Are Christian Conferences Relevant to 20 Somethings?

Kyle Reed // @kylereed

I love going to conferences, if I could do that for a living I would. But the more I think about the structure, the model, and the pricing of conferences I start to wonder if they are relavant for 20 somethings (and even teenagers)?

Here is my premise that brings conferences into question:

Everything is Changing

The way we have done things in the past are not the way we do things today.

Entertainment is changing
Education is changing
Music is changing
Publishing is changing
Food is changing

It seems that everything has a shelf life and the only way to last is to see the shift that is happening around you.

Looking through the lens of the 21st century conference scene, not much has changed. Sure the technology, clothing, and speakers have changed, but the structure is mostly the same. Thousands attend and millions are spent all in the name of (insert Church Conference 2011 here) being a life changing event. But what is the lasting effect that is being had on Generation iY as Tim Elmore likes to call 20 somethings. I love going to conferences but it is not the conferences that are shaping me.

What is shaping me today is relationships. And I think that is the very thing that could shape all 20 somethings. There is no formula, plan, piece of technology, or even human being shot out of a canon ball that can have the impact that relationships can have on a 20 something.

Conferences have stopped becoming relevant to 20 somethings because they have become to centralized on a cast of personalities and not on the mentor relationship.

Instead of promoting many they focus on the few. Instead of providing follow up conversations they provide follow up spam for next year. Instead of having open doors they have VIP doors. You get my point. And I am not here to take shots at conferences. I think we have all been guilty of doing this, especially myself, I do it everyday.

The question remains:

Do 20 Somethings need conferences or do conferences need 20 Somethings?

Right now you might say both, but the more you step back and look at conferences you will see that conferences need 20 somethings. 20 somethings have learned over time that they are going to have to do it on their own. Sure you might thing we are lazy and unappreciative, and in fact we are, but that could also be because we have never been challenged to be anything different. In fact the only time you hear of 20 somethings being different is when they do it all on their own. But while you are attending your conferences, 20 somethings are changing the way things are done in the world (thank you Mr. Zuckerberg) and are doing them on their own. Why? Because there are to few concerned about listening and to many concerned about speaking.

Until conferences start focusing on the relationship/mentoring side, 20 Somethings will continue to walk away in 2 ways:
Empty handed
In another direction

Establishing a place where you can come and be fed,challenged, and poured into is the very thing that all 20 somethings need. Unfortunately, it is easier to spend thousands of dollars to go and sit in a crowd of 10,000 people and feel more alone then ever then it is to find a mentoring/community relationship with leaders.

Are Christian Conferences Relevant to You?


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Kyle Reed

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I create websites, conversations, and ideas. Advocate for the 20 somethings. Looking to connect everyone to a mentor. Married to my best friend, Ginny. I like my coffee black and my dog Jack. I currently live in Nashville and work at Sony Music/Provident in Nashville
  • David Mehrle


    Love the thoughts you bring to the table. Do you have any ideas on what a conference for 20 somethings or teenagers might need to look like?

    Does it need to have more internet conversations going on and leaders in places where they can and will interact with a group of people that normally are not in their circle of influence? Do we need to make conferences smaller and more intimate? What does it look like?

    Just asking some questions with you…

    • Kyle Reed

      Great questions, I was thinking the same thing as I was writing this.

      I think these 20 something “conferences” are going on everyday.
      Just not how we know of conferences.
      I think 20 somethings are finding ways to grow by attending rallies, conversations at coffee shops or pubs or just going out and serving.

      But if we would stick with the traditional model of conferences and the involvement of 20 somethings I think there needs to be more involvement and places of interaction for them. Most planning committees for conferences do not feature young leaders and in fact the only time a 20 something steps on stage is to sing songs. I think a huge thing would be involvement.

  • Felicity

    This is very insightful, Kyle. I agree with you. The big conference model is growing outdated. We need more one-on-one relationships and that isn’t happening when we only see someone from the stage. I just read a piece in WORLD magazine about the trend toward local and away from national (in terms of chains, etc.). That fits in this discussion, too.

    • David Mehrle

      Actually, there is a new book coming out soon that discuss the need to shift from national networks to micro networks and fits into exactly what you are talking about.

      • Felicity

        Great. I’ll watch for that – author?

        • David Mehrle

          Bobby Harrington

          He just turned in the manuscript this past week – should be a couple of months before it is available.

