Conference Week: Story & Cultivate

I’ve been working in church communications since 2004 and this week I went to my first church communications conference. Two of them actually. Making up for lost time, I guess. I hit up Cultivate in Chicago and Story in Aurora, Ill. (I had to skip out on the second day workshop portion of Story). It was a great couple days of getting out of the house and meeting folks I’ve followed online for years but never actually met. Of course I’m also an introvert, so it was a bit overwhelming and I wanted to curl up and be alone on several occasions.

Getting to the events was a miracle in itself. I owe a big debt to my mother-in-law for watching the kids, Michael Buckingham for splitting a hotel room with me, Cultivate for being cheap, Story for hooking me up with a free ticket, Brad Abare and Matt Kerner for posing as chaufers, and United for having cheap flights to Chicago. Thanks!

Cultivate vs. Story
The two events are like a study in contrasts. While the subject matter was the same (church communication) the style and approach of the two events couldn’t be more different.

Cultivate focused on conversations. You could text in questions to the main session speakers and they’d respond almost immediately (though it would have been much cooler to see those questions on the screen). The workshops were more conversations than presentations. Interaction and conversation was the name of the game. The round tables set up in the auditorium even included power cords coming down from the ceiling so us techie geeks could plug in our laptops and Twitter away (assuming we could get onto the WiFi network). Cultivate was also cheap (under $70) and the proceeds benefited two nonprofits, Blood:Water Mission and the Center for Church Communication (disclaimer: I work for CFCC).

Story focused on the show. It was held in the beautiful Paramount Theater in Aurora, had an amazing stage set up and included a first rate rock band, cutting edge video and presenters sharing powerful ideas and stories. The crowd was much bigger, it cost a lot more (though as I said, I got in free), included bigger names and more swag (Cultivate had no swag). I did miss the workshop day of Story (it cost extra and sold out), which probably would have included more interaction.

I summarized the differences to my wife by showing her the lanyards for each event. Cultivate’s had a background of Twitter avatars of the attendees (upwards of 100 of them). Story had their beautiful logo and lots of design flourishes. The back of the Cultivate lanyard had the schedule. The back of the Story lanyard had an ad (they actually made fun of how many sponsors they had during the event by singing a spoof of “Seasons of Love” from Rent; funny, but also a little awkward).

Lessons Learned
Both events had killer ideas and lessons. With so many incredible people involved you’d have to be asleep not to learn something. I took a lot of notes and we’ll share a few quotes:

  • Phil Cooke: Jesus ‘wasted’ his adult life on stories.
  • Phil Cooke: Jesus didn’t reach the world for Jesus.
  • Maurilio Amorim: Facebook is like a nursing home right now.
  • What Would Jesus Tweet session: Go do stuff, then maybe a crowd will show up.
  • What Would Jesus Tweet session: Social media issues are an age old problem for the church—our “brand” (people) have been messing up in public since Jesus’ day.
  • Blood:Water Mission: What would happen if your church had a capital campaign for something besides your church? (this idea came up in multiple places)
  • Clint Runge: Social cause used to mean marching and burning bras. Today it means wearing a bracelet or a T-shirt. It’s too easy.
  • Justin Wise: Whether or not people like something is not a helpful indicator of success.
  • Jon Acuff: Seed the clouds for ideas, don’t chum the water for sharks.
  • Ed Young, the ‘pastors shouldn’t cuss’ guy, said Christians need to “get their as in gear,” referencing the great commission translated ‘as you are going…’ That one made me laugh.
  • Ed Young: You want depth? Be active in sharing your faith.
  • Dave Gibbons: Success should equal descending numbers (less poverty, less homelessness, less abuse, etc.), not ascending numbers (more people, more converts, more baptisms, etc.)
  • Chris Seay: If you’re reading the Bible to figure out how to argue with people—nobody likes you.
  • Chris Seay: We’re not tired because we’re doing too much, we’re tired because we’re not doing the right stuff.
  • Nancy Beach: The best place to see God is in the faces and stories of others. (Nancy busted out the Frederick Buechner—yes!)
  • Stacy Spencer: The role of the preacher is to help people experience the old story.
  • Mike Foster: There are no secrets.

