I grew up attending one of the prominent Christian convention/holiday weeks of that time. It was an annual highlight until the event closed in the late 1980s. Then on and off I (later we) booked in a holiday at another of the big-name events. Sarah had also spent much of her teens at one of the other festivals (now closed down).
To be honest our relationship with the event was a bit love-hate. It was great to catch up with old friends, we learnt some new songs, the feel of being part of a big crowd was amazing and sometimes the Bible teaching was top notch too.
On the other hand, we would find ourselves incredibly frustrated. I can’t speak for all events but the one we attended to seemed at times to see the singing element as a bit of a necessity rather than something to be really enjoyed. So it was squeezed in among the notices meaning that you probably only sang a couple of songs. From a different end of the spectrum Sarah remembers times in her youth where the big name worship leader was so caught up in their own show and the extended 15 minute performance versions of their songs that they also only managed 2 or 3 songs in an hour.
The notices as well as being long were also money heavy. In fact, that’s why we eventually took a break. We heard far too much about big projects costing millions and couldn’t help but reflect on the potential impact if such giving was focused on local church contexts or world mission.
Yes we met up with friends but that also reflected the tendency of these events to draw people from specific evangelical tribes. Rather than seeing the great big diversity of God’s people we were part of something very monochrome. When people from our multicultural church rocked up at the events I went to they stood out as different.
And finally, I must admit to a sense of disappointment that the Bible teaching benefits are tagged on at the end as a “sometimes” possibility. In fact, a lot of the history of such events stems back to a kind of thinking that there was a hierarchy in the church with big name, top-notch Bible teachers able to offer something not available in the local church. If historic events did that then modern day events also or instead do the same with the offer of big name worship leaders.
Now, I’m aware that there are a lot of people still who find themselves in churches where the Bible teaching isn’t what it should be. I’m not convinced though that shoring that meagre portion up with an annual feast before returning to famine is the best response we can make. Nor am I convinced that the overall teaching content is guaranteed to be helpful. My perception is that a lot of speakers tend to be a little distanced from the actual day to pastoral life of local churches and that means the ability to meaningfully apply God’s Word is limited.
Still, back in 2020, we were due to pop in for another visit only for the pandemic to curtail such events. “What an opportunity,” I thought “for the focus to be put back on the local church and for those involved in such events to think about how we can best resource and support one another through the pandemic.” Instead, as far as I can tell, without exception each of those events decided that they must go ahead. We heard about how perilous their position was financially and how crucial it was that they survived. And so they found ways to run their events as online virtual occasions. In that case, they definitely were not offering anything different to what people could easily access through their own local church or a quick YouTube search of others. I have to say that this attitude was at least a missed opportunity and at worst grievous.
So, to be honest, I couldn’t disagree more with Gavin Calver’s talk of “an exciting return of events.” It’s not that they are necessarily a bad thing. It’s rather that I think we’ve allowed them to become too important to us. If we missed something that the Bible doesn’t present as necessary then that should be a warning sign.
My challenge to the organisers of all of these events would be “Take a sabbatical.” Dare I suggest that you take as long a sabbatical as God gave you the opportunity to do back in 2020-21. In other words I’m daring to ask for a joint declaration from Keswick, Word Alive, New Wine and Spring Harvest that they will not be running their events for the next two years. Instead they will be encouraging attendees, speakers, worship leaders etc to put their resources into local churches (including offering focused help to churches that are struggling).
At the moment I’m in no rush to return to the big holiday events.