What a week I just had. Every year, I go to this conference in Grove City, PA. It’s technically called the Berean Christian Conference, but they’ve been having it at Grove City college for like 60 years, and everyone just calls it the Grove City conference (though I’m sure the college itself, which hosts many conferences, calls it by its official name). It’s not a conference you’ve ever heard of – it’s not flashy and big. Between 200-300 people come in a given year. It’s got no staff, it’s run entirely by volunteers every year. It’s sort of patched together by about four major church groups (Vermont, Chicago, Minneapolis, and Wassau, WI), although it’s got some bigger delegations now from California and Texas too. And there’s the crowd from Buffalo, NY, who come every year as well. It’s a family reunion for at least half the people who come, although I’m not related to any of the big groups, just my mom, and my siblings when they come.
It’s a big commitment to go every year. Financially, and schedule-wise – the conference is always held the week of the Fourth of July. A few years ago, I was telling B about how this conference was essentially my only spiritual home for most of my childhood/teen years, and he made some comment about how sometimes we have to let childhood traditions go. And I rejoined with “And sometimes you don’t let them go at all, because they’re AWESOME.” I was having another conversation with another conference goer who was wondering if he should let the conference go, and while I can’t speak into any one person’s particular call to this conference, I wanted to offer my thoughts and thanks for it here, because it means a lot to me.
1. Stability. The conference is the most stable thing in my life, across the decades, aside from my grandparent’s (on my mother’s side) marriage. The same people have been coming for 60 years. New people come every year, either because they’re born into the conference, they marry into it, or their friends bring them along, but I can always count on meeting up with lots of old friends. In some ways, and at some times more than others, the conference feels more like my family than my family – the place where I’m always welcome, the place where people are disappointed if I don’t come, the place that has always been there for me. The place where people STAY.
2. Intergenerational diversity. Grove City is the only place where I’ve found steady, genuine friendships with people both much younger and much older than I. In most of the rest of my life, my “crowd” is largely my age, and often also interested in most of the things I’m interested in. This year, in addition to hanging out with people my age, I made a point to sit and talk with several retired couples, a group of teenagers (a demographic I avoid as much as possible in the rest of my life, but these particular teenagers were pretty cool), and an 8 year old boy with whom I have a very serious Settlers of Catan date at next year’s conference. I’m not kidding about that last one. The gauntlet has been thrown. He’s going down.
3. Political diversity. The conference is largely conservative, as most serious Christian conferences tend to be these days (with the notable exception of the excellent Wild Goose Festival), but there is a curious phenomenon that happens at Grove City that I haven’t seen anywhere else to nearly the same extent. Because the same people come every year, and have been coming every year for decades, and are related to half the other people there – because of that stability – there is an open diversity of opinions across the political spectrum that I don’t find in other places. In the other churches and conferences where I’ve been, either the opinions aren’t as diverse, or people aren’t as open about them, because they don’t want to be ostracized. Or there exists a diversity of opinion within the congregation or the attendees, but the leadership is very much one-sided.
Not so much at Grove City. There is a conservative majority there, but I know who my liberal allies are, and we’re all pretty open about it, and we still get asked to run workshops, head ministries, and sit on the conference committee. Even more than this, there’s dialogue about the different positions – there’s a genuine willingness to find common ground and parse out what it is we really agree and disagree about. I went to a workshop titled “christian economics” this year, offered by someone I know to be a staunch libertarian (and you know what I think about libertarians), and I found by the end of the workshop that we actually share as much common ground as disagreement. I still take those areas of disagreement seriously, but it was reassuring to be reminded that we always have as much or more in common with those on the other side as we have in difference. Try having that experience in a facebook exchange. Actually, on second thought, don’t. It’s becoming a rarer and rarer thing to be able to have an intelligent, civil discussion with someone you strongly disagree with, and that’s unsettling to me, as it seems to me that it’s an essential civic skill in a democracy.
4. Theological diversity. Speaking of having intelligent, civil conversations with people you disagree with, how often do you get to get into heavy theological disagreements with people you love over a meal? Again, due to its unique stability and family-orientedness, the Berean Christian Conference, while officially a gathering of the Berean Bible Student denomination, has been quietly interdenominational for some time. And they lost some old-school attendees over time who wanted more of the official BBS doctrines in their sermons and workshops and leadership. It happened very slowly, which I think is why the conference is still around, and didn’t implode completely under the pressure of theological rift. It happened because people married people from Catholic and Lutheran and Baptist traditions. It happened because some people from other traditions stumbled into the conference and then kept coming back because they knew they were accepted, and needed, even though they had a different perspective. The question that comes up again and again when theological differences arise is “Is it a salvation issue? No? Then we can agree to disagree.” And most things are not salvation issues. Even issues that a regular denomination might take to be a salvation issue, like the doctrine of the Trinity, is not a salvation issue at Grove City. I can say truthfully that I’ve experienced the presence of the Holy Spirit in the prayers of Trinitarians and non-Trinintarians alike, and I agree that it’s not a salvation issue. There are hellfire-and-brimstone Christians who attend the conference, and there are Christian universalists who attend the conference. There are six-day creationists, and people for whom the scope and scale of the billions-of-years-old universe is cause for awe and wonder at God’s creation. All these people attend together, serve together, watch one another’s children, and take communion together, and I think that’s a marvel and a miracle, especially considering the sectarian divisions that are so prevalent in the American church today.
5. Renewal. I always leave the conference feeling renewed. I don’t know why. I get some pretty brilliant preaching and some wonderful fellowship all year long, but I’m always heartbroken to leave the conference because it feels so much like a taste of eternal home to me. For me, Grove City is a “thin place,” a place where the wall between this world and the next is thinner, where the presence of God is more palpable, where my spirit is quieter, and my rest is deeper.
A giant thank-you to all the Grove City people in my life who make this possible.