Saturday, October 06, 2007
Trailblazers or Tour Guides?
Right now I'm sitting in the Albuquerque airport waiting for our flight home from the Emergent Gathering in Glorieta, New Mexico this past week and there's lots I could say about our experiences there. However, right now I just want to reflect on one particular question that came up several times during our conversations: what is the future of Emergent Village? And more specifically, should Emergent Village remain a connection point for newcomers to the emerging church conversation - a place for them to deconstruct, to be in process, to learn and to grow into these new ways of thinking - or should it become a network of leaders who are pushing the envelope and engaging in ever deeper conversations about theology, spirituality and ministry. Or is it somehow possible to do and be both?

The difficulty of course is that as Emergent goes deeper and further it will necessarily scare off many of the newcomers to the conversation. The somewhat disenchanted but still basically conservative evangelical who reads "A New Kind of Christian" and find it to be exactly where they are at in their journey right now, might be entirely freaked out by some of Brian's more recent works, and thus avoid the conversation altogether, thereby missing out on the process of growth that has brought Brian and others to where we are now. (Most likely they'll look at it as evidence of a "slippery slope" and be scared off by the possibility of "going liberal".)

On the other hand, if Emergent just remains at the entry level, just keeps on having the same basic conversations over and over again, then that would be untrue to where the spirit of God has led many of us in the past few years. Not only would that be a betrayal of where we believe God is calling us, but it is fundamentally unhealthy on the personal level too. Is it fair to expect Brian or Doug or whoever to just stop moving forward in their own faith, or not write about the new questions they've been asking? Is it fair to ask any of us to do this?

And yet if we are going to continue to move forward in our own journey, I think it is imperative for us Emergent folk to still remember the process that has brought us to where we are, and to have the patience and love to reach back and guide others along the same path too. We must function both as trailblazers and as guides.

But how to do this? One of the most refreshing things about this past week was being in an environment where most of the people around us were in similar places on the journey to us. We were able to be trailblazers together, and this was a welcome break from having to play the tour guides with our church community back home. And yet, what if more newbies had shown up this year (as Julie tells me they did last year)? Would it have been as "safe" and comfortable pushing those boundaries? Is it possible to have an Emergent gathering where both are done? And on the local level, is it possible to have a cohort where both trailblazers and newbies are welcome and are being encouraged and stimulated?

I think it is, but it may require being more deliberate and more overt about the nature and purpose of various Emergent events. Here is my humble and provisional suggestion for how we go about doing this: What if Emergent Village begins sponsoring two types of event: one the one hand we can do more small regional gatherings like our Midwest Emergent Gathering this summer or like the other Theological or Philosophical conversations that have been hosted in other parts of the country. These could be chances to go more in-depth on a particular topic, and be a place for "trailblazers" to connect.

Then, on the other hand, I think we ought to begin sponsoring large national conventions again like Emergent used to do together with Youth Specialties. These would be a natural place for the entry-level conversations to happen and for newbies to come and learn about the emerging church. Of course some will still leave "freaked out", but some will not, and by tailoring the event directly to emerging newbies - having some of those initial conversations over again, providing plenty of opportunities for them to ask their questions and even offer their objections - we would have a better chance of drawing some on into the deeper level conversations eventually.

With this two-level set-up I think it would also be good to keep the annual Glorieta Gathering as a third kind of thing - with the depth of a regional gathering, but with a national draw. This could be advertised as the annual connecting point for those who have been involved in Emergent for a longer time and who feel a real sense of ownership in the movement. In other words, we'd should make it clear that it's probably not the best venue for newcomers, and direct them instead to the larger national conventions.

One more suggestion too about cohorts. Cohorts are the local emerging church conversations that typically happen on a monthly basis. While there are many types of cohorts, they still often face the same tension of whether to "go deep" or to remain a safe connecting point for newcomers. In a larger city like Chicago, we have been able to diversify among our various regional branches of up/rooted (the name of our Emergent Cohort), with the north suburban group being the more intellectual, philosophical conversation, and the west suburban group being more of the entry-level conversation. (It remains to be seen how the downtown group will evolve after our kick-off next week.) This structure works fairly well. However, even in a smaller city with only one cohort, they could still plan to alternate month-to-month between entry-level and deep conversations. If they are explicit about advertising them as such then people could decide for themselves on what level they want to enter the conversation.