    • Kyle Reed


  • Matthew Snider

    Great question brother and I think you are dead on. 20’s need mentors, hell I need a mentor at 34. Mentors have been lost and older men are missing that drive to become one such person.

    Great words brother!

    • Kyle Reed

      Amen, and I think it can start with us

  • Ben Reed

    Great thoughts, Kyle.

    Just a small counter-thought, though. One of the main reasons I go to conferences is to network with people…which is a professional way of saying I aim to build relationships with new people. Conferences allow me to meet people from all over the place in one location. I believe that there’s value in something like that.

    • David Mehrle

      Can we do a better job at conferences to help make this happen by programming different?

    • Kyle Reed

      yes absolutely, but you also have money to go to conferences. Whether that comes from your job or whatever that may be. most 20 somethings I talk to (myself included) cannot afford the money to travel, hotel and then the conference itself to network.

      That is why I love conferences, the chance to meet people and network, but that cost to much money.

      And I echo David’s question, how can we program that in?

  • Tyler

    My biggest issue with conferences is that they all tend to be the same and they all tend to be a major hassle to go to. I don’t have time or money for a week long trip and a $500 to $1k expense. On top of that, I think you make a great point. There’s very little relational gain between the “speakers” and the attendee. The problem becomes, to make it worth the time for a speaker to come with a very small audience, means a conference becomes like coaching. In other words, a HUGE expense.

    • Kyle Reed

      Exactly right.

  • Jason Vana

    I can’t remember the last time I attended a conference, much for the same reasons you listed above. I don’t need to go somewhere to have some Joe-Schmoe, even if it’s a famous Joe-Schmoe, stand up there and tell me all his/her knowledge on a subject. I don’t learn that way. I learn through relationship, through being able to ask questions and seek out the answers with other people.

    Each semester I head up a retreat for the students in my college ministry (and others who come) and we do things much differently. Instead of preaching sessions, we do discussions – so retreat participants give their input and wrestle with the ideas together. We do freer worship – where we don’t even have chairs set up in rows, but allow students to worship however they want. We have a scheduled time of silence, so students can quiet themselves and hear from God. We pray for each student, build relationships with them and those of us who are doing the speaking are with them the whole time – sleeping in the same bunkrooms, eating with them, interacting with them. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve had life changing conversations with students on these retreats, just because I was available.

    • Kyle Reed

      And that seems to be the face of 20 something conferences right there. Because it is more about discussion then listening if we are honest. For the longest time we have grown up talking and so to sit down and try and listen is very difficult. We need to do it, but I think we learn differently because of this fact.

  • Graham

    Interesting read Kyle. I love conferences too, but when I look at it, for the same reasons you do. The relationships. As I was reading your post, I found myself changing the word “conference” to the word “church”.

    20 somethings need the church and the church needs 20 somethings. My worry is that the collective church is turning off 20 somethings and we/they are walking away in another direction, empty handed.

    • Kyle Reed

      well said. You can definitely insert that word in there.

  • Scott McClellan

    I hear you, Kyle — conferences aren’t changing you, relationships are. And yet, when I think about my relationships with the people you mentioned in your tweet — Ben, Brad, and Randy — it turns out that my first in-person reaction with each of those incredible men was at a conference. And remember when we met last fall and enjoyed a good conversation about finding meaning and direction in our work? That was a conference, too.

    My two cents (if you want more, you’ll have to register for my conference): Echo will not promise to change your life. We put together what we think is a good lineup, we invite people to come to Dallas, and we promise to offer you an opportunity for education, inspiration, encouragement, and new connections with like-minded people. If that’s not relevant to you, or if you don’t have the means to attend, that’s okay.

    Here’s the thing about all the changes in the world — everything is dead, but everything lives on. Books, conferences, phone calls, handwritten notes, print magazines, handmade goods — they’re all dead. And yet, these things persist in incredible, creative, valuable, and remarkable forms. Ultimately, what changes are the economic structures around these things.

    Good grief. Feel free to delete this comment.

    • Kyle Reed

      Scott, so glad you weighed in on this.
      You are spot on in the thought that relationships have started at conferences. And I am very glad that they do because I have developed some great ones from conferences (including our convo last September).

      I know Echo is passionate about this. how do I know this? Because of all my friends that I talk to about it. They do not talk about the sessions and all the music and glitz and glamor, they talk about the people that will be there and will be attending. They talk about the late night chats and early morning coffee runs. That is what makes these conferences great.

