Highlights from the Emerging Christianity Event in Fort Worth

On the same weekend that the “Outlaw Preachers” were gathering in Memphis, I was part of a very different conference in Fort Worth, Texas.  Held on the campus of Brite Divinity School (at Texas Christian University), we didn’t have nearly as many tweets at Emerging Christianity, but we did have a big room full of folks who are very interested in the Emergence of Christianity in the 21st century.  In fact, the president of the divinity school introduced the event by saying that there’s no question he’s asked more often than, “What’s the deal with the emerging church?”, a comment that jibes with Brian McLaren’s post that the talk of the ECM’s demise may be a bit premature.

The conference was organized by my friends at Life in the Trinity Ministry in Dallas.  Here are my highlights of the various talks:

Brian McLaren opened on Friday night with thoughts from his latest book, talking in particular about the various gospels that are presented to us at this point in history.  Given the six different gospels from which we have to choose, Brian said, how about we choose the one that will establish love and peace as fundamental to our faith?

I then gave some dispatches from the landscape of the emergent movement.

And Richard Rohr closed the evening with a talk in which he reflected on what he’d heard from Brian and me; particularly interesting was his take on the emergence of the Catholic church in past historical periods.

The next morning, Richard gave part two of his talks in which he argued against dualistic thinking and encouraged us to move into a mode of “non-dual thinking.”

Suzanne Stabile, co-founder of Life in the Trinity Ministry, gave a wonderful talk about living in the liminal spaces of life, in the tragedies and discomfort, as the only real way to grow into the comfortable spaces.

After lunch, Brian gave a new talk in which he compared the predicament of the mainline church to that of the U.S. Postal Service.  I’ve seldom heard Brian be s0 pointed in his challenge to the mainline church to respond — and respond quickly — to its own narrative of collapse.  He made no bones about what he thinks should be done, and that includes closing churches that are sucking resources, and channeling what remains in the coffers to new and innovative works.

I gave another talk, this one about thinking of a congregation as the site of a communal hermeneutic, then Phyllis Tickle gave one of the best talks I’ve hear her give, weaving through the history of emergences over the last 2,500 years.  Honestly, it was a thing to behold.  I don’t know if she took a breath over the course of 75 minutes.

There were, of course, other offerings in the room, including panel discussion, music, etc.  But a particular highlight of mine was meeting and growing in friendship with Ted Swartz.  I’d seen Ted from a distance for many years, as he performed with his now-deceased partner as Ted & Lee.  Now performing as Ted and Company, he came to this conference just to see what would happen, and I think what happened was magic.  First, in the youth ministry pre-conference workshop, Ted hung out and helped me put flesh on some of the ideas that I was presenting.  Then, in the conference itself, Ted invited me to play opposite him two different times in scripts that he’s written.  One was from, I’d Like to Buy an Enemy, a show that I’d really like to see in its entirety (and that you can bring to your church or conference).

Another highlight was discovering that Zach Lind was in the metroplex, playing a show Saturday night at the Verizon Theater.  Through a series of texts and tweets, Zach ended up coming over for the Saturday afternoon session and meeting Richard Rohr, one of his favorite authors — he even surreptitiously shot this twitpic of Richard.  Later that night, Courtney and I swung by the the theater, had a beer with Zach, and watched a bit of the Smashing Pumpkins set from backstage.

Finally, Courtney and I had a leisurely brunch with Phyllis on Sunday, introducing her to the wonder that is the michelada.  Below is a Courtney Perry hipstamatic shot of Phyllis and yours truly plotting goodness.

Thanks to everyone who played a role in a great weekend!

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  • Regina

    Great conference! So how do we continue to foster these conversations within our churches? I know it would be great if we could all afford to bring in the fablous speakers from this weekend. Although that sometimes is not a reality. Suggestions?

  • Scot Miller

    Nice to finally meet you!

  • Thanks for the recap, Tony! Very inspiring.

  • Alice

    Thanks for the update.

    Tony, where did you first get the idea of the frontiers explorer as a parallel? Very curious, as I’ve come across it elsewhere too.

  • I was impressed with just about everything I head and left feeling very inspired, but like Regina, wished there had been a mechanism to network the attendees. For example, I coordinate a group that sponsors a Good Friday Walk every year to focus on Jesus’ teachings on a day we Christians focus on his death alone. I’d like to know what others are doing and how we can combine efforts and support each others’ work. I appreciate your reminder, Tony, about Journey Dallas, and did finally have an opportunity to meet several people from City Church in Dallas.

    As for tweeting, I wanted to but no wi-fi for participants, accelerating my compulsion to add an iPhone to my tech needs, while “when the young man heard this, he went away sad, for he had many possessions” echoes in my head.

  • @Regina and Kim – Here are a few suggestions I would make for following up and fostering these conversations in our churches:

    + Connect with networks such as Emergent Village (http://www.emergentvillage.com/) and TransFORM (http://www.transformnetwork.org/) that are sharing news and links to resources to continue the conversation. Follow on Twitter, subscribe to the RSS feeds, register on the sites as members, etc.

    + Participate in other smaller events and regional conferences, including local Emergent cohort groups that are meeting all over the country, possibly somewhere near you. There are more and more events being planned all the time and therefore more and more opportunities to connect with others around the emerging church conversation. (Of course, there are also larger, national gatherings being planned as well – such as the Wild Goose Festival in June 2011 – which will be great opportunities to gather in a larger setting, as well.)

