Some of the most transformative experiences for me have come through conferences - whether through the speaking, or the networking and relationship building, or just the sort of "greenhouse" experience of deliberately placing oneself in an environment designed for short intense bursts of spiritual growth. It probably has to do with having grown up in the Christian camping world. I mean, let's face it, ministry conferences are basically camp for adults. That's part of why I've been so energetic and excited about helping to create the Midwest Emergent Gathering that we just put on this past weekend. I just love being able to create for others the kinds of experiences that have been so meaningful to me in the past.
This journey began with a conversation in a hotel bar in Seattle last November with myself, Sarah Notton, Randy Buist, and Spencer Burke as we wondered why there were no good ministry conferences in the Midwest, and then started asking ourselves why we didn't go ahead and do one. And rather than let the idea just stay there in that hotel bar, we actually kept dreaming about it, and talking about it, and talking to other people who might be interested in helping us make it happen. Fast forward eight months and here we are, having just successfully pulled off the first ever Midwest Emergent Gathering.
And it was great, at least from my perspective as one of the conference planners. I confess that going into the conference I had this fear that it would be totally chaotic, unprofessional, and a complete waste of time for our attendees - and yet the complete opposite actually happened. Thanks in large part to our amazing crew of fellow planners and volunteers, the whole thing just ran incredibly smoothly. As the onstage host/MC I was able to just sit back and let it unfold, trusting our team to make sure that all the details would fall into place. Because they did I was able to focus on my part of it, which was casting the vision and then making sure all the onstage pieces fit together with that vision.
In my opinion, it all fit together beautifully. We created this conference with the idea of "Creating Missional Communities" in mind and invited a wide diversity of speakers to come and paint pictures for us of what that looks like in practice. We started on Friday morning with Tony Jones describing what it means to be emergent and what it means to be missional, and why those two go together. He exhorted us to move beyond the polarities of liberal and conservative and not let our be defined by such binary ways of looking at the world.
Doug Pagitt continued the conversation with encouragement to have a wholistic gospel that includes teaching both about Jesus and about the kingdom of God (cf. Acts 28:31). He also reminded us that the kingdom is bigger than the church and that God is at work everywhere, whether urban, or suburban or rural or wherever.
In the afternoon Denise Van Eck told us the story of how she went about trying to create authentic missional community at the 10,000 person monstrosity that is Mars Hill Bible Church and learned that community isn't something that can be created, it can only be discovered.
That evening Nanette Sawyer told us about a very different kind of church, Wicker Park Grace, a urban and artsy faith community in downtown Chicago. She described the creativity and hospitality of their gatherings, and talked about how they are welcoming individuals that have felt rejected by so many other churches (gays and lesbians for example).
The next morning we heard a phenomenal presentation from Alise Barrymore and James King, whose church Scot McKnight described to me as the only African American emerging church he was aware of. Their story blew me away and from the conference evaluation forms we received I know that many others were blown away as well. Their faith journey was so resonant with the kind of journey most of us in the emerging church have been on ourselves, and yet it was so intriguing to see the unique issues they dealt with along that journey in their African American context. Anyhow, I hope Alise and James are voices that we begin to hear a lot more of in the emerging church conversation.
We wrapped up the conference with a fiery and prophetic set of exhortations from Spencer Burke, who encouraged us not to get bogged down with creating ecclesial empires or big structures, but to begin reimagining a whole new way of being the light of the world in our postmodern cultural context. I was especially touched by his closing comments about coming back to the heart of God and just remembering the love that our Father has for all of us as he holds us close to his breast (like a parent holds a newborn infant). It was the perfect note to end the conference on.
Of course, interspersed with all these presentations were other elements, times of worship as well as missional highlights (New Life for Haiti and Mission:USA), and our "Outsider Interviews". On Friday we had John Armstrong give us his advice for the emerging church from his perspective as a friendly observer of the movement. He commended us for advancing the idea of missionality in the church, and yet also cautioned us not to become arrogant and think that we are creating something entirely new under the sun - he reminded us to listen to the wisdom of the past, whether that of Augustine or Calvin, or more recently people like Barth and Newbigin.
Then on Saturday we had an interview with my friend Hemant Mehta, the Friendly Atheist. He gave us a perspective on us Christians from outside the faith entirely, encouraging us to do more to serve those in need outside the church and to partner more with non-Christians as we do so. From the comments I received I think there were many people who appreciated hearing both Hemant's and John's perspectives and were gratified that we included differing opinions in our conference. Personally I was gratified that both of these friends were willing to do something so potentially "risky".
In between the sessions we had lots of workshops, though unfortunately as the one "running the show" I didn't get much time to sit in on these. I heard they were all superb though. We also encouraged attendees to "create their own" workshop if they wanted to talk about a topic that wasn't on our list, and several people took us up on the offer. Besides the workshops we also tried to give plenty of time for conversations (long meal breaks, Q&A times w/the speakers after the sessions), because again, one of the most valuable parts of conferences like these is the relationships that are formed. I for one enjoyed not only the time to reconnect with some of the well-known "movers and shakers" in the emerging church world (i.e. most of our speakers & presenters), but even more I enjoyed meeting new friends from all over who came just to attend and learn and network at the conference. I look forward to deepening all of these friendships in the future.
Speaking of the future, I have high hopes for what some of the long term outcomes of this conference might be. Jeff Kursonis, the national cohorts coordinator for Emergent Village has said this was a historic event in that it was the first time that multiple cohorts had worked together in such a way. I'd love to see this set the trend for more regional cohort gatherings, whether full blown conferences, smaller get togethers, or missional collaborations. I also have hope that this event and others like it will lead to the formation of new cohorts. The emerging church needs to have a local face. If it is primarily a conversation, then that conversation happens best in small groups of passionate individuals who can see each other, know each other, and have a beer together as they plot how to advance God's kingdom of love and justice in the world. It's like Margaret Mead said "A small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has." Imagine what could happen if we can continue to multiply many small groups of thoughtful people all over the country (and world) who are committed to this kind of global transformation!
BTW, if you missed the conference but would like to listen to our mainstage presentations, you can download the audio of them on our conference website.
The following bloggers have also posted on the conference. I'll try to add new ones to this list as more people post about the conference.
Rich Vincent at TheoCenTriC MuSiNgS.
Conversation Outside the Bubble: Day 1 and Day 2.
RCA Church Planters: Part 1 & Part 2.
Helen at Conversation at the Edge.
David Jones & Betsy Whaley at Nexus Jesus.
Maurice Broaddus (the Sinister Minister): Part 1 and Part 2.
Julie's reflections at Emerging Women.
And John Armstrong's blog.
Also, Doug Pagitt has a number of pictures from the conference currently up on his blog, mostly of Will Samson sleeping.
Update: Oh, and you know you've "arrived" in the emerging church world when you're trashed by Ken Silva. I'm glad to see our event made it onto his EC-bashing radar. :)
Another Update: Tony Jones has blogged about it now too.
And another one from my new friend Rebecca.