Ranging from Anglican to Presbyterian, from college kids to empty nesters, 170 people packed the Camp House, the main venue of The Mission Chattanooga, for The Mission’s first Abbey Event held August 5-8. The first annual Horizons Conference featured a lineup of popular speakers like Andy Crouch and James K.A. Smith who explored how God calls us to be His image bearers in culture.

The event kicked off with a special “Theology on Tap” event, an outreach The Mission Chattanooga hosts regularly in their city to invite people to explore Christianity. Conference leaders opened the Camp House doors and welcomed the general public to hear Dr. Steven Guthrie discuss mystery, beauty and truth over free beer. More than 180 people attended.

“It really set the tone for the entire conference,” Joseph Schlabs, one of the conference organizers, says.

horizon-speakersDuring the next two days, a lineup of speakers presented on topics like “Creation, Culture and the Image of God,” “Church and Culture Throughout History” and “Worship as Cultural Formation.” While all speakers were well received, many attendees loved the accessibility of Andy Crouch, who served as a Malcolm Gladwell-esque presence combining journalism and academia as an onramp into the world of the church in culture. Others more initiated into the conversation loved the instruction of philosopher and prolific author James K.A. Smith. Speakers from The Mission included the Rev. Brian Hardin of The Daily Audio Bible, as well as the Rev. Chris Sorensen and Mary Ferguson of The Mission Chattanooga. Attendees then had the chance to attend breakout sessions and panel discussions to put the concepts they were learning into practice. A house band from Mission Chattanooga led the group in high-quality, ancient-future worship infused with liturgy.

Meanwhile, the Camp House’s urban setting and industrial 1900s building formed a perfect backdrop for attendees to observe how the work of “imaging” Christ in culture is done.

“It’s one thing to hear the ideas and another thing to see it done,” says Joseph. “At the conference we were talking about things like beauty, place, urban planning and engagement, and we were meeting in a place in downtown Chattanooga where we are kind of scratching the surface on these things.”

The conference also had an intimate feel, more like a classroom than a conference. Joseph describes the atmosphere as full of energy and excitement, with many listeners moved to tears as they were affirmed and inspired to bring art and beauty back into the Protestant church. Many people also built relationships with one another and shared their thoughts and stories after conference hours.

“It was a truly organic experience,” Joseph says. “Almost accidentally, we left the nights open so people could mingle, go out to eat together, or take over the upstairs of a bar for an after party. It worked so well for people getting to know each other that we plan to do it again next year.”

Plans are already in the works for the next two iterations of the conference. Joseph says extended interviews with Andy Crouch and James K.A. Smith, as well as all the content from the conference, will be posted online in the next few weeks, along with the exact dates for the Fall 2015 conference. Both Crouch and Smith will return to speak next year, and N.T. Wright is in talks to be one of the keynote speakers at the 2016 conference.

“For the next conference, we may stay with the theme of imaging Christ in the public life,” Joseph says. “We believe we could break it into categories and add niches that would allow us to expand further on this incredibly deep topic.” He also hopes to increase seating capacity and lower ticket prices when The Mission Chattanooga moves into its new building next year.

Ultimately, the Horizons Conference was a rich, unforgettable experience that the Rev. Chris Myers of All Saints Dallas, who attended the conference and blogs about it here, urges everyone in The Mission to take advantage of online.

“I would encourage all of you to experience as much of the content as you can,” he says. “All the speakers had things to say that would have immediate and direct benefit to you and your churches.”

Find Horizons Conference updates and soon-to-be-posted 2014 conference content.