Measuring the success of the 2019 Digital Discipleship Conference

Rachel Lemons Aitken reflects on how she saw God's guidance clearer than ever at the 2019 Digital Discipleship Conference

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Rachel Lemons Aitken. (Credit: Charmaine Patel)

We often measure the success of an event by the number of people who attend, but we seldom measure it by the God-ordained moments that take place that are outside of our control.

The 2019 Digital Discipleship Conference was an exercise of enormous faith that was filled with moments of risk that stretched our thinly-resourced organisation.

However, the ways God showed up in response to the leap of faith, the chairs He filled that we couldn’t have imagined filling, the sparks of connection He created amongst the attendees and the sense of purpose that flowed through the place truly proved that God will do “infinitely more than all we ask or imagine according to His power that is at work within us”.

The move from Sydney to the Gold Coast

After the 2018 Digital Discipleship Conference, the leadership at the Australian Union said the event should move from Sydney, where the first three events took place, to a new location to make the event more accessible to a new group of people.

Conceptually, this was a great idea and if successful it would likely grow our budding Digital Discipleship movement. However, being the one who initiated the idea for the Conference and knowing what was involved in planning and running it, the problems and the inherent risks stared me glaringly in the face.

Furthermore, knowing that I am the only employee in the ministry and that I get paid to work part-time, I was aware how this would stretch my current abilities and resources.

The focus and the dream

Even still, with this new mandate, I began to talk to God and dream about the upcoming Conference.

I imagined the outcomes I wanted the attendees to experience. I sat and thought about the feel of the Conference, the energy of the interactions and the lives that would be impacted as a result of the event. And I began to ask God what He wanted to happen at this Conference; after all this is His event.

The big, hairy audacious goal

Sometime in 2015, maybe it was at the beginning of the year, I was sitting in my office at the Greater Sydney Conference where I worked as the communication coordinator, and I heard God ask me a question. He said, “What’s your big, hairy audacious goal?”

What? God are you quoting strategic business books now? Did you read Jim Collins and Jerry Porras’ book Built to Last?”

After God asked me that question, my mind immediately went to an event I had been dreaming about.

Perhaps a year into my job there at the Greater Sydney Conference, as I started training the local church communication secretaries, I could see they were very passionate but often needed support in executing their responsibilities.

Besides, over time the role of a communication secretary had evolved from typesetting the bulletin and tallying attendees into one that required a variety of skills in areas like graphic design, photography, videography and social media.

At the same time, I observed many skilled people idling in the pews with their gifts going unacknowledged and their talents glossed over.

They had just what we needed at the local church level, but we weren’t engaging them as we did the singers, the Sabbath School leaders and the preachers.

I began to think and dream, how can we bring these two groups of people together? How can we get them in the same room?

The white board

(Credit: Charmaine Patel)

One of the major features of my office at the time was a white board that stretched the width of my wall. It was the physical space I used to jot down my to-do lists, the articles I needed to write, department names and most importantly my dreams and visions for the future.

Sitting squarely at the top of the board were the words “Communication Conference”. I hadn’t named it at the time, but I had started writing the names of the people I wanted to invite.

So, when God asked me what my big, hairy audacious goal was, my mind immediately went to the Conference. It was the thing that seemed outlandish that was far outside of my grasp that I would never be able to accomplish.

God’s confidence

I was a transplant to Australia and by that point had only been in the country for two-and-half years and had only worked for the Church in Australia for two years.

Although I had started organisations and implemented major change in the Church in other parts of the world, like setting up the Office of Communication and proposing and establishing the Adventist Colleges Abroad program in the Arabic Language at Middle East University in Lebanon, this idea of a Conference seemed big. Even still, I admitted to God that it was my dream.

And He responded saying, “Whatever you ask, I’m going to do it for you.”

As I sat alone in my office in that moment, my mind was blown away. I was amazed that God would engage with me in such a real way and give me such freedom to carry out an idea.

So, from that day forward, I began to allow the idea to progress with the confidence that it was God-breathed and inspired, and He would do whatever He needed to bring the idea to fruition.

And that confidence was a necessary component for the Conference to continue to see the light of day.

The first year I planned the Conference while heavily pregnant and missed attending because I gave birth to my baby the night before the Conference started. Another year the Conference faced a potential loss of funding and then a four-month window to plan it, causing my husband to take all of his vacation time for the year so the Conference could take place. At other times we’ve faced lack of support and understanding and even hostility.

And though sometimes misunderstood and misinterpreted, I knew it was God’s confidence and not my arrogance that led me to tell the naysayers that they couldn’t stop the Conference because they hadn’t started it.

