I know realize just what the logic was in putting together the Emerging Church Conference Schedule. Day 1, featuring Phyllis Tickle, Brian McLaren and Richard Rohr, was the “Contemplation” day. Today, featuring Alexie Torres-Fleming and Shane Claiborne, complements yesterday by focusing more on “Action.” I felt a little underwhelmed by yesterday’s programming, mainly because I had done my homework and was quite familiar with what all the presenters had to say. Today, however, I got a clear sense of just how powerful this emerging new vision — of what it means to be church — can be.
The morning began with Alexie Torres-Fleming, a community organizer from the Bronx. Less polished and not as well known as the three speakers yesterday, she was for me (and I suppose for many of the attendees) an unknown figure. She pointed out that, unlike those who presented yesterday, she has written no books and has no college degree. But never mind that — she proved to be a dynamic speaker who told a simple and powerful story of growing up in the Bronx, leaving her neighborhood behind to pursue a successful corporate career in Manhattan, only to eventually return home — but this time to help all her friends and neighbors to begin to create real community and to address the blight of drug trafficking, violent crime, and environmental problems. Her message was as simple as it was powerful: while it may be tempting for those of us who enjoy a certain measure of socioeconomic privilege to feel good about all the “wonderful” things we’re doing under the aegis of “the Emerging Church,” we need to remain clear in our recognition that the Gospel mandates us to love and care for those who are different from us, and especially those who are poorer than ourselves. “We do not need to make the poor more like the middle class,” she pointed out. “The Gospel is not about us saving the poor. If anything, the poor save us.”
The afternoon session belonged to Shane Claiborne. Shane is the only person presenting at this conference whom I had actually heard speak before — like Phyllis Tickle, he delivers his presentation with a generous helping of down-home Tennessee charm. He spoke on the twelve characteristics of emerging communities, basically reviewing the “12 marks of new monasticism” that I first discovered in the book School(s) for Conversion. Emphasizing such qualities as peacemaking, hospitality, and embracing the “forgotten” corners of society, these twelve qualities functioned as a systematic reiteration of Alexie’s message. As a 1-2 punch, she and Shane basically delivered a clarion call for grounding our contemplative life in real efforts to make our faith make a difference.
One interesting theme that emerged throughout the conference: none of the presenters seemed to like the phrase “Emerging Church.” Several complained that this term suggested the formation of a new “form” of Christianity, as if a new sect or denomination were being born. Shane expressed it best when he joked that “Emerging Church” seemed to be a way of pigeonholing Christians under 40 who have new ideas. “Once you get put in this box, then nobody has to take you seriously any more,” he quipped.
Brian McLaren suggested it best when he opined that the Emergent Church is not like a new slice in the Christian pie, but rather a new ring on the trunk of the Christian family tree. It’s a new development — a new emergence — that encompasses all the pre-existing denominations and flavors of the church.
I’m struggling to figure out how I put contemplation and action together in my life. I’m certainly no hero of activism like Alexie Torres-Fleming or Shane Claiborne. And I’m not so sure that all of us need to be. My “activism” is very humble: trying to help people find the right book for their spiritual journey, making sure Rhiannon (and, by extension, Fran) is cared for, and slowly trying to simplify my/our life. It’s not dramatic, but I think it’s the kind of work that all of us need to be doing. And if it’s God’s will that tomorrow or next year I take on a more dramatic apostolate, I hope I have the grace to accept it when it comes my way.
Finally, just before dinner I had the chance to have brief conversations with both Richard Rohr and Brian McLaren. I told both of them about the book I’m working on and asked for their advice on what I most need to say when talking about Christian mysticism. Thankfully, their suggestions pretty much lined up with the direction I’m already taking the book. They’ve both agreed to read the manuscript once it’s done, which not only is very exciting for me, but which hopefully could translate in either some useful feedback I can use during the final editing process, and/or an endorsement (blurb) for the book itself. We’ll see.
So… to summarize: While day 1 of the conference didn’t necessarily blow my socks off, day 2 more than made up for it. Ironically, I have a clearer idea than ever of just what “the Emerging Church” is all about, even while I’m finding myself agreeing with the presenters that it’s not a particularly useful term. Rather than tag it with a label, let’s just say we’re all trying to live out the Christian life, in its contemplative and activist dimensions, as best we can. And once we make that commitment, the Holy Spirit is going to take us to some interesting places indeed.