Monday, May 23, 2005
The Emergent Convention 2005

So we're back from the Emergent Convention in Nashville. It was a great time of connecting with others who share our views and passions, of learning together in discussion, and of hearing from authors and leaders whom we greatly respect.

Some of the highlights included General Session "blessings" (as opposed to a sermon or a talk) by Phyllis Tickle. She told us stories of the Melchizedek, of Moriah, and of the Brazen Serpent, and made the Old Testament narratives come alive in a new way.

There was a great irony to our General Sessions in their simplicity. We didn't have extended times of high-energy contemporary worship (there were later off-site options for different types of worship experiences), and there weren't all the lights and video effects that you typically expect with a Youth Specialties event, nor did they have the dog and pony show of performers and comedians that other conventions have. The planners of this event rightly recognized that most of us who identify with Emergent would view a lot of that stuff as inauthentic and out of place with Emergent's values. So instead, we had a simple stage with a very basic sound system and screen and projector. And it was perfect for us.

The irony is that this convention met concurrently with the National Pastors Convention, also put on by YS and Zondervan. Now, some people have a misguided stereotype of the emerging church, that it is just all about coffee and candles and "cool". In other words, that all this whole thing is really about is changing the aesthetics of worship, i.e. that it's simply a new ministry method for attracting young people to the church. Of course, while that's a small part of this, and is in fact what a good number of attenders at the Emergent Convention think it's all about, it's not really at the heart of what the emerging church really is about. As Brian McLaren put it, the heart of emerging church is really just a rediscovery of the gospel of the kingdom of God (i.e. "the kingdom of God is among you") as opposed to what Dallas Willard calls "the gospel of sin-management" (i.e. "believe in Jesus so you can be forgiven of your sins and go to heaven after you die"). Anyhow, the irony was that while most people would expect the Emergent Convention to have the hip, exciting worship, and the Pastors Convention to be more "traditional", in fact the reality was that while us young, supposedly "hip" emergent types were sitting in a sparsely decorated room listening to a 70-year-old woman tell us bible stories, she was almost being drowned out by the vibrations coming from the drums from the contemporary worship bands playing for all the baby boomer, dockers and plaid shirt Pastors up the hall at the NPC's General Session!

That dichotomy between emergent as "worship style evangelism to 'postmodern' young adults" and emergent as a whole new approach to theology and the life of the church was probably one of the most noticable themes of our experience at the convention. I could tell that there were some people there who thought it was all about style and seemed somewhat disconcerted to find that an emergent ethos ran much deeper than that (they weren't ready for questions about the nature of truth or about how we read and understand scripture). Brian McLaren, probably the most influential voice in the Emergent conversation listed for us during his seminar on the past and future of Emergent seven questions that are driving this whole emerging church conversation.

1. What is theology? Absolute system? Narrative, missional conversation?
2. What is the gospel? Atonement? Kingdom?
3. What is Scripture for? How should it be understood and used?
4. What should we expect for our future? (i.e. Eschatology) Evacuation? Progress? Struggle?
5. What is God like? Deterministic? Triune Community? Angry? Love?
6. What is our mission? How do we seek justice?
7. How do we spiritually form authentic disciples and communities of disciples?

While I wholeheartedly affirm that these kinds of questions are at the heart of what the emerging church is all about, personally I think I'd also add at least two other
questions that, at least for me, have been wrapped up in this journey:

8. How should we think about holiness and morality? Are specific ethical commands absolute and unchanging, or is the command to love God and love others something that must be applied contextually and uniquely to each different situation and cultural setting?
9. How are Christians to relate to the wider culture? Avoidance? Domination? Uncritical embrace? Constructive dialogue?