Bottom Line
I commented on Twitter that I wanted more story in Story. Story billed itself as “a first-of-its-kind experience for communicators” and a “theatrical conference experience.” Holding it in a theater doesn’t make it a theatrical conference experience. It was cool, don’t get me wrong. But it wasn’t what I expected. It started out with a cool video of dialogue snippets from movies, capitalizing on the idea of story and moved into an impressive live cover of Arcade Fire. But from there it went into worship and then Ed Young and it wasn’t offering an overarching narrative. In the afternoon session some of the speakers had more of a story focus (Nancy Beach brought up a storyteller and Stacy Spencer talked about how to tell a story [I imagine Donald Miller did too, but I had to leave early to catch a train]) and there were more theatrical elements (drum group, that whiteboard confession thing, etc.) but there was still no narrative.

It was a well produced conference that focused on story, but I didn’t meet my expectations for a first of its kind experience. I don’t attend many conferences so I’m not an expert, but it wasn’t drastically different from events I have attended. I’ve heard a lot about events like Cataylst but haven’t attended, and Story didn’t seem radically different. It also reminded me of a megachurch experience and I’m not a megachurch guy.

Cultivate, on the other hand, tapped into the DIY vibe of events like Idea Camp and UnSummit. It was no frills, cheap and focused on conversation instead of proclammation. That approach resonates with me.

Remember that I’m talking about differences in style and approach. Both conferences covered the same subject and their content was great. This is more about my preferences and expectations than anything. Judging by the Twitter chatter, I’m the only one who’s not fawning over Story. Most people loved it. I enjoyed it, I just didn’t love it.

All About People
More than anything these events are about meeting people. Like I said, I had the chance to meet at least a dozen folks in person that I’ve only known online. I also met a bunch of new people, including a bunch of Twin Cities church communicators (we’ll be getting together again). Those kinds of connections are the true benefit of these events. Forget the expectations, the style, the lessons—it’s all about people. And I met some cool people.

In the end I had a great week. Maybe I’ll do it again in another five years.

5 thoughts on “Conference Week: Story & Cultivate”

  1. Kevin,
    I enjoyed Cultivate even though I felt like my session barely scratched the surface on the conversation I had planned for it.

    I honestly don’t remember saying the Facebook looks like a nursing home, but I’d agree with that statement, and it sounds like something I would’ve said anyway.

    I wondered about Story and how they were going to make the narrative work with so many different speakers.

    Thanks for posting.


  2. Kevin, thanks for posting your thoughts. It was good to meet you in person. Wish we could have talked longer.

    I really enjoyed Cultivate. For a first time conference I thought it came together exceptionally well. Like Maurilio said, I felt like many of the workshops barely scratched the surface. I come away thinking about how we can continue to discuss these issues after the conference.

  3. It sounds like you’re making much out of my descriptive terms (“first of its kind” and “theatrical conference experience”), which is perfectly understandable. It’s the same personality difference that makes your blog hard for me to read.

    I produce two conferences – STORY and The Whiteboard Sessions, which are polar opposites. One is unashamedly experiential, and the other is more interactive and low-key. They represent two different sides of me. I love both. So I do both.

    I enjoy a good movie. And I love our Gospel. So I created an event that combined the two to some extent. It was the kind of event I wanted to attend. Oh, and I invited you to come and join me for free… it’s okay if you didn’t like it. But if I tweeted how much I hated my neighbor’s meatloaf before thanking her for the invite, I’d be a little insensitive.

    When you consider that STORY was started with my $4,000 and an entirely volunteer-team (I didn’t make a penny), I think it was a remarkable experience. It pulled together over 6 churches to produce the event, so it was the Church at work together. That’s a beautiful thing.

  4. Ben, thanks for commenting and sharing your perspective. I’m sorry you seem to think I’m ungrateful.

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