Open Conversation: Friendships & Movements

Open Conversation: Friendships & Movements January 31, 2013

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote critically about a meeting of Emergence Christianity folks that happened in Memphis in advance of Phyllis Tickle’s national book event.  I want to clarify a few things.

I LOVE the emergent movement and it’s the only reason I am a practicing Christian again, (nothing short of a miracle here.) I’m blessed by this body of work and by the friendships I have made here. It is, as a friend tells me a “generative conversation,” (emergent movement speak for a mutually beneficial conversation where we grow in relationship to ourselves and each other.)  It’s knocked me off my booty and made me work, spiritually, emotionally and physically for my life to become more a series of expressions of love and justice.  As an activist I am renewed by this work and I see it as the organizing home for my spiritual activism. I am a loyal lover of this thing we call the Emergent Movement/Conversation and I love all of our people, even ones I disagree with.

SO, to anyone out there who is opportunistic enough to use my loving and constructive criticism to my emergent brothers and sisters, against individuals in Emergence Christianity,  know that you are WAAAAY out there and off having “adventures in missing the point.” The open emergent conversation I am engaged in, is non-violent, loving, respectful and not in any way intended to hurt anyone.

I am also a lover and practitioner of social movements. I must confess that my analysis and methods come from decentralized, anti-authoritarian movement organizing.  We believe the means and the end need to be in alignment. We practice our shared values in our organizing and we hold each other accountable.

So to model the shared values I see in this movement, in a transparent way, I want to make a few corrections to the narrative of the meeting in Memphis as I wrote it.

1- There were 35 people at the meeting, not 50.
2- I am told that despite any confusion, Phyllis Tickle DID indeed convene the meeting.
3- I do not believe the intention of the meeting was to exclude people, but to create a safe space for a limited group to talk about their personal relationship to Emergent church organizing.
4- I do not believe it was meant to be a decision making body about the wider movement’s future.
5- I apologize if I hurt anyone’s feelings or led anyone to think poorly of the organizers of that meeting. Those guys have been throwing emergent events successfully for years.

Having said all this, I still want to discourage folks from invitation-only organizing. It creates a hierarchy based on accessibility, which in this community seem to be based on, well, friendships. I’m not knocking friendships, just wondering about the limitations of friendship based organizing.

One of the things I have noticed as an outsider coming into this conversation in the past two years is the dynamic between “outsiders” encountering the code of “insiders” in the movement.  (Sorry for the dualistic language here – I agree it can be problematic.) A way I see this showing up is in this idea of “friendships.”  There is a code among many of the of the veterans of this movement that is about letting the work evolve out of authentic, organic friendships. That’s actually pretty lovely, and part of what attracted me to the emergence church is its relational focus. The problem with organizing based on friendships, is when you aren’t friends with the movers and shakers who are organizing. We don’t need a social movement to work for love and justice with our friends. That’s what communities are for.  If we only to work with our friends, we can do that.  But the danger of doing so is finding that we are down a deep rabbit hole of agreement and that we may not see how disagreement isn’t being practiced. Disagreement is common to diversity and to movements.

Now I value my Emergent network friendships, deeply.  But I also really value the voices of dissent, and even those that come from people I don’t even like. Not everyone in this movement is going to share the same code of behavior, not if we are open and inclusive. We CAN organize for justice and radical love actions on the planet with people that we are NOT friends with.  We CAN even strive to treat everyone as a friend, but this means learning how to disagree, finding common ground among diverse styles and moving forward together.  And if we are being the movement we wish to see in the world, we are going to encounter people with other codes.

Anthony Smith’s recent video blog is entitled Spiritual Friendship.  He asks a wonderful question, “Are you engaging in friendship with others, people who may be different than you?”  How about taking another step further and engaging in friendships with people who actually disagree with you? How do we move forward with people who don’t consider us friends?  How do we work with people we don’t even like?

I would like to put forth an alternative organizing style. In direct action movements, we call it affinity. Small groups are called Affinity Groups. Merriam Webster defines them as a “group of people having a common interest or goal or acting together for a specific purpose.”  The group is characterized by common action and a specific purpose. There is certainly agreement built into this definition, but if you hang around affinity groups, you will see they are not solely bound by friendship.  I’ve been taken care of by medics, represented in the media, and released from jail by affinity group members who were not my friends. But in the streets, at press conferences and at courthouses, those people had my back whether they liked me or not!  We CAN be allies to one another despite our differences.

