More than 500 Presbyterians gathered here July 30, anticipating four days packed with workshops on how to be better pastors, evangelists, church planters and youth and collegiate ministry leaders. And here’s what opening speaker Mark Yaconelli told them:

“We’re in danger at a conference like this. You can come to a conference like this and leave worse than you came.”

The array of seminars and speakers can remind us of all the “things we’re not good at,” explained Yaconelli, a popular writer and speaker on youth ministry and spirituality, who is currently co-director of the Center for Engaged Compassion at the Claremont School of Theology in Southern California.

But those feelings of inadequacy are the opposite of what God wants for us, Yaconelli said. Instead of finding God “among the success stories,” he continued, we are more likely to encounter God by opening ourselves to our fellow human beings — people like us, who “long to be met, to be embraced, to be loved.”

Yaconelli preached at the opening worship service of the 2012 National Evangelism and Church Growth Conferences (ECG 2012). The event features five conferences meeting simultaneously around the theme “What Are You Waiting For?” based on Acts 1:6–11.

The constituent conferences are Evangelism New Church Development, Church Transformation, Youth Workers and Collegiate Ministries.

In Yaconelli’s text, Mark 8:14–21, Jesus and his 12 disciples are in a boat together following the feeding of the 4,000. The disciples start worrying because they forgot to bring any bread.

We are like those first disciples, Yaconelli said. “They were worrying about what they didn’t have, when they had all they needed.” They had Jesus.

The Vine, a praise band from First Presbyterian Church in Lakeland, Fla., had people on their feet singing, clapping and raising their arms earlier in the service. Yaconelli said he imagined some in the congregation were thinking that if their church back home only had a praise band instead of an organ, they would be more successful at drawing in new people.

“I wonder,” he said, “does anyone ever read the Bible?”

We should put ourselves in Jesus’ shoes and imagine what ministry was like for him, Yaconelli continued: “You have 12 people in your ministry, who don’t understand anything you’re talking about. Twelve people, and they keep abandoning you. You have 12 people, and you suspect one of them is trying to kill you!”

We worry about churches closing and losing members, Yaconelli said. We worry about what we are doing wrong and why God has blessed the other churches that are growing.

“We have no idea what God is doing in the world right now,” Yaconelli declared. We should leave the big picture to God, he added. “Our job is the small picture — just love your neighbor.”

Yaconelli left his listeners with two bits of advice:

First, he said, “You have to let go of everything that is killing you — and yes, I’m talking about committees.”

Any activity that makes you angry, resentful and tired, and that doesn’t leave you feeling more loving and connected with other people, is “not of God,” he explained. “Just stop doing it.”

Yaconelli’s second bit of advice was to “allow yourself to be loved.”

To start with, “most of us need to learn to love ourselves,” he said. And then “we need to allow God to love us into another way of being.”

This will require practicing the Sabbath, he added. Each week we should take one day “to remember that everything in our lives is a gift of God.”

For those who just can’t take a whole day off, he advised, “Start small. Do things that give you pleasure and call it your spiritual practice.”

Yaconelli reminded conference-goers: “Ministry is natural. It’s just being a human being. It’s just loving.”

Too many of us worship a God who is a perfectionist, who is constantly disappointed in us, Yaconelli said. “The problem is we’re serving a God who doesn’t exist.”

Instead, we should remember that “the kingdom of God is a place where you’re accepted even when you don’t have it all together.”

Eva Stimson is editor of “Presbyterians Today” magazine.