From the attendees' perspective, the convention might be about great training or corporate worship of God. Or it could be about developing the future of the denomination or dealing with pressing church business or assessing new church planters or chaplains. Although sadly for most (sometimes myself included), it is about a vacation and seeing big-name speakers so the attendee can go home and say, "When I was at the convention, I saw __________ (Fill in the blank with Mark Driscoll, Francis Chan, Matt Chandler, Ergun Caner, James White, John Piper, Sam Storms, Wayne Grudem, Rob Bell, Tullian Tchividjian, Beth Moore, Ed Stetzer, Don Miller, Greg Laurie, Tim Keller, Jack Hayford, James McDonald Daniel Wallace, or any other popular pastor, author, or professor.)
From the city's perspective, these groups represent dollars to the community; everything is measured on economic impact and hotel sleeping room count. (I know because I work in the industry in Salt Lake City.) Most conventions will generate anywhere from $600 to $1,200 per attendee, which quickly adds up to a good infusion of dollars into the city. But is this where it should end for the city?
I've seen Christian conferences come to Salt Lake City--a community were only 3% of the population can be found in a Christian (non-LDS) church on any given Sunday--to serve and evangelize the community (in addition to their meetings). And I've seen other Christian conferences come and be served by the city, making their convention all about themselves, church business, training, vacation, or rest. Some groups plan for opportunities to feed the local homeless, open their doors for public events, or even engage with people in the surrounding area. I remember an EFCA youth conventionin 2008 that gave opportunities to the youth to go to the local restaurants, buckets and mops in hand, and ask if they could clean their bathrooms. Talk about a conversation starter and an interesting witness.
But service to a community (rather than from it) doesn't require planned opportunities from the convention (although I believe convention planners should work to build these opportunities into their conventions), it starts with each individual attendee. Even before you arrive at your hotel, you come in contact with airline service people, restaurant servers, cab and shuttle bus drivers, and other travelers; and once at your hotel there are even more people you will meet. Think about the perception of the young woman making thousands of coffee drinks in the hotel Starbucks. Will she see anything different about your group of Christian convention attendees compared to the commercial or business convention that was there the previous week? Will the differences be positive or negative? What are you saying to the host community of your next convention?
Meeting planners, I am happy to share with you ideas from events I've seen that have made positive attempts to reach and serve their host city. If you'd like to chat, please feel free to contact me.
*Photo of 2004 EFCA Challenge 2004 at the Salt Palace Convention Center, Salt Lake City, Utah is registered under a Creative Commons License.