I had a great time at the Midwest Emergent Convention in Chicago with my friend, Maurice Broaddus. Here’s a summary:
Friday: Tony Jones began the conference inviting us to move beyond the old categories (e.g., liberal, conservative) to describe emergent. This kind of language capitulates to modernity. Too often we define ourselves over against the other. He utilized two stories from Mark 9 to make his point. In the transfiguration, Peter desired to memorialize the event with three tabernacles. Jones taught that we often seek to memorialize events that change us. We create structures and rituals to hang on to them, but these fall short of the initial transforming event. In the following story of Jesus’ healing of a young boy, he emphasized the father’s prayer: “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.” Jesus does not chastise the man for his unbelief, but works a miracle anyway. All of us are a strange combination of faith and doubt. We must honor this.
Doug Pagitt followed by stressing that the important contribution of the addition of new people to a church does not make it bigger; it makes it different. We should value this change and transform with it. We should not hope to create the same outcomes with different mechanisms, but let the transformed congregation produce new outcomes. He also argued that the kingdom of God is bigger than the church and is active in the world even through people and organizations that have no explicit connection to the church. Therefore, we should not pit the kingdom of God against the world. The question: How can we support the kingdom of God in the world, even when it arises outside of conventional church ministries?
I attended Ivy Beckwith’s session on including children in the missional church. I’ve benefited greatly from her book, Postmodern Children’s Ministry, and wished to hear her personally. She argued that we should not simply translate others’ programs to our own local setting. Programs are successful because they develop out of an ethos of a particular church. Our programs should conform to our own congregation, and not that of others. We may discover transferable concepts from others’ programs, but we should not simply incorporate them without personalizing them to our church’s ethos. She highlighted three pieces that help in personalizing a children’s program to our church. First, family must be included. Family is where a child spends most of his or her time. Too often, our programs pull the family apart from the children as a means of attraction people to our church (e.g., “We have a great children’s program! You won’t need to worry about your kids, because we will take care of their spiritual formation.”) The challenge is to get families to realize their responsibility to their own children’s spiritual formation. This is not done by making parents into Bible scholars, but by helping them transfer their values to their children. Second, though the family plays a significant role, the faith community is also responsible for the spiritual formation of children. She suggested reading John Westerhoff’s Will Our Children Have Faith? Her main critique: Churches are good at doing things for children, but not as good at doing things with children. We must give kids the opportunity to participate in the intergenerational faith community. The third and final component is worship. Worship is a spiritual discipline – an act of spiritual formation. She quoted a rabbi who said, “There is no passing on of values without ritual. She also suggested checking out “Children at Worship.” Part of the problem of most Christian education programs is that they focus on an educational/school model rather than on a formational model. We are often great at education, but not great at creating people who love God and follow Jesus. She left us with the questions: What would a formational model look like? How can we make children inhabit and embody the biblical narratives. The point is not just to get across a moral or propositional truth, but to teach them how to live the Bible’s story. She suggested the Upper Room resource, The Way of the Child. We must include children in the worship of the church. Kids may be restless and draw in church, but that does not mean they are not participating. Since we would never exclude the handicapped for not understanding or making inappropriate noises, we should not do this with children either. Finally, she recommended the book Soul Searching, a sociological book of surveys of high-schooler’s faith.
In a moment of ironic bliss, Maurice and I went to lunch with Doug Pagitt, Tony Jones, Annie Gill-Bloyer, and John Armstrong! We all huddled in Doug’s rented vehicle and ate burritos together. What a blast!
In the afternoon, John Armstrong spoke as a friendly "outsider" to Emergent. I was particularly touched by his presentation. His spiritual journey is powerful and inspiring. He has experienced a lot of betrayal and rejection from those who once called him friend. And yet, he has weathered it all with grace, love, and compassion. And in the midst of this, continued to grow in the faith in ways that continue to impress. God bless you John! I'm glad you contributed to this event. Your wisdom and example are desperately needed. By the way, my favorite quote from John was: "I like ideas, but I love people. I'm not sure why so many pastors are in ministry who love their ideas more than people." [Note: John as recently posted about his experience at Emergent Midwest.]
Denise VanEck taught that community begins with mission. We cannot control community; we can only discover it in our midst. It begins with mission and not with intimacy. A platoon sergeant does not force all his unit to share the hearts, but rather, to share a mission. We cannot create community, only facilitate it. Like a guardrail on a mountainous road, we facilitate it with minimal guards.
In the evening Maurice and I skipped out of the evening session to see the new Harry Potter movie. Great fun!
Saturday morning I overslept and missed the first session. However, Maurice and I ate lunch with the main speakers, James King and Alise Barrymore, founding pastors of Emmaus Community in Chicago Heights, Illinois. We were joined by a couple of their staff. It was very inspiring to hear about their new church plant and how they use media in their teaching. They have three spaces from which people can participate in their service: an auditorium, a coffee shop, and a theater room. The live feed is pumped to the two latter spaces. Very creative and interesting!
Finally, Spencer Burke ended the conference with an empassioned presentation. I'm not sure what the main point was, but Spencer proved to be a captivating speaker. He comes across as winsome, energetic, and loving. (By the way, my favorite quote from the session was from Richard Rohr: "We spend the first 40 years of our lives building our tower - and then, we jump off.") Spencer takes a lot of flack for this book, The Heretic's Guide to Eternity. I myself have serious issues with this book. I guess many people have problems with his soteriology. I have no problems with this. In fact, I agree with him and may even go further. I have trouble with his ecclesiology, or better, lack of it. Anyway, I did find him incredibly charismatic. Again, I'm glad I was able to hear him and not just read his works, because I feel I would really like him personally, even though I believe his writing is a bit sloppy, to say the least.
Overall, I had a great time. I learned a little, but more than that, I made some great connections. And, I'm coming to discover, this may be the best reason to attend conferences like this.