      And I love what you have to say about things changing, the pay structure is the only thing that is changing and I think conferences, like everything else, will go through those changes. The ones that are willing to engage and have the atitude that you just talked about are the ones that will continue to exist.

      I just wonder sometimes if conferences are more concerned with attracting the masses rather then the conversations?

  • Jesse Phillips

    agreed. Only, I’m not sure this is just 20 somethings. It’s easier for everyone to attend an event (even Sunday church), than to dig into life changing relationships. Jesus was about discipleship (= relationships).

    I think the reason we don’t see many Christians who look much like Christ (myself included) is that we would rather hear an entertaining sermon (and forget it the next day), then be mentored & engage in deep (and hard, good, uncomfortable) relationships with each other :(


    • Kyle Reed

      yes truth.
      And I am guilty of all of what you just said.
      It is easier to pay the cost of a conference then to pay the cost of discipleship

  • Tim Schraeder


    You are amazing. I really can’t chime in anything new that everyone else hasn’t already said but to say that I think you’re hitting the nail on the head.

    I love Seth Godin’s quip that the value of conferences are big events are the conversations that happen in the hallways. Not that the content up front isn’t valuable, but obviously the relationships and connections made are of tremendous value, too.

    • brennan loveless

      completely agree. love that Seth guy.

    • Kyle Reed

      ya that was a great post he wrote.
      It is unfortunate though that it takes conferences to get those conversations to happen.

  • brennan loveless

    I think programming will change, and i think conferences will shift because 20-somethings will start to lead them, create them the way they want to see conferences done. The people running conferences now/creating them now were in the same boat 20 years ago and so they created the conferences we know of today.
    Also, I think mentors are lacking partly due to how the culture has become in the sense that you can look at how many people have the same story of growing up with fathers/father figures. So should be surprised (even if just in the male sense) that there are a lack of mentors for younger men/teens?

    • Kyle Reed

      no we shouldn’t be, because this problem has been going on forever.

      I think you are right, the youngins definitely do not get much of a spot on the planning boards unfortunately.

      • brennan loveless

        nah, i’m not saying they are going to continue on the legacy of some of these huge conferences, i think they will start their own and that’s how programming will change.

  • Jeff Goins

    Are conferences relevant to 20-somethings? Meh.

    Do 20 Somethings need conferences or do conferences need 20 Somethings? Definitely the latter, in my opinion.

    • Kyle Reed

      i would have to agree, but they better start doing some things differently

  • Joanna

    There is a lot of conferences which i just can’t justify going to. It doesn’t seem worth it to spend hundreds of dollars on conference fees and expenses related to getting to the conference to hear some talks and some worship music.

    The one I always make sure I go to is the National Training Event conference run by the Australian Fellowship Of Evangelical Students. The main sessions are good but it is some of the other stuff that makes it stand out. One of those is the interaction with people It includes a lot of time in smaller groups- both for bible study and to discuss various aspects of ministry

    • Joanna

      (part 2) People talk to each other before sessions and sit with strangers at meal times). It is really cool to be able to interact with and learn from other young people from all around the country and the world.

      The other cool thing is it is immediately followed by a short mission trip in another part of the country where participants get to put into practice things they have learned about at the conference like evangelism or giving talks.

  • Benji Zimmerman

    I have nothing to add but I appreciate the dialogue and reading the comments, great engagement.

    • Kyle Reed

      it has been for sure

  • stephen proctor

    You bring up some really good points here. Wow!

    I think there are so many things mentioned that reveal a lot of red flags in our small Western creative church culture…red flags i see on both sides of conference planners and conference goers and 20-somethings. What I see is a generation crying out for real relationships…for real mentors. Not coaches… MENTORS! i.e., Someone you don’t have to pay. But that’s a tangent I won’t go off on right now.

    Conferences are what they are. Some do it well, and some do it not so well, but that’s also depending on who you are asking and what their needs are. Conferences are great for many reasons, but they aren’t the end-all be-all for anyone.

    For me, i don’t need a conference to cultivate relationships and mentors for me. Now the relationship aspect of a conference is definitely the highlight for me every time, but that’s more about how i choose to engage with people and less about the programming and content of the conference itself. It’s a natural by-product of what I put into it…not only there at the event itself but what i’ve cultivated throughout the year leading up to the event.