Brian McLaren is teaching social movement theory, throwing out the possibility of this  emergent conversation one day transforming into powerful social action. He’s throwing out the idea of Jesus as the founder and leader of a social movement (which simultaneously had me in tears and with a fist in the air) and defining church as institutions, communities and movements. He’s challenging us to look at ourselves, in part as a movement. This is an exciting time in history to be alive and as Phyllis Tickle teaches us, we are a part of a greater emergence. Why wouldn’t Christians lend their collective energy to the wider efforts to DO something about poverty and the hosts of social and environmental issues causing suffering on the planet?  Can the Emergent conversation become a movement for powerful social change and transformation?

I’ve recently had a series of Google+ hangouts with a new Emergent friend I have never met in person but have engaged in a series of “generative conversations’ with via video chat.  We share a common interest in movement building.  Sometimes another friend calls in and we chat about how the Emergent movement functions. We’ve been talking about the process of how we interact as a conversation or a movement.  We’ve been coming up with a list of questions we can ask ourselves to determine if those who engage in this conversation, wish to become a social movement.  We’re beginning to engage people in this open conversation this Tuesday February 5th and the discussion will be broadcast live on YouTube. We invite you to take part in any capacity you might feel called.

OPEN CONVERSATION: Emergent Movement Building 101 this Tuesday Evening 2/5 at 8ET/5PT                                                               Google Plus Hangout on Air  –  Live on Sogo Media TV on YouTube

The first 10 joiners in the Google+ Hangout will be on camera on the live stream. (The Google+ Hangout Link will be posted on the Emergent Village FB group at 7ET/4PT.) Participants will be asked to agree to communicate non violently with grace and love, no interrupting, and to consciously leave space for others.

Everyone else is invited to watch and participate via chat comments on YouTube:

We will be referencing this video on the hangout/livestream (interview with Brian McLaren on social movement theory), so please watch this in advance: (from 1:08 to 10:50)

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  • Holly – This sentence gave me chills. Not sure why … yet.
    “We CAN organize for justice and radical love actions on the planet with people that we are NOT friends with.”
    I feel the presence and movement of the Spirit so strongly in all of this, it makes me weep … in a good, a really good, way.
    Not sure what radical love means for where my wife and I are headed, but there is an excited little boy inside me that can’t wait to find out.

    • Jim – your comment made me weep in return. I feel the very same. I would love to stay in touch on this journey!

  • Steve, this is music to my ears…a whole dadgummed symphony, in fact! I won’t be able to join the conversation next Tuesday per se; but I’ll sure be in behind it on Wednesday, trying to play catch-up. In any event, God bless you…and I mean that as a serious prayer: God bless you….p

  • Dear Steve,
    I do not know whether I will be able to attend your open conversation “hangout” next Tuesday, but I am glad you are hosting it.
    When I received my invitation to the Emergence Christianity conference, I emailed Phyllis Tickle, whom I consider a friend and fellow traveler, told her I thought I would be coming, and asked if there was any way I could be of assistance while I was there. Her response came as a bit of a surprise: “It’s not really ‘my’ event. You’ll need to talk with the organizers.” Which is fine, BTW… I just wanted to assure you that any confusion you had about who was doing the inviting was not entirely unwarranted.
    I deeply love and appreciate the “emergence” movement. I believe it carries within its “DNA” many of the “genes” of the Jesus Movements of the early Church. I also believe that it is a constant temptation for those who participate in Spirit-called/guided (ekklessia) movements to slowly and perhaps even unconsciously reshape them them from emergent, centered-set organisms into less emerent, boundaried-set organizations. It’s just human (fallen) nature: our needs to organize ourselves for certainty, security, and control can easily overpower our willingness to be guided by the Spirit in the more organic (and emergent) ways of faith, hope, and love. As another friend and mentor, Jane Holmes Dixon, once put it, human nature being what it is, and sin being what it is, if Christ-followers are not careful, “whenever two or three are gathered, they will soon be trying to figure out how to exclude a fourth.”
    If we do not remain discerning, self-critical, and attentive to and vigilant against our own “us/them” tendencies, and if we do not continue to intentionally break down our barriers and or transcend our differences, “we risk the suppression of our emergent DNA in favor of becoming just another brand of organized religion.

  • Charis Varnadore

    Finally, perhaps someone will agree with my contention that we need a new vocabulary as well; anytime I see the word “LEADER” in reference to anything Christian,especially within the Emergent Movement, I can not help but wonder if the people that use it are reading the same Gospel as I am…Additionally, Phyllis Tickle is the most inspiring and focused speaker I have encountered in all my journeys on the Web. Thank you… Charis