I had the distinct privilege of attending the 2014 RZIM summer school this year. I’d never been before, and it was a truly remarkable experience. I will dedicate a couple of blog entries to reviewing the week, for those who have never attended one. Here’s what I’ll look at:
- Overall impression of the facilities, presentation, content, etc.
- Some specific observations about the speakers, lessons I learned, questions I still have, etc.
- The “take home” lessons for everybody and thoughts on how this might impact those who attended.
This blog entry will look at the first point, the other two will be blog entries for another day.
RZIM summer school 2014 ran from Sunday July 6 to Friday July 11. It was hosted at Trinity Western University in Langley, British Columbia. Their Acts Seminary was right next door, and advertised heavily. Tempting, very tempting, actually…
Most of those in attendance stayed at TWU dorms, but I have family in the area so I stayed off-campus. I have no comments about the sleeping arrangements, though I heard a handful of complaints throughout the week. Nothing catastrophic; just the kind of inevitable “rubbed the wrong way” things you’re likely to find when a group of total strangers are put in a strange environment and asked to get along.
The TWU campus is a quality campus; nothing spectacular and nothing horrible. It’s just a good, quality place to host something like this. The cafeteria food was surprisingly good. When you’re cooking for almost 200 people, and you’re expected to offer variety, I would have expected some corners to be cut. On the contrary we were well fed with very good food.
While the facility was marvelous overall, the presentation rooms left something to be desired. First of all, they were packed. And I do mean packed. I am convinced the reason they capped the attendance at 175 (there were something like 300 people on the waiting list!) is because the main room could only house 175 people. It was filled to the brim. In a desperate attempt to claim at least a tiny bit of elbow room many of us found chairs and sat in the back, even though we were officially asked not to. By the end of the conference we were no longer asked not to.
There were two rooms for the break-out sessions and they had a less-than-ideal layout and were equally packed. Especially when, due to a miscommunication, Craig Evans’ talk ended up in one of the small break-out rooms instead of the main presentation room. For a big-name draw like him they really need to make sure he gets the biggest room.
The main presentation room also had a variety of other quirks about it. The air conditioning was blasting in the back to the point where those of us in the back were uncomfortably cold for pretty much the entire conference. The seats had some rather archaic “fold down tables” that came up from the side, but they did not stay in place. In many lectures, sometimes more than once a lecture, you’d hear a crash from somewhere in the lecture hall as somebody’s table had unlatched itself and fallen back into its “out of the way” position.
The weather outside was magnificent (unusual for the Fraser Valley), so somebody made sure there were a variety of sporting goods (frisbee, football, basketball) for us to enjoy during the breaks. There was also a very nice walk around the perimeter of the facility that meanders past a small lake.
Despite some glitches here or there, the facility was quite acceptable. Even the technology (which is typically a major source of headaches for events like this) ran virtually without a hitch. At least as far as the summer school guests could tell.
The RZIM part
Enough about the facilities, what about the summer school itself? Upon arrival everybody was greeted by a well-coordinated team. We received a handy bag, a water bottle, a pen, some literature, but most importantly, a high-quality notebook for the week. The notebook is actually quite impressive. With over 150 high gloss pages (yes, the pen worked on it) packed with notes from every lecture over the entire week, this notebook weighed more on the intellectual content scale than it did on the physical mass scale. It also made it much easier to just listen to the speakers because the content of their talks was mostly contained in the notebook, and we were all going to get access to audio files for every talk.
Ravi Zacharias launched the week with a talk on Sunday night. Considering the summer school is hosted by an organization bearing his name it was somewhat ironic that the Sunday night address was the last we saw of Ravi Zacharias.
Each day began with worship (led by a worship team from a local church) and a Bible study (led by John Lennox). Most of the talks throughout the day were organized by themes that were consistent for every day. For instance, “Understanding the times,” “Tools for the task,” and “The God who breaks in” would be consistent themes that would be explored every day. Each day also contained various workshops and electives that were quite diverse in subject matter, as well as a Q&A session at the end of each day.
The quality and style of the presentations seemed to parallel the technological expertise of the presenters. Folks like Andy Bannister have a refined knowledge of the way technology can accentuate a presentation, and he maximized the effectiveness. He is also a practiced and polished speaker with a stock list of jokes (many about his accent) so his talks were top-notch in all respects. Most of the other speakers were also fairly competent with respect to presentation styles and the use of technology, but a handful of speakers could have made far better use of the resources at their disposal. Fortunately, for the most part, the content that the speakers shared was enough to draw attention away from how effectively they did, or did not, use technology.
It was fascinating to observe the immense variability in the audience. There were kids there who looked barely old enough to drive and the oldest couple I met were (if I remember correctly) in their 70’s. People appeared to come from all walks of life and educational backgrounds. All-in-all I would presume that the audience was somewhat reflective of a general cross-section of our culture and the demographics of the Western Church. Most of the people were Canadian, a significant number of Americans and I think I met one guy from India.
Given this knowledge about the audience, it was fascinating to see these people sit through multiple hour-long lectures distributed across a 12 hour day, day in and day out for a week, soak it all up and essentially beg for more. There seems to be a belief that Christians are not thinkers, and that the church needs to “dumb things down” in order to keep people’s interest. I would argue the exact opposite. How many people fall asleep during “dumbed down” sermons that only last 20-30 minutes, yet this audience attentively sat through hour-long lectures presented by highly educated speakers, describing concepts that were probably somewhat over their head, and then many would attend some “bonus material” lectures if one of the speakers offered to present during supper, for instance.
Or maybe they just have better coffee in British Columbia. Perhaps “special” coffee – for medicinal purposes? I digress…
The speakers made a point of trying to be available for the students, but that didn’t work as well as one might have hoped. If you were lucky enough to book a time to sit down with one of them – and they sincerely made an effort to do just that – then you could get their undivided attention, but if they did not have such appointments they didn’t exactly “hover about” waiting to engage in dialogue. Often just before or just after a presentation by somebody else, the speakers could be caught entering or leaving the room and would quickly address various questions that were presented to them. Most meals they ate with the rest of us and engaged in all kinds of excellent dialogue at that time, otherwise they seemed to disappear unless it was their turn to speak. They are human, though, so one can hardly fault them for this. The more extroverted speakers were easier to find; unsurprisingly.
It was great to see authentic camaraderie and a spirit of genuine playfulness during the conference. The plethora of accents from the British Isles (Andy Bannister from Great Britain, Stuart McAllister from Scotland, Meic Pearse – I believe Welsh – and John Lennox is Irish) was the subject of countless jokes, and at one point the overhead mysteriously had a slide in there that read, “Kilt: what happened to the last person who called in a skirt.” Mary Jo Sharp looks a bit like Sarah Palin, so those jokes abounded, and she plays the saxophone (which she brought along) so she did a quick duet with the conference MC. As much as there is talk about divisions and antagonism in the church, it was refreshing to see such a spirit of light-hearted unity among such a diverse group; a unity I can only attribute to our common faith in Jesus.
All-in-all the RZIM staff and speakers were top-notch, did a fabulous job, and made the summer school well worth the time and financial investment of those who attended. I would unequivocally recommend the summer school to anybody who wants to better understand the depth of their faith and how best to integrate it into their whole life. If you take these matters seriously (and you really should!) then you will benefit from a visit to their summer school.
In the next blog installment I will review some of the lectures I went to, the speakers, and the content of the week.