    Sadly, a lot of 20-somethings know more about isolating themselves and interacting too much on social media rather than real life. So i can see why we put too much weight on the conferences…as they have become one of the only offline experiences we have with our tribe. And that’s a shame.

    Now that’s not to say conferences can’t do a better job at facilitating an environment where relationships can thrive & grow. And maybe that’s what you’re trying to explore here on your blog. But honestly, it’s not Scott McClellan’s or Ben Arment’s job to make me some new friends… that’s on ME.

    Venues are a HUGE factor. Take Gwinnett Arena where Catalyst is held… not so easy to lounge around and connect, except in the hallways and booths…but even those spaces are transitional and there isn’t much break time. But that’s not the point of Catalyst (at least it doesn’t seem so to me)… it’s a content-fest of the who’s who in Western Christendom. And that’s ok. I can still build relationships but i’ll have to skip a few sessions to do so… and that’s ok i think.

    Take a look at Watermark in Dallas where Echo has been hosted… the church was almost designed more for community than it was a show… lounge areas, comfortable seating for small groups, coffeeshop, etc etc etc…
    But why I love ECHO is b/c it’s become a mecca for the tribe i belong to …a time & place to gather, connect, learn, grow, play, goof around, and be inspired. STORY Is becoming that way as well.

    So if conferences want to be more intentional about fostering relationships, then they need to start with the venue and not the stage. But they can’t swing the pendulum away from the stage either, b/c we need the gurus to inspire, challenge and teach us a thing or two about real creativity.

    But at the end of the day, if I don’t already have relationships & mentors in my life, then relying on conferences for that is like giving a malnourished baby a french fry from McDonald’s. But that doesn’t mean conferences aren’t relevant to me… i just allow them to only serve the purpose they’ve been designed to serve in my life.

    Whatever the case may be, we 20s-somethings need to learn to stand on the shoulders of giants…those who have gone before us…. b/c anything new we see and end up doing will be the result of that, including revolutionizing today’s conferences.

    • Kyle Reed

      Man you hit on something when you said: “Sadly, a lot of 20-somethings know more about isolating themselves and interacting too much on social media rather than real life. So i can see why we put too much weight on the conferences…as they have become one of the only offline experiences we have with our tribe. And that’s a shame.”

      That was something I was trying to say but didn’t know how to say it. It seems that conferences are something that we get to do once a year and the rest of the 51 weeks we have to live is alone and isolated. I think that goes back to what I was struggling with in regards to conferences. They over promise and under deliver.

  • Jenny

    we need mentors.

    we need to be a church focused off the stage and into our world.

    Conferences are often stage focused, not relationally focused.

    I yearn to see a day where we create local networks, that meet in coffee shop, that sharpen each other.

    where we as a church stop spending thousands upon thousands of dollars trying to one up each other, trying to be impressive, trying to be “relavent.”

    Though ive attended a conference or two in the past, and am hoping to attend some in the near future… part of me dreams of the day where i can network for free. Where we no longer flock to see our church’s celebrities on stage, trying to mimik how they do ministry, in hopes to get the same results.

    Can’t this happen organically? Can’t we as a generation bring about change to this part of ministry? This part of the church?

    Totally. Do conferences need 20 somethings, to make it trendy- yeah , but other than that, no. I mean, they will just be a group of the good ol’ boys hanging out.

    Do twenty somethings need conferences? only if its the only place to go in hope to find a mentor, to learn from those wiser, the only place where we can talk to others about what’s going on… but if thats not being filled, which its not (at least from my experience) than its worthless to us.

    Something has to change.

    • stephen proctor

      :”I yearn to see a day where we create local networks, that meet in coffee shop, that sharpen each other.
      where we as a church stop spending thousands upon thousands of dollars trying to one up each other, trying to be impressive, trying to be “relavent.”:

      ME, TOO! That’s why I go overseas every chance I get. Impoverished cultures seem to “get it.” Those who are oppressed and persecuted hit the mark and they don’t even know it. They hear stories of the American Church and laugh at us in disbelief. This is also probably true of churches in our own backyard that are of a different culture and ethnicity. Not that any of these other churches are perfect… they have their own issues, too.

      Honestly, we will never see an end to the problems in the Church until Jesus returns and redeems us all. Until then, we will be more broken than ever. If it’s not one thing, it’s another. What stands out is how we respond to the brokenness.