My hope of course is that Emergent Village can continue to be that place for those just at the beginning of their "postmodern", "emerging" journey to find friends and realize that they are not alone, and yet at the same time I too feel that need for the freedom to continue on in the paths where God is leading me, without having to constantly defend my approach to those who don't yet understand. Hopefully we can and will be both.


posted by Mike Clawson at 12:34 PM | Permalink |


At 10/06/2007 05:22:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous

Is it fair to expect Brian or Doug or whoever to just stop moving forward in their own faith, or not write about the new questions they've been asking? Is it fair to ask any of us to do this?

Maybe this is the thinking of someone who is still a bit "outside" of what EV is really about, but I can't help but wonder if maybe the solution isn't to have some kind of ongoing cycle of "new" representatives for EV so that people like Brian and Doug can keep going deeper, but the "face" of EV can remain at that "entry level".


At 10/07/2007 10:45:00 PM, Blogger soupablog

You perfectly encapsulated my thoughts on the 'trailblazer / newbie' phenomenon. We need to have places at the table and be patient with folks who have the same questions as we might have 5 or 10 years prior. Space for both is a good thing, as long as a convention setting doesn't foster consumeristic tendencies. we're already too book-oriented as it is, yes?


At 10/08/2007 11:40:00 AM, Anonymous Jonathan Brink

I would suggest that the trail of books and dialogs in blogs provide a deep resource for people who are behind the curve. And they aren't in a bubble. The culture does move them in ways they are not even aware of. As Brian et al move forward there will be new writers saying what they did in a different way that will speak to these new emerging folk.


At 10/08/2007 12:16:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

jhimm - That's a good suggestion, and similar to what Jonathan also just mentioned. Unfortunately you can't always control who are the "celebrities" that people will go to first (after all, it's not like any of these guys really sought to become EC celebs). People will continue to read Brian's books and look to him for answers. My suggestion is that there ought to be an entry-level event - maybe once a year - where Brian and the others rehash a lot of the old ground for all the newcomers.

Though yes, hopefully new writers and leaders will also emerge that will have the patience and wisdom to continue leading people through the difficult processes of transformation. The advantage that we have now is that with so many others having tread these paths already, the process is speeding up in my experience. I'm seeing people (some in our own church) who are going through in one or two years the same process that has taken me nearly a decade. And I think the difference is that these newcomers have had the rest of us as tour guides along the way. My hope is that there will still be some who have the patience to serve this tour guide role as we move along.

BTW Paul, I agree with you that a convention needs to avoid the consumeristic mindset (though I thought they did a good job at the 2005 Nashville one I was at). However, I don't think the books are such a bad thing. For many they're the only way to connect into this conversation. Those of us blessed enough to live in a large urban area with a local cohort and high speed internet can connect more personally. But for folks in smaller cities or in rural areas there can be a drought of real emerging conversation. That's why I think books, conferences and conventions are still important. For such a far flung movement, they become an important connecting point.


At 10/08/2007 07:08:00 PM, Blogger Mike

Great post, Mike, and it was great to meet you last week.

I think you're hitting several nails on the head with this:

Cohorts are key, and your cohort is a true model of how to do both monthly conversations and more occasional events which provide an on-ramp for many of the ideas being discussed and practiced in the wider movement. Keep up the great work, and keep giving it away (via podcasts, etc.).

Large conferences are probably the best place for people to be introduced to both ideas (at plenary sessions) and relationships (in break-outs, and at meals and in lobbies). It's my understanding that more of these are on the way, and I'm pleased about this.

The Gathering is, I'm learning, best experienced as a relationship, and an encouragement toward engagement and expression by *all* in attendance. As such, it's probably not the best place to come to get started in the larger conversation. I agree that it works best in balance with the other two portals.

In general, I'd definitely vote for 'Trailblazers'. I think emergent should be unapologetically entrepreneurial -- that is its strength. As someone who isn't terribly entrepreneurial, and has felt the temporary-but-real discomfort that comes with engaging with an advanced conversation already-in-progress, I wholeheartedly endorse giving *everyone* freedom to push whatever boundaries they'd like, and to let the rest of us sort it all out. We can opt in for whatever we'd like, and opt out whenever we're being stretched too far. And we ought to be mature enough to do so with grace and love.


