 2022. There will be online aspects (more of that below) but we’re committed to a physical conference.
The second thing to say is that the future of conferencing is a different issue from the question of going back to physical church. There are links to excellent answers to that at the bottom of this page. In short – yes, we really need to get back to physical church! But a conference like Maximise is not the same as a local church. There are some of the same dynamics – and therefore some of the church discussion is relevant – but it’s not the same thing.
7 reflections from the experience of Maximise Online
- Fundamentals – Redesigning a conference for online shouldn’t be a case of trying to pick-and-shift as much as possible from the physical to the virtual. It should force you to go back to basics and ask the fundamental questions: Why are we doing this? What is the point of this conference? What is the problem we’re seeking to address? Who are we trying to reach and help? (In our case it’s about Encouraging trainees, Envisioning those exploring gospel work and Resourcing trainers.) Going back to basics can be costly, but it’s a necessary and healthy exercise – digging down through all the layers of how-we’ve-always-done-it to the bedrock of fundamentals.
- Innovations – Having gone back to first principles, you have to think through how best to achieve those fundamental goals within the constraints and possibilities of the season. And that process (thinking from first principles under new constraints and with new possibilities) encourages innovation. One example is the use of Zoom or pre-recording to fly in a guest speaker who would otherwise find it difficult to join us. (We loved hearing from Dai Hankey, Nigel Styles and John Taylor in that way and a lot of churches have found this sort of thing has opened up all sorts of possibilities for mission partnerships). Another example: we asked the trainees to pre-record their practice Bible talks for the teaching skills groups at Maximise. The feedback from both leaders and trainees was that this helped them to be more relaxed and self-reflective. And one more example is the use of video to communicate conference details in advance to leaders and trainees. We’ll certainly keep doing that. This is the age of video and that’s here to stay.
- Accessibility – This is the most obvious thing that we’ve all been learning from online conferences over the last year. Compared to the 142 people who were at High Leigh for Maximise 2020, this January saw over 670 people engage with Maximise content – half of these (336) during the three days of the conference and half of those (169) being formally registered. Perhaps most exciting of all was the 75 churches represented among those registrations (compared with 66 churches last year). If you consider how many churches were probably represented across all 670 viewers, that’s quite a lot of churches! Online removes (or at least lowers) barriers of geography, cost, time, disability and culture. Someone who’s working full-time could dip into Maximise content in a lunch hour or evening. A couple with small children could both watch a session. Someone who wasn’t sure if they’d ‘fit in’ could watch from the anonymity of their home.
- Legacy – One of the benefits of filming content (particularly in the quality we were given by Clownfish and Ben Woodbridge) is that you’ve then got it available for people to watch on demand. In some ways this is just another aspect of accessibility but it also opens up possibilities of using that content in different ways and embedding it in different settings – e.g. a church leader could share Johny Juckes’ session on decision-making with someone thinking through their future or a church could put on an evening Q&A on maximising gospel ministry but ask everyone to watch one of the Maximise talks or interviews first to prime the discussion.
- Embeddedness – One of the benefits of Maximise Online was that it didn’t in any way take people out of their context. You don’t have to do so much work to ‘Think about how this will apply when you get home’ – you’re already there! You don’t have to ‘Go home and talk to your wife/husband about this’ – you can turn straight to them and discuss what you’ve been listening to together. You don’t have long to wait to apply the exhortation to ‘Get stuck into gospel ministry / serving the church / evangelism’ when you’re going to go straight from this conference session to a Zoom work call or church ministry or discipling your children.
- Costs – Of course there are costs as well as benefits to online. While there was a lot of positive feedback after Maximise Online (appreciating the high quality of the content and it being ‘as good as it could be in the circumstances’), there was also plenty of feedback missing the relational elements of spending time together. People missed seeing people from other parts of the country, eating together, coffee times and evening chats, comparing notes with those in a similar position or further along in gospel ministry. We’ve got to be careful here and not a) make a simplistic binary of present/non-present (modern technologies have blurred these categories somewhat); and b) forget the accessibility issue and be quick to throw away the benefits of online. But there is undeniably a serious cost to not meeting physically. Physical bodily presence does matter. And there is also a financial cost. Online conferences are not cheap to do well.
- Providence – Tony Reinke in 12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You (the best book I read in 2019) gives a wonderfully balanced approach to technology – acknowledging the dangers and limitations of technology but also affirming that technological progress is ‘initiated, intended and guided by God.’ This was a new thought for me. What if the Lord has providentially given us online conferencing and streaming ability in order to advance the gospel? What if there are similarities, as some have suggested, to the way that the printing press massively accelerated and extended the reach of the Reformation? What if online conferences aren’t only God’s merciful for-such-a-time-as-this provision for the season of Covid (imagine if this had hit the world 20 years ago?) but also for the long term? God has given us bodies and a need for presence and he has also given us the ability to connect virtually. How can we harness both – using different modes as appropriate to different events or using both modes together?
So what about next January? We’re going to be back residential and we’re looking forward so much to that. If you’re a trainee or a delegate we want you there with us. But we’ll also be recording and streaming sections of the conference. The training masterclasses will definitely be on Zoom so pastors from Newcastle and church leaders in Cornwall can engage as easily as those in London. We’re grateful that High Leigh has got all the kit set up for streaming. As we run Maximise 2022, we’ll be seeking to learn the lessons of the last year while remembering that relationships are absolutely key – and that accomplishment of gospel goals to the glory of God has got to be what drives everything.
- Fran Kirby, Blessings from a different kind of conference
- Andrew Wilson, Virtual church, football matches and marriage
- Peter Mead, Why return to church in person
- Dan Green, 5 reasons why Zoom prayer meetings might be here to stay
- Aby Olena, Covid-19 ushers in the future of conferences (The Scientist)