Emergence Christianity conference wrap-up



I wanted to offer some thoughts on last week’s Emergence Christianity event and also give you a chance to hear what others are saying, which you can access in the links below. First, if you’ve never been to an event sponsored by Jopa, you should know that Tony and Doug know how to run events. And they do a great job not only of structuring the event well and keeping it moving, but also creating an environment of hospitality that really marks what this conversation is all about. So thanks to both of them, for putting this together.

Second, I should say that I actually did not hear the final session of the event, which I have since discovered contained some controversial statements by Phyllis. (Again, you can read some of the reactions to this in links below.) I was downstairs in the basement catching up with my friend Tim Conder (which is always a good way to spend an hour) so I cannot say what my reaction would have been had I been upstairs. I will say that I’ve heard Phyllis talk about the Pill and post World War II life before, and I have not ever heard her depiction of that history as one that blames women. From what I can tell, though, many people agree with me on this count, and the rub seems to be her closing comments about a return to family life which assumingly includes more traditional gender roles. I too am confused by this, because as you know Phyllis is nothing if not willing to question traditional EVERYTHING.  I spoke alongside her at a conference in October, and we talked for a good half hour about all the developments going on in transhumanism and I felt like a complete Luddite about the whole thing in comparison to her. So I find it hard to believe that her comments, at the heart, were intended on being a throwback to times past. I mean, she just told nearly 500 people while on stage that nobody can define what a soul is, nor do we really have any idea how to even begin to answer. So I doubt she’d assert that she knows something as specific as what all married women with children ought to be doing with their lives. That being said, I’ll leave the conclusions (many of which are very good, particularly Marci Glass’ comments about the impact of “professional Christian educators” on the faith formation of children) to those who did hear them. I do hope we can give Phyllis the benefit of the doubt. I don’t think whatever she said defines all of what she stands for, nor even necessarily what she believes. We all have moments of misspeaking or of being misunderstood. But we also know that in this Emergent conversation, our friendship is big enough to hold open discussion and disagreement, so by no means do I think we should refrain from listening to each other and questioning and pushing each other. It’s what good friends do.

Onto a broader recap- I got the feeling that many people who came to the conference seemed to be hoping that it would be a watershed moment, a turning point in the conversation where we really started to get the lay of the land and got a good handle on what we ought to do now that the world has totally changed. I did not necessarily hear this spoken in so many words, but through the many conversations and comments I did hear, that’s what I felt. I did not have that same desired outcome, though such a thing would indeed be great. I came to celebrate Phyllis’ life and work, and I came to be among dear friends. So I did not leave disappointed, as I felt I was able to do both. If there were any people who expected Phyllis to tell them how to answer the “what now?” question, I’d say this: Phyllis has always told us she is an observer and an historian and NOT a pastor. She is here to help us think about our world and specifically our place in the current unfolding of human and Christian history. She’s here to help us think about connections between historical events and our theological conclusions so that we can then be well-equipped to continue to make those conclusions as we move ahead. I don’t think Phyllis knows how to “save” the church or turn around the decline of the church any more than we do. I found it really helpful, actually, that the room held such differing viewpoints on what the future of the church may be. Some were interested in reviving their particular denominational tradition; some were interested in recalibrating their theology to reflect the reality of the world around us; some wanted to say that it’s time for Emergent to declare our positions on things and make some demands of those who identify with us; some were asserting that the whole exercise feels like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. I think there’s truth in all of those responses- and right action, too. We are at the intersection of a time in history that is asking us simultaneously to preserve, to redefine, to declare and to let go. It’s our job to decide how, and what, and where, and when. (I think we’re all way past the why- the why is the easiest and most obvious.) It’s not a clear or easy job. And we can’t ask Phyllis to tell us how. We’re going to have to slog this one out on our own, I’m afraid.

That might seem scary and overwhelming, or it might feel invigorating and exciting. Whatever the case, I’ll share with you what I said to a handful of people last week. I don’t know what the future is. I can’t say what will happen to Emergent Village, or to the American church. What I do feel is that we are in a different place- a better place- than we were almost 15 years ago when I first hopped into this conversation. We are wiser, we are more humble, we have less angst and deconstructive anger. We don’t feel the need to yell quite as much. We feel confident in what we believe, and many of us are past the stage of feeling the need to debate it ad nauseum. We are interested in doing it- in creating spaces where this kind of Christian life is actually lived and practiced and attempted, albeit imperfectly. And that may not give us a firm sense of direction in the way of next steps or a 5 year plan, but what I do know is that this group of people makes beauty. It makes beautiful things, does beautiful things. I listened over