July 24, 2007 / David Fitch

Notes from Two Conferences in One Week: EkklesiaProject and Emergent Midwest

Last week was a busy week for conferences (plus I officiated a wedding). The EkklesiaProject Conference was Mon-Tues-Wed and the Emergent Midwest Gathering was Fri-Sat. Here are some highlights from Ekklesia first.

The Ekklesiaproject conference focused on Learning Christ – Congregational Formation. Stephen Fowl spoke to us out of Phillipians. He translated Phil 1:27 as “Do this one thing: order your common life in a manner worthy of the gospel.” He said this verse is the centerpiece – the punch line for the entire epistle. Fowl said this is the task Paul gives the Phillipians and it is one the primary tasks Paul leaves the church of the 21st century. The rest of the epistle is unfolding communal practices of imitation in becoming like Christ as set around the pivotal Phil 2:5-11. He put forth a wonderful insight out of Phil 3:15 “Let as many of us as are mature display this way of thinking, feeling and acting. If any of you are inclined to adopt a different pattern of thinking, feeling and acting, God will reveal to you the proper mindset to adopt.” He said that last phrase illustrates the difference between Stalinist formation and a formation where God is at work. In other words there is certainty for Paul as to what is the way of Christ, but no need to coerce it for God will work it out through faithfulness over time. I could say more but I recommend Stephen Fowl’s theological commentary on Phillipians.

Mark Lau Branson (from Fuller) presented a workshop where he talked about the work of leading transformation in congregations. It described the difference between STANDARD CHURCH PROBLEM SOLVING, i.e. go into a church, study the problems, talk solutions and then propose a plan to implement solutions – and APPRECIATIVE INQUIRY, i.e. asking questions about where God has been at work and then stoking the imagination as to how to further participate in these ways as a body. He called the latter interpretive leadership. He said the deadest churches he had been had still been places where God had been wonderfully at work, but there were no witnesses. He said every epistle of Paul (except Galations) begins with a thanksgiving prayer. Branson asked “when you begin like that, how does that shape your imagination?” He said starting out with appreciative questions about where God is working shapes the imagination totally differently than starting out by asking what’s wrong with this church, where have we failed? What are the problems in this church? Branson then went on to describe his work in a small little Methodist church dying in Oakland. The example of this one missional community is stunning. It’s impact began in the local community school, tutoring, led to changes in school lunch, class size, school funding, state wide! He said hospitality for the NT takes place in the neighbor’s home, on the neighbor’s turf. He described powerfully a community getting engaged missionally in their neighborhood. I came away stoked! I recommend his Memories, Hopes and Conversations.

My last highlight from the ekklesiaproject conference is some Hauerwasianisms … things Stanley Hauerwas said in the panel discussion that ended the afternoon on Tuesday. (I think Stanley said at least most of these). I could comment all of these, but there’s no space in this post. Stanley said:

  • Truth that is desperate is a lie
  • It is peculiar to American Christians to be able to say “Jesus is Lord and that’s my personal opinion”
  • Stanley talked about the immobilization of the church. He said pastors should quit doing everything … and then told of his pastor in South Bend who would announce from the pulpit for four straight weeks “The altar cloth is dirty and needs cleaning and ironing.” Stanley complained why doesn’t he just do it … but that would have missed the whole point.
  • Politics is the art of the possible, but the great question is who defines what is possible.(a quote from someone else)
  • Locality is crucial. Of course, I want the war in Iraq to end – but I want the janitors at Duke University to have a living wage.
  • National politics is like the Roman circus in first century Rome. It is entertainment to keep us distracted from the real issues.
  • Voting is a form of violence. You vote once, then 51% tells the 49% what to do.
  • Think about the effort it takes to come together and hear everyone – the church does not vote.

I also went to the Midwest Emergent Conference in the Burbs. I could only go Friday during the day because I officiated a wedding for a great couple at our church, Fri nite and Sat morning. I offer just a few comments. Mike and Julie Clawson are to be commended for the great work they did pulling this altogether. (And I wish I could remember the name of the woman who worked alongside Mike and made this happen to commend her as well). I learned just a little bit more about what is going on amidst the Emergent conversations. I benefited from excellent conversations with Will Samson, Tony Jones among many other friends I see from time to time.

In the first session, Tony Jones talked about the need to move beyond the polarities of liberal and conservative and not let our theology be defined by such binary ways of looking at the world. He talked about avoiding a “third way” still held captive to the rationalities of modernity because it is still defined against conservative and liberal.

Doug Pagitt then argued for a wholistic gospel that includes teaching both about Jesus and about the kingdom of God. He seemed to imply strategically that the kingdom of God should be separated from Jesus. He got a lot of hands with questions on that. He also reminded us that the kingdom is bigger than the church and that God is at work everywhere, whether urban, or suburban or rural. He rightfully emphasized that wherever God is active and working in the world, we want to join in with that.

I also showed up at the book party for Will Samson’s Justice in the Burbs. Will’s doing Ph.D. work at U of Kentucky. I enjoyed our talk. I like the ground he is covering in his Ph D work. and we will be having him at Northern in the fall.

The week was hectic. The highlight of the conferences was meeting great people. I suggest the words of Tony Jones and Doug Pagitt point to the two central questions for the future of both emergent, emerging churches, and missional communities. As I look back on the Ekklesia time from the Emergent time, I believe Hauerwas would agree with what Tony and Doug said (on at least that last statement I described by Doug). Yet I see in the Hauerwasian club a post modern suspicion towards the possibilities of true justice being forwarded through the politics of America. Sometimes Stanley is almost Foucaultian in his relinquishing of any ability of cooperative justice efforts to overcome the totalizing powers of capitalism and democracy. Personally, I’d like to see missional/emerging thinkers engage the ever ubiquitous Foucault and derivatives thereof on this issue. What about you? Does Stanley’s words about local justice, and his comments on national politics disturb the ease with which we say the missional mantra “God is already at work in the world, the church’s job is to find ways to join in.” I still believe these basic tenets, I merely suggest that our theology and ecclesiology must be robust behind these statements in order for them to mean anything substantive. I shall post more on this in the future.