At 10/09/2007 01:30:00 AM, Blogger JamesMills

I think these are interesting questions but, from my perspective they are not all that important. Christian faith lived as a communal way of life is way too complex to divide into categories like "trailblazers" and "tour guides." There are many times when either of these options would be disastrous and we would be better of slowing down. listening, letting others take the lead, and being students and disciples. Likewise, at least in my own experience, living faithfully makes distinctions like "newbies" meaningless. It seems to me that the complexity of history prohibits us from framing the question in such narrow ways as:
should Emergent Village remain a connection point for newcomers to the emerging church conversation - a place for them to deconstruct, to be in process, to learn and to grow into these new ways of thinking - or should it become a network of leaders who are pushing the envelope and engaging in ever deeper conversations about theology, spirituality and ministry. Or is it somehow possible to do and be both
I suspect for the vast majority, Emergent Village does not fall neatly into either of these two options. In fact, as I read the question as posed I don't see the opposition between being in process/learning to grow on the one hand and pushing the envelope/engaging in deeper conversations on the other. Rather, I believe that there are numerous ways to connect to the friendship and engage in the conversation. For me it is not a question about can we do and be both, but can we transcend both and continue to find and embrace the multiple ways of carrying on the conversation among friends.

For me, the strength of the friendship/conversation is that it does not make claims to be any one thing (trailblazer, tour guide, answer man, heresy hunter, etc) but creates space for people to be faithful. The internal goods of the friendship/conversation are such that they create possibility to be much more than any narrow set of options.

As much as I love and support the Emergent Village conversation I do not concern myself too much with its future. For me, it is enough that in the present it is helping the church in all its multifaceted, pluriform expressions to be faithful. Books, conferences, events, cohorts and gatherings are all excellent and wonderful resources for people from all walks and stages of spiritual maturity but in the end, it is my hope that it is local churches that embody faithful Christianities as a communal way of life that will have the longest lasting impact. And I believe that Emergent Village is playing a large role in helping that.

Towards that end, I hope that Emergent Village continues to give itself away in various venues and various ways. I hope that it does not fall into the misguided illusion that it can develop--or has already produced--"leaders" who can guide us into the future. Instead, I hope that it continues to be a place of lifelong followers who live their lives as blessings, agents of God's redemptive work in the world, and ambassadors of reconciliation and in so doing illuminate the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.

When we start becoming too concerned with how much influence we can have or trying to mark out how much farther down the road we are than others we have made a wrong turn. The mark of spiritual maturity is not to be the first one down the path and hope that others someday catch up to us, but to be able to walk the path with others wherever we may find each other. We may find that when we create the possibility to genuinely connect with someone on the on-ramp we learn a lot more from them than they learn from us.

Just my two cents.



At 10/09/2007 10:20:00 AM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Good thoughts James and I largely agree. However, it strikes me that your attitudes are those of someone already within the emerging conversation. You are thinking about this the way an emerging "postmodern" person would. What I am concerned with is how people who are not already a part of the conversation experience it. For people who are used to modern ways of engaging, and are not familiar with the idea of "generative friendships" where it's okay for all of us to be at different points on the journey, I fear that the progressive extremes of the emerging conversation is causing them to think that unless they can embrace those extremes right away they are not welcome among us (or to fear that if they embrace some aspects of the EC then they are obliged to affirm all of it).

As much as we might like them to think about it differently, we have to face the fact that people coming from a Modern evangelical background are probably used to thinking in terms of black and white, statements of faith that must be adhered to by all, and have little experience with faith contexts where they have the freedom to disagree with the "leaders". And for such people to begin to change these patterns they will need to go through some of the same transformations that we have. Hence the Catch-22: ideally we would want them to be able to engage in the emerging conversation without first having to change, and yet most will not engage until they've undergone this change. My question then is whether we can find ways to (as you say) "give ourselves away" in such a way as to make it easier for people to first undergo this basic shift from authoritarian faith to conversational faith that will enable them to engage in conversation in the first place.


At 10/11/2007 04:21:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous

i'm not from the US, but my postgraduate study has been in organisational learning and cultural change. i'd suggest that any future shape needs to be designed in a way that means Brian et al will be able to learn from those who are coming in from the edge - and who may well have a perspective and wisdom that the emergent network needs to learn.

i think if those who are trailblazing are not in a space where they can hear and learn from others who are entering the emergent network, then they will inevitably become distant, removed and irrelevant. and i can't imagine any of them wanting that.

every person who enters the emergent network may be the herald of God's new thing... because God's always making something new...