Besides hearing McLaren speak several times about the vision at the core of Emergent (at the final session he presented Emergent's new "order" or communal commitments), I was also blessed this past week to hear from Doug Pagitt , pastor of Solomon's Porch, an emerging church in the Twin Cities. His book Reimagining Spiritual Formation has been a huge inspiration for me in describing the kind of church that I want to plant someday soon. The book describes a week in the life of Solomon's Porch, and I had the privilege of hearing Doug talk more in depth about the book and the church. I also talked briefly to Doug in person, and he invited me to come and visit the Porch sometime and offered to sit and talk with me over a meal about the specifics of how they got the church off the ground and the challenges they've faced along the way. Now I just have to figure out a time that I could possibly make a trek up to the Twin Cities.

This convention was also a very relaxing and refreshing time spiritually. One night Julie and I just sat in the hotel lounge enjoying some live jazz music. Other nights I was able to go and relax in the hot tub and meet other interesting convention-goers. Another great experience was the Taize service they offered as one of the off-site worship options. Taize is a form of contemplative worship started by a monastery in France, that has caught on in popularity (especially among young people) like wildfire across Europe and even here in the States. It essentially consists of a series of simple sung latin phrases (e.g. Confitemini Domino, Adoramus te Domine, Laudate omnes gentes, Veni Sancte Spiritus, Kyrie eleison) alternating with times of silence and scripture reading. The total effect, combined with the setting within a beautiful Episcopal cathedral in downtown Nashville, was amazing. I felt such a sense of calm and peace. I have to admit that I usually find these kind of ancient contemplative forms of worship more spiritually meaningful and edifying to me than most of the loud, high-energy contemporary worship styles so common today in evangelical circles. (Not saying that either is "right or "wrong"... just that I personally prefer one over the other.)

Anyhow, the whole week was a great experience and I'm glad we went, especially since this is going to be last convention of it's kind for the near future. Emergent has gone separate ways from Youth Specialties (who has the resources to put on a convention like this), so over the next two years or so they're going to be doing several smaller, more intimate gatherings rather than one big annual convention. With any luck, perhaps Julie and Emma and I will be able to make it to one of those as well.
posted by Mike Clawson at 11:33 PM | Permalink |


At 5/24/2005 02:40:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous

Welcome back.

I am glad to hear that the conference went as it did. Very cool.


At 5/25/2005 10:06:00 AM, Blogger A. Monk

I found your comments on listening to someone tell Old Testament stories fascinating. It doesn't fit the "hip" stereotype of emergents, but I think this is b/c it really hits at something much deeper than a perceived drive for relevance.

"And in the end, we arrive back at the beginning, and know the place for the first time. - T.S. Elliot"

This quote, IMO, hits closer to home for the emergent phenomenon. Wearied and worried by the frenetic life of modern America which has seeped into the church, they are looking to rediscover
Christianity before it was "relativized/relevantized".

It's homesickness, and an old lady telling stories resonates with this.


At 5/25/2005 10:25:00 AM, Blogger Mike Clawson

You know, it's interesting, but I don't think I heard a single person use the term "relevance" or "relevant" at this Emergent Convention. Nor did I hear anyone talking about "reaching a postmodern culture". But then, I didn't go to Dan Kimball's or Todd Hunter's seminars...

There is a huge difference between those who still think this is just an evangelistic method and those who think it's a shift in our whole way of being Christian.


At 5/26/2005 07:09:00 AM, Blogger A. Monk

" I don't think I heard a single person use the term "relevance" or "relevant" at this Emergent Convention "

I wasn't very clear on this point. In the first paragraph I was referring to the perspective of those on the outside looking in on the emergent community when I mentioned "hip" and "perceived drive for relevance." I did not mean that that is how emergents view themselves. I hope this makes more sense.

God's blessings on you and your wife in your newest church planting endeavors.


At 5/26/2005 11:05:00 AM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Don't worry, I understood what you meant. I was just adding my comments in support of what you had said.



At 5/31/2005 09:51:00 AM, Blogger Sivin Kit

I liked the way you captured what Emergent is and how the convention went. Thanks


At 5/31/2005 12:34:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous

that's a really helpful review. thanks!