Thursday, July 14, 2011
The Wild Goose as a Sign of Hope

I know this is long overdue, given that the Wild Goose Festival ended nearly three weeks ago. However, since I was busy traveling home from it for half that time (took a detour through Michigan on our way back to Texas), and having been in a French class since getting back, I haven't really had time to sit down and process all this until now. I also know that it's weird to be posting something on this blog now when I haven't really posted here in nearly a year. However, since I don't really have any other place to publish this right now, and I do actually hope to revamp this blog a little bit and maybe even start using it again occasionally, here it is anyway.

For the small handful of my readers who may still not be aware of this event, the Wild Goose Festival was four-day festival held at Shakori Hills, North Carolina (on a rural property just 20 minutes south of Chapel Hill), that focused on justice, spirituality, music, and art. It was organized and sponsored by a broad circle of progressive Christian leaders and organizations, and attended by around 1200 evangelical, post-evangelical, emergent, mainline, and none-of-the-above Christians (and a few others from outside the Christian category as well). Basically it consisted of all of us camping together for a long weekend, surrounded by a non-stop program of speakers, panel discussions, music performances, worship opportunities, and innumerable informal conversations. All while battling the heat, the ticks, the sleep deprivation, the rambunctious children, and the water spigots that were waaayyy too far away from the actual camping areas.

By this point, dozens of others have already put up their own reflections, too many for me to link to here, though you can find a good collection of links here if you're interested in reading more. (You can also see some amazing photos of the event by Courtney Perry here.) From what I could tell, both from the vibe at the festival and reading through the recaps afterwards, it seemed that there were a lot of different festivals going on for the different folks there. That is, I think the Wild Goose was experienced differently depending on why one came to it in the first place, what one hope to get out of it, and especially what circles one was a part of beforehand. For me, the Wild Goose Festival was primarily an "emergent" event, since those were the people I knew and connected with there. For others, however, I think the Wild Goose was more of a neo-monastic event, or a Sojourners/social activist event, or an event for the more innovative types among the mainline traditions, or maybe, for some, just a Christian folk music festival with a few talks thrown in.

For me, however, the best part of the event was simply getting to reconnect with friends, both new and old. It was great how many of my Facebook-only friends became real-life acquaintances at the Wild Goose. It got to the point where whenever I met someone new I had to ask whether we were already "friends" online or not. Of course, since my wife and I were juggling the care of our two young children the whole time, we had very low-expectations about how many of the sessions we would get to actually attend, and our experience did not fail to live up to our expectation. In all, I only managed to actually sit in on a small handful of the talks offered, and eavesdropped on a couple more while keeping one eye attuned to my kids playing on the other side of the field. That was okay though. I'd wholeheartedly echo the sentiment of Michael Toy who put it to me this way, "I'm just here to hang out with my friends. If I happen to hear some of the content too, that's just a bonus."

What I did get to experience of the event, however, was fantastic. I loved hearing from and having the privilege of briefly sitting down with Civil Rights leader Vincent Harding (former speech writer for Martin Luther King, Jr.), as well learning from current Civil Rights activist Willie Barber, head of the North Carolina NAACP. Richard Twiss' session on being both a Native American and a Christian was excellent, and Bart Campolo's story about how and why he stopped being a semi-important evangelical leader had me nodding at the similarities between his own experience and mine (though I was never "semi-important"). It was also extremely refreshing to see a church planting panel consisting of three middle-aged women instead of a bunch of young, goateed, hipster guys. Overall, I loved the diversity at the event. Besides all the white male speakers (whom I know and love but have heard enough times before to know exactly what they were going to say), there were also plenty of options to hear from those who didn't exactly fit into the white, male or straight categories - and those were generally the sessions I sought out. Along those lines, I was also thrilled to get to hear Jennifer Knapp, one of my favorite Christian artists back in the day, perform again on stage. I loved how she just stopped in the middle of her set and so non-chalantly asked "So y'all know I'm a lesbian, right? Hope that doesn't make any of you uncomfortable." Followed by an invitation to the whole crowd to help he make an "It gets better" video.

Speaking of that, one of the things I loved most about the Wild Goose was how openly issues of sexuality and other controversial topics (universalism, for instance) were able to be talked about. Childcare duties prevented me from hearing most of the formal talks on these subjects, but throughout the festival there was no sense (that I could perceive) of avoiding such topics, or of being afraid to express a particular position on them (whether conservative or liberal). I had been a little apprehensive about this beforehand, since some of the sponsors and organizers were still mostly in the evangelical world, and I wasn't sure if this might prompt them to avoid or ignore such litmus-test type issues. Fortunately this was not the case. That alone tells me that a tipping point has been reached among progressive evangelicals - most of us are way past the point of caring whether the conservatives are going to condemn us for our opinions and are just going to say what we actually think regardless. As Bart Campolo put it, it's amazing how much freer you are to admit both to yourself and to everyone else what you actually think once your career and income no longer depend on believing a certain thing - and, with some exceptions, I think most Wild Goose attendees were already in that place of no longer needing the approval or money of the conservative evangelical world.

Indeed, I think the Wild Goose Festival as a whole represents a kind of tipping point for the progressive/emergent Christian movement that has been building over the past several decades. While it was in vogue a few years back to proclaim the "death" of the emerging church, what I think the Wild Goose Festival demonstrates is that the emerging movement was not dead but simply growing in less visible ways as the mainstream evangelical marketing machine moved on to the next fad. That in itself was not a bad thing, as it left those of us committed to genuine emergence free to go on building something more lasting and substantial sans the hype. The Wild Goose Festival was the coming together, finally, after more than half a decade without any sort of common, nationwide gathering, of all these many bubbling, swirling, converging and emerging efforts that have been taking shape across the whole spectrum of 21st century Christianity - the emergents, the activists, the radicals and new monastics, the burned-out on church/religion/Christianity but still in love with Jesus, the ones full of questions who simply want to know they're not the only crazy ones out there, as well as those who couldn't care less about the labels and the controversies but resonate with an approach to faith that is big enough for love and mystery and joy and diversity and passion and compassion and creativity. There is a new kind of Christianity growing in our midst in this country and around the world, and the Wild Goose Festival was not the creator of it, nor the culmination of it, nor, but merely a sign of its existence and vitality. The people who attended were but a small fraction of those around the country - pastors, professors, lay persons sitting in the pews of all kinds of churches, or those who have simply walked away from institutional Christianity altogether - who resonate with this approach to faith. Each person there represented dozens, if not hundreds more who would have liked to come but couldn't or didn't for various reasons. Next year I would be surprised if the Festival didn't double or even triple in attendees, and after that, who knows. I could be wrong, but in the years and even decades to come, its possible that we will see the Wild Goose Festival grow into one of the most significant gatherings in American Christianity. And that gives me hope - hope for the future of our faith and for the mission of God in the world.

BTW, here are links to all the other Wild Goose SynchroBloggers - this doesn't exhaust the totality of people reflecting on the Goose, but it's a healthy start.

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