At 10/11/2007 11:58:00 AM, Anonymous bob carlton

*****i tried commenting on this earlier in the week - the tubes of the internets must have swallowed it whole

A lot of the emerging church phenomenon in the states has been a lot like a bus terminal - a place to sorta safely wait between journeys, an open public space filled with outcasts & folks you generally do not run into, a liminal space (thank you alan roxburgh for popularizing turner's term)

In my POV, it is also, at times, a liminoid space. Liminoid experience substitutes group think, shared and engineered feelings, mass reassurance and group membership for any real or significant personal transformation. Much of the craven commercialization of this "niche" has been an example of this liminoid state.

Although I have not been able to check it out, two different scripture scholars have told me that Jesus is asked 183 questions directly or indirectly among the four gospels. Do you know how many of these he directly answers? Three! Jesus’ idea of church is not about giving people answers but, in fact, leading them into liminal and dark space, where they will long and yearn for God, for wisdom and for their own souls. This is itself -- and always has been -- the only answer.

I am certain that the em church phenomenon will die (or at best morph) - that is what the consumer culture that permeates churchianity does. What I hope is that emergent village follows the packs of outcats in tyhe u.k., new zealand & acanada who are much further down this road. I hope we reach out to build bridges with other packs on the margins of the giant hair ball that is churchianity - anabaptists, eco-feminist theologians, recovering Jesus people, Catholic religious orders.

*** now let's see if that gets thru - if not, I am gonna suspect emergent (tm) has a wicked email filter


At 10/11/2007 12:17:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Hi Bob,

Can you tell us more about what you're seeing in the UK, NZ & Canada that US emergents could learn from? You say they are further down the road? Where is that exactly? What does that look like?


At 10/12/2007 07:31:00 AM, Anonymous bob carlton

in canada,folks like jordon cooper, karen nuedorf, alan roxburgh & the resonate network
in the uk, the fresh expression experiments, greenbelt, the alt.worship crowd - peoppe like maggie dawn, jonny baker, sue wallace, tall skinny (andrew jones)
in new zealand, folks like mark person, cheryl & steve taylor


At 10/12/2007 10:47:00 AM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Yes I know who they are, but I'm wondering what is different about where they're at in the conversation than where we are?

For instance, I read Andrew Jones' blog fairly regularly, but I've yet to see anything too radically different there. In fact, I'd describe Andrew as slightly less progressive theologically than some of us here (not that there's anything wrong with that). He seems more interested in the "Reconstructionist" streams of the emerging church - dealing with forms and structures of church, and especially with the whole organic church/simple church thing. But he sometimes seems reluctant to push some of the theological boundaries that the rest of us are. (Again, nothing wrong with that if that's not his thing.)

Likewise, a lot of what I've seen on the UK side of things is the whole alt.worship movement (or what I call the "Relevants" stream). For instance, I loved Peter Rollins book for its apophatic theology and how he connected that to those amazing IKON services they do (perfect example of alt.worship), but it was also somewhat light on any mention of social justice or kingdom theology. (That's not to say it wasn't brilliant at what it did do.)

Anyhow, I'm probably over-generalizing and I don't mean to downplay the value of those contributions either. I'm just curious about what ways in particular you think folks in those places are "further down the road"? I confess that I don't have any first hand experience with any of them, so I'm not really sure what you mean.

Any specifics you can provide would be much appreciated. I'm curious to learn.


At 11/10/2007 02:45:00 PM, Anonymous cheryl

hi mike,
i'm from australia, so i'm not sure if that qualifies me to speak to Bob's point above... but from a personal perspective, when i first came across the US emerging church scene about 3 or 4 years ago the conversation about theology, justice and community all felt very familiar. it's interesting, but it's stuff we've been grappling with, in quite different ways, for a very long time. i wonder if, for many of the people in the UK and NZ, it's stuff they don't blog about because it's simply not a talking point anymore, it can 'go without saying'. For example, Brian McLaren's stuff is great, but i've read it in other forms from other people many times over. In many of the communities i work alongside it would be considered old news. Jonny Baker's review of Brian's latest book was great in explaining this.

I think there are still plenty of things those of us from elsewhere can learn from the US. i'm also sure there's much that the US can be learnt from the UK and NZ. Speaking as an australian who's been doing this for a while, i'm indebted to people from other countries who throw my own experiences into sharp relief. Luckily, we're not in some universal emerging church race to be the first ones past the post...

my passion is alternative worship - and i'm privileged to do it as a full time ministry. i'm interested to know what you mean by 'relevants' - have you got anything you've already written about that? i'd love to read it.

[just re-reading the above, aware of potential minefields - i know cultural nuances can trip these conversations up. this is not a criticism of you or the US...]


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