    + Organize a book discussion group in your church. There continue to be great books published that shed light on different facets of the ongoing emerging church conversation. Grab one of these books and get a group together to meet and read through a book and discuss it together. Create a safe, open, liminal space in your church to ask these questions and foster this conversation right in your own community.

    + Subscribe to publications that are fostering this conversation in print and online – such as GENERATE (http://www.generatemagazine.com/) and Conspire (http://www.conspiremagazine.com/).

  • Kenton

    Great conference, and great to see you and everybody else too!

  • I’d agree with closing churches that need are sucking resources – or maybe better stated reconfiguring them to be simpler and requiring less. Which, of course, every church could probably afford to do in some way.

  • John Edmonds

    Almost every time there’s some kind of Emergent event or YouTube post, or audiocast someone is complaining.

    Example: “After lunch, Brian gave a new talk in which he compared the predicament of the mainline church to that of the U.S. Postal Service. I’ve seldom heard Brian be s0 pointed in his challenge to the mainline church to respond…”

    If I were Presbyterian, Methodist, or Baptist it would get old when every event was punctuated with complaints about Catholicism.

    Here’s an idea if you know the direction that Christianity should go, then go that way, and do church the “right” way. However, it is a free country where you can spend your time complaining about other people doing what you don’t like.

  • John Edmonds: do I understand you correctly, it bothers you that emerging church types (seem to) complain about mainline churches too much?

    While it is a certainty that neither Brian nor Tony need me to defend them, I will say this: as one who was raised in a mainline protestant church (American Baptist) and is serving as pastor in another (UMC) and who finds affinity with much that comes out of emerging church authors and events…I do not hear them attacking other churches nearly so much as they are responding to attacks on themselves.

    I was at the conference in Ft. Worth that Tony recaps here. As Tony writes, Bright’s president set this conference up to answer questions like “what’s this emerging church stuff about?” I don’t know how one answers that question without spending at least some time comparing emerging church ways with other ways of being church. (yes, I know that ignores the truth that there is no such monolithic thing as “the way” of emerging church…)

    Yes, McLaren did indeed offer a “pointed challenge” to mainliners. But that came after McLaren spent some time describing what mainline denoms do well!

    At the time Brian was giving this talk I tweeted wondering what Tony thought of all the pro-denomination stuff Brian said. Tony thought I was being snarky (and I probably was, at least a little), but I’d still love to hear Tony’s response to what Brian said. Is there any hope of redeeming mainlines? Or is a “Fight Club”-style total reboot of the entire system the only way forward? Most days I feel like the latter is the sad answer. But I long for the former to be true.

    One more thing, I honestly do not remember hearing any single anti-Catholic statement. Father Richard Rohr was one of the speakers, for goodness’ sake. Perhaps that’s happened elsewhere, but not here to my knowledge.

  • John Edmonds

    I’m not saying the Emergent Movement is anti-Catholic. I give another example I think Missionary Baptists are a break away from the SBC over communion issues (I think, I’m not sure, just an example). Missionary Baptist don’t dominate their theological content talking about how the SBC does things wrong, or right.

    Emergent events, talks, etc. are dominated with complaining. Almost every piece of media I come across with Emergent leaders talking there’s complaining about the “other.”

    That is what I meant when I said it would get old going to a UMC always complaining about Catholicism. Any Protestant church dominated by complaining about Catholicism would get old, quick.

    EM is DOMINATED by complaining.

  • John, your critique seems to be based on a pre-judgment, not the actual facts of what happened at the event. Dave was there (I was not), so he is probably the best judge of whether the atmosphere was one of complaint or not. Is the presence of any critique mean that the event is poisoned with “complaining”? I hope not. Critique is part of a healthy dialogue about change.

    As Dave said earlier, “Yes, McLaren did indeed offer a ‘pointed challenge’ to mainliners. But that came after McLaren spent some time describing what mainline denoms do well!” So to say this particular conversation/conference (or that the emergent movement as a whole) is “DOMINATED by complaining” seems like a pretty wild over-generalization.

  • nathan

    a lovely irony is to be found in complaints about the perceived dominance of complaining…

  • John Edmonds

    Another biopsy of the EM:

    “Evangelical Manifesto” of 2008 shows, theology in that context tends to be about building walls to determine who is “in” and who is “out.” Our goal is not to exclude…


    A large cross section of EM content defines itself by criticizing other churches. Without mainline churches the EM would have no host for its identity. It seems parasitic.

    Assemblies of God, Church of Christ, Methodists, etc.., don’t have to have another church movement to form their identity. EM should be able to move past their critique of mainline churches when engaged in their spiritual journey.

  • I really wish I could have been there. You should have the next conference in Kansas City.

  • I think I see where John is going, here. There’s a parallel in American Anglicanism–so-called Anglican churches that broke away from The Episcopal Church (TEC) often continued to define themselves in terms of their critique of TEC rather than pursuing their own identity. What I see now that the Anglican Church North America has formed and is effectively it’s own province/denomination, is that there is less of a tendency to focus on why TEC is wrong. But that’s only since they started their own party.

    Emergent is a bit different but I think there’s that same feeling: if you aren’t happy with mainline churches, start your own church and let the mainline folks go about their business. This is where it’s different because EC isn’t about starting a denomination. I’m just saying, I see where John is going with this.

    And I do wonder…is Emergent primarily about reforming the mainline church or is it about doing something totally different, unrelated to what mainline churches are doing?

    I wish I had been there to hear the broader context of Brian’s suggestion to close certain churches down. What sort of churches do we mean, here? The small? The poor? The old? The culturally irrelevant? I honestly don’t know.