      • sam duregger

        hrrrmm…. so many good thoughts being kicked around here.

        yes, conferences are good (if you can afford them).

        yes, conferences are a great catalyst for #IRL meetings and networking (no pun intended).

        yes, good point — conferences will never be a replacement for mentorship/missional communities/creative collectives.

        and finally, it’s true — life is never fair in your twenties… even if you’re the guy who developed the facebook.

        • sam duregger

          oh, one more thing… I’m much more hopeful than Stephen (not that Stephen is a Debby Downer or anything). But, I think that with the resurrection, Jesus has already returned and redeemed, and it is our responsibility to be the movement/people who mend the brokenness around us. Which starts with coffee, not alone, but together in our neighborhoods and urban settings.

          Love this community!

          • stephen proctor

            Sam, we need to have coffee sometime!
            I want to hear more about your days of unplugged tent living!

            So are you saying that the “second coming” already happened via the Resurrection? I want to hear more about that. Very intrigued.

        • Kyle Reed

          ha, if only life was fair and easy.

          But at least me and you met at a conference Sam.

          • Sam DuRegger

            true, true… we met and broke bread. important next step in taking conference networking to the next level. that is, beyond the surfacey, business card passing, 5 minute chat.

            • Kyle Reed

              well said and yes that is huge huge huge.
              Maybe that is the very thing that needs to be encouraged, more breaking of bread and less lights and glamor.

    • Kyle Reed

      yes you are exactly right, something has to change.
      I think you hit on it as well, “community needs to happen in locally”
      I think that continues to be an issue.

      • stephen proctor

        it’s funny. we seem to value close-knit local communities as well as the global community at large…both at the same time. Yet it’s the “in-between” where we get frustrated….
        the “in-between” being:
        – our national culture at large
        – our idea of what “the Church” is in America
        – the whole conference/blog world in general

        It’s the in-betwen that’s grown in these past few years…. it’s how conferences were birthed and thrive. It’s in the in-between that we find our voice to the creative culture at large, where we find others in our tribe who do the same craft, where the business of ministry is allowed to exist, etc.

        I’m not discounting it all together… but it’s been shaped more by para-church organizations and NGO businesses (and now start-ups) than it has the local church. Even local churches have started to look more like cool trendy NGOs than true families.

        I love it and hate it all at the same time.

        All I know is, I get really frustrated with the “in-between” … and I know I’m part of the problem. But my heart is beating louder and louder for my own small quiet (yet raucous) local community… and my heart beats more and more for the global church… not the idea of the global church, but the actual small communities I’m connected with across the globe.

        The “in-between” used to be the frontlines… but lately, it’s looked more like the safe, comfortable, mediocre middle.
        I dunno.

        These discussions need to happen and we need a thorough self-examination. Thanks Kyle for facilitating this!

        • Kyle Reed

          I like these thoughts and I think you are spot on. That is why it is tough to leave your small community to go to the in-between places. And I think the in-between (like you said) could seriously be the reason for some of this grief.

        • Sam DuRegger

          yes, yes… coffee all around. and my view on the whole 2nd coming thing is much too difficult to explain in the comments section of this blog… you’ll have to hear my voice and see my facial expressions to get the sense that I’m not a complete heretic :-)

          and missional communities is where the pendulum is swinging nowdays. absolutely! as it speaks to the lack that has surfaced in the corporatization of Sunday worship.

          like it.

          • Kyle Reed

            can we please make that happen. I would love that discussion.

  • Caleb Gordon


    Great thought…I love the conference enviroment as well…but i agree 100%! it’s not working! It’s a fad, that in 20 years will more than likely be made fun of (IE Matt Chander making fun of teens spelling the word “JOY” out with their bodies)
    Great thoughts!


    • Kyle Reed

      Explain more on the Matt Chandler thing?
      I missed that

      • Caleb Gordon

        Chandler has talked several time in his messages about how when he was first going to church that at teen events that other teens were spelling out the word JOY with their bodies and he states that “This is why I believe God is sovereign, because people got saved during this ridiculous time frame.” LOL!!

        • Kyle Reed

          gotcha, that is good.

  • Caleb Gordon

    I think church (the mega church) is going to look alot different soon.
    Because people do want that smaller authentic group to connect with…it’s just a matter of when, not IF.

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