Visioning for the 2019 Digital Discipleship Conference

(Credit: Charmaine Patel)

So, when I began to ask God what He wanted to happen at the 2019 Digital Discipleship Conference, it was part of an ongoing dialogue we had started years earlier.

I pictured people transitioning from one item to the next in the program and I imagined how their messages would be received. I began to allow those ideas to shape my thinking on what the Conference would be like.

At this time, in my own spiritual life, thoughts of heaven and seeing Jesus, and moving beyond the here and now, were heavy on my heart. I felt such a strong impression that our talks needed to centre around this idea and bring people’s hearts to focus on Jesus.

Fortunately, these ideas dove-tailed nicely with the fun and visual theme I was considering which was future tech and time travel. All of this evolved into a theme of “The Future Beyond the Future”.

New additions and expanding the offering

On top of the risk of moving the location, there was a risk in expanding the offering of the Conference.

In the first three years, we have typically offered 16 workshops over the course of the weekend.

By the end of the 2019 Conference, we offered 27 workshops, including a three-and-a-half-hour creativity session, a multi-part Digital Church Check-up process and a three-and-a-half-hour Song Writers Workshop that resulted in an amazing praise and worship song that tied back to our theme of the Future Beyond the Future.

We also offered one workshop for children, spoke on topics that related to parenting and education and addressed the dangers and challenges of technology.

Additionally, we launched the Digital Discipleship Conference in New Zealand this past weekend (August 7-9) and welcomed guests from the Pacific Islands including Fiji, Vanuatu, American Samoa and Papua New Guinea.

The closing song

But I didn’t truly see how intricately God had been working on our behalf behind the scenes until the end of the event.

It is a regular practice during the Conference for me to get two or three hours of sleep a night. Most times I’m reviewing the next day’s schedule to make sure everything is in line, ensuring the speakers’ slides have been submitted and that the program will flow smoothly.

Having received such strong feedback on the first two days of the Conference, I sat bleary eyed in front of the computer staring at Sunday’s schedule as it stared blankly back at me.

On the face of it, it looked anticlimactic in comparison to what had already taken place. I knew in my heart that we couldn’t end the Conference in this way. So, I began to pray over the schedule and the events of the day.

I said, “God, what do you want us to do today? What should happen? And most importantly, how should we end this event”?

As I sat in silence in my basic apartment with the wind howling through the rickety windows in our rented place with my son sleeping a few metres away and my weary husband catching a few hours of rest, I felt an impression with which I was intimately familiar.

The impression was that we should close the event with the song, “May His Peace be with You”.

As I filled in that box in my spreadsheet, other ideas began to flow.

Finally, I looked at the day’s plans and felt enormously proud of what we would be doing that day. The only problem was that many of the plans would require a lot of hustling to get them done and on the face of it, it looked to be almost impossible.

But, with the determination that God had specifically asked me to do something that day, I moved forward with divinely inspired confidence.

‘I need a keyboard and a speaker’

While ending the event with the song God had impressed me with would be a powerful idea there was one small problem. We didn’t have a keyboard.

Having only planned to have music during our Sabbath services, we no longer had the band at the event, and I didn’t know where we could locate another keyboard.

However, I did know that situated just across from the location of the event sat a church called Surf City Church. I had spotted it a few months earlier when I went for a site visit.

Because of all the workshops I was planning, I imagined we would run out of space to hold the event, so I began to call, email and direct message the church without success. I tried at different times of day and used different platforms, but I just wasn’t making it through. As the event neared, I concluded that I would need to make use of the space I had at the hotel and that Surf City Church wouldn’t play a significant role in the Conference.

An ambitious plan

On Sunday morning, the last day of the event, I arrived before my other team members at the venue and began to scurry knowing the effort it would take to successfully pull off the day’s ambitious plans.

As soon as possible, I began telling people, starting with my husband, that we needed a keyboard for the song at the end of the event. He said he’d work on sorting it out, but I also gave him another task that would require him driving around town, so he felt torn between my two requests.

When I began racking my brain for how we could get a keyboard, my mind immediately went to the church across the street that would surely be open because it was Sunday. I told several people, please just go across the street and check with the church there because they might have an extra keyboard we can use.

At the suggestion, I could see scepticism come across their faces. They were hesitant to go to an unfamiliar church and make such a big request.

Nonetheless, the race was on to find a keyboard.

We began calling contacts in the area, being mindful that with the Gold Coast City Marathon taking place that day roads would be closed and would slow down anyone attempting to bring the keyboard in time.

One person who lived 20 minutes away offered a keyboard but didn’t have speaker to go with it. Then we located another keyboard that might be closer, but it too didn’t have a speaker. So, we were left with the possibility of a keyboard, but no way to amplify it.

In one phone call the person on the other end sounded resigned and said to me, “Oh well, I guess it isn’t going to work out,” but with the dogged determination of someone who had been given a divine assignment I said, “Oh, it’ll work out. We’ll just have to find another way.”

Now there’s something really important you have to understand about me. At my very core, my guiding principle is that I don’t like to bother people. It’s a trait that’s been passed on to me and is deeply ingrained and, though I fight against it, it’s a core part of my personality.

However, in this moment, having been given a charge earlier that day, I tenaciously fought to get the necessary equipment to end the event with the song God has whispered to me.

In the face of having a keyboard but no speaker, I begin to seek solutions.

Adam Kavanagh speaks at DDC 2019. (Credit: Charmaine Patel)

As we all wondered if the situation would work out, I went over to Adam Kavanagh, production manager at Adventist Media.

I’ve always experienced Adam as a straight shooter who gets things done. As quickly as I could, I explained to Adam what the problem was. I told him that I needed a speaker and I thought Surf City Church might have one.

I asked if he would go over and see if we could borrow one. With assured confidence, Adam looked at me and said yes.

I must admit in that moment even I was sceptical about what Surf City Church would say.

Well, we didn’t have to wait long to find out because about 10 minutes later, Adam walked into the room and my eyes looked down the length of his arm to see a speaker and a cord sitting firmly in his grasp. My eyes lit up and I shouted something about God being amazing and coming through.

I asked Adam, “How did you get the speaker”, and he responded, “I just asked for it.”

Now curious, I prodded, “And they just gave it to you?”

“Yeah,” he said.

“Well,” he continued, “the guy asked if I was Adventist, without me telling him. He said, ‘I hope you’re from that Adventist Digital Discipleship Conference at Mantra Legends, and then he gave me the speaker.”

At that, I quickly sent Peter, my husband, out to get the keyboard because I knew that this was a plan that was coming together.

As the event came to a close, we gathered the attendees in a circle around the room and our Song Writer Workshop leader, Marguerite Samuel, began to lead out the group in the beautiful chorus of “May His Peace Be with You”.

As the words were sung, they fit perfectly within the theme of the weekend.

They called us towards a relationship with Jesus and a view of spending eternity with Him.

May His peace be with you till we meet again
May His peace be with you till we meet again
Till we reach that distant shore
And we’ll shed a tear no more
May He give you strength to endure
Till we meet again

And while this was a phenomenal way to centre our attention on Jesus and look toward the future, for me it’s not the climax of the story.

After most of the guests had left the venue, the last few members of the Digital Discipleship team lingered around sorting through the items that needed to be returned or taken home.

One of those items was the speaker we had borrowed from Surf City Church.

I asked Jan Rhais Armantiad, one of our invaluable team members to return it with our deepest gratitude. With his typical can-do attitude, he set off with the speaker in hand.

A bit later in the afternoon, when I saw Jan again, I asked him if he’d been able to successfully return the speaker and he said he had.

I asked if they said anything. And then, as if it were a passing remark, He said something that solidified inside of me an assurance of God’s guidance throughout the entire Conference.

He said, “Oh yeah, when I gave them back the speaker the guy said, ‘When your colleague (Adam) came over to get the speaker, I felt this strong urge to give it to him. It was like I had to do it.”

When Jan said those words, I was floored. Suddenly, the pieces of the story began to fit together.

(Credit: Charmaine Patel)

As I looked at the string of events, from the site visit in April until that very morning when I asked God how we should end the the event to the moment Surf City Church lent us the speaker, I saw how God had been behind the scenes directing the events.

Since the beginning of planning the 2019 Digital Discipleship Conference so much conflict, hardship and struggle surrounded the event. It was obvious to anyone with the spiritual eyes to see that the devil was presenting distraction after distraction to derail the powerful events that would take place over the weekend.

I began to realise that this moment—that this need of a keyboard and a speaker—was set into motion months in advance. What looked like unresponsiveness from the church was actually setting them up to be aware of who we were so they would be able to help us when we needed it.

God knew what we needed and answered our prayer long before we asked it.

Just as God had promised me back in 2015, He now fulfilled His promise. Before I could ask, he was already answering, and he was fulfilling. Truly whatever I asked He was doing because He was placing the seeds of inspiration in my mind of what to do.

I praise God for the hardship and the struggle of planning the 2019 Digital Discipleship Conference because through it I am able to measure the success of the event as I observed a countless number of God-ordained moments that took place that were totally out of my control.


Visit www.digitaldisciples.info to learn more about the Digital Discipleship movement.

Rachel Lemons Aitken is a digital transformation strategist and founder of the Digital Discipleship Ministry of the Australian Union Conference.