As the main coordinator for the Chicago area Emergent cohort, up/rooted, and as a member of the National Cohorts Team, I was one of the primary behind-the-scenes volunteers for the event, rounding up a dozen or so other volunteers to help with driving Brian and his team around Chicagoland, and staffing the bookstore. This meant that I got to show up early on Friday about 6 hours before the conference started and just hang out and pitch in as needed. This gave me plenty of time to chat with friends like Rebecca and meet some interesting new people like Tommy from Cafe Justo, a developer of Fair Trade coffee co-ops in Mexico and Haiti.
Once the conference got under way that evening I was able to connect with many more friends, so many it was hard to keep up: Sarah and Ryan Notton from the Indianapolis cohort, who were our partners in pulling off the Midwest Emergent Gathering this past summer; Chad Farrand from the Mid-Michigan Emergent cohort; Helen Mildenhall, a blog and conference buddy who lives here in Chicago; Bill Yaccino from Catalyst and Wedding Pastors USA; Linnea and Jo, Brian's tour coordinators whom I've been working with for months now, but only just met in person this weekend; even a couple of friends from my old conservative Baptist church, one of whom used to be in my youth group (I guess I corrupted him ;-)! I was also glad that several people from my own church were able to be there, even though Oak Park was a good hour and a half from Yorkville during rush hour.
Another highlight of the conference for me was the Saturday morning Q&A session with Brian that he did specifically for cohort people and church planters (though given that over 50 people showed up, most of whom I didn't recognize, I'm doubtful that this limitation was sufficiently communicated). Brian answered a wide range of questions, including why institutions aren't all bad, how evangelicals effectively use labels like "liberal" to marginalize voices like Brian's and why the decline of mainline denominations has more to do with increased college attendance rates and less to do with their "liberal" theology or "dead ritualism".
The sessions on Saturday were great, especially the point when Brian responded directly to comments made by Mark Driscoll (though Brian didn't name names) about Jesus being a "prize fighter with a tattoo down His leg, a sword in His hand and the commitment to make someone bleed." In contrast Brian shows how the New Testament presents Jesus as bringing peace and salvation not through the sword but through a commitment to let his own blood be shed. Whereas Driscoll says "I cannot worship a guy I can beat up", Brian reminded us that Jesus did let us beat him up, and that it was precisely though this non-violent act of love that the character of God's Kingdom was fully demonstrated.
Brian also had an excellent panel discussion later that morning with some local Chicagoans who were involved in various ministries connected to the issues Brian was addressing this weekend. I was especially impressed with Lynne Hybels, wife of Bill Hybels, the founding pastor of Willow Creek Community Church. She just told her story, and it turns out that she had gone through a very similar process of questioning and re-evaluating her faith that many of us emergent folks have, and was helped by Brian's books in the same way that many of us have as well. She described finding renewal of her faith by meeting Jesus in two new ways: 1) as a lover/resting place for her soul, and 2) as a social revolutionary. This combination of both the contemplative/mystical, and social activism is a common stream for many people, and it's encouraging to know that the leaders of one of the most influential churches in the nation are moving in this direction and consider people like Brian a friend and major influence.
Throughout the weekend we were also given opportunities to meditate and reflect on an artistic interpretation of the poetry of Denise Levertov entitled Nude Truths (done by the sisters Mary Ylvisaker Nilsen and Kristi Ylvisaker). I found this to be an excellent way to process some of the things we were hearing and thinking during the conference. I appreciated that Brian and Linnea took time to incorporate these sorts of experiences into what was ultimately a very short event, rather than just cramming it full of content.
That being said, I was rather disappointed that more time wasn't spent focusing on specific ways that we can bring about the kind of change that is necessary in the world. Because the panel discussion ran long, Brian was left with only about 20 minutes to run through seven diverse and complex ways that we can help change the world, which was not nearly enough time to let it really sink in or to engage with the possibilities. Personally I would have devoted at least an entire session to the question.
Hopefully we'll make up for it though in the upcoming weeks as our up/rooted cohort meets in several different places around the city to follow up on the ideas presented at the conference and to talk about how to actually put them into practical action. We had an overwhelming response at our cohort sign-up table this weekend. Over 40 people signed up for more info about up/rooted, and I think we'll also be able to help start a Southeast Wisconsin Cohort and an Evanston branch of up/rooted as well (not to mention re-starting our up/rooted.south branch down in the Joliet-Mokena-Tinley Park area.) As the official Emergent Village rep, I got to do a short presentation on cohorts during one of the conference sessions as well as host a lunch discussion about cohorts for those interested, and probably the best part of the whole conference for me was simply chatting and connecting with all those new people who were excited to meet others in their area who have been thinking in similar ways about their faith recently. As we repeated many times during the conference, "you're not the only crazy one out there!"
If you haven't yet attended the Tour, and can make it to Seattle this weekend, or Kansas City, New York City, or Goshen IN in the next month, I'd definitely recommend signing-up.
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