Back again after the annual pilgrimage to Leicester. A lot of the same faces, some new ones, some familiar ones not there - Gary Brady where were you? It seems no time at all since I was a newcomer; now I am introduced to visitors from abroad as an old stager.
The location was slightly different - smaller Digby Hall for our meetings while the Gilbert Murray is being refurbished or demolished. A good enough venue with a spacious bookroom - better than the usual black hole of Calcutta. But there was a quarter of a mile walk to and from the dining room. Coffee and tea in the accommodation blocks was in a central kitchen not in the rooms - which unfortunately some punters did not discover till the last night. Mind you, it was a lot easier to get to morning coffee in the marquee just outside the meeting room - and also after meals in the dining hall - not the usual scrums and queues.
The cooked breakfasts were good; I skipped lunch but enjoyed excellent evening meals at least on Tuesday and Wednesday; the chicken on Monday evening could have done sterling service as a bouncy ball.
One additional attraction in the region is that the nearby village of Oadby now boasts a Costa's - nice for a break in the afternoons, unless you were playing football.
And the ministry? In the opening sermon Stephen Curry began searching our spiritual lives from Matthew 6 - the imperative of a secret prayer life where the Father sees. Martin Holdt challenged us all on our experience of the Holy Spirit in personal life and preaching. Lewis Allen challenged us on our love for Christ and our longing for him. Iain Murray, standing in for Ted Donnelly, gave two very thoughtful expositions of John 17 and a biography of Archibald Brown, a wonderful Baptist pastor in London in the late 19th and early 20th century. In a 'short' slot one morning, Geoff Thomas gave us a clear and passionate reminder to preach nothing less than the free offer of the gospel.
In his closing sermon from John 17, Mr Murray referred back to Stephen Curry's opening sermon, and said: if there is no public reward evident in our ministries, is this a reflection of not much going on in secret?
For many the highlight was Phil Arthur's brilliant paper on William Tyndale - a masterclass in how to turn a historical lecture into a sermon!
So 'a challenge to our personal spiritual life' was the theme (at least for me) from the conference. The messages dovetailed and reinforced each other. Yet it would be unfair to suggest that the preachers only challenged us about our spiritual lives. There was constant exhortation and direction to put Christ first in our love, our lives and our preaching.
A non-scheduled meeting was that, late on Wednesday evening, of the 'Tafia' (the Welsh 'mafia'). A small group this year. We invited that well known Welshman Ian Hamilton along, and we discussed why the conference was so much lower in numbers than in the past . In 2006 - 370 men, last year 270; this year, 170. Holidays? No Ted Donnelly? Younger men going elsewhere? New Word Alive the same week? Not scratching where men are itching? Cost? Not-so-well-known speakers?
It's difficult to tell; no doubt the Banner could improve in places; it is still notoriously unfriendly for first timers - very little practical information is given to help people who do not know where to go and what to do - eg simple things like where to find a hot drink at night. Get a woman in on the organisation!
But the values of the Banner need to be communicated. Men who are excited by Reformed things today are excited by John Piper, Mark Driscoll, Tim Keller , C.J. Mahaney, not by the speakers and ethos of Banner. Maybe the Banner will not be as big as before. But it would be good to find out why and do one's best to explain to the disenchanted what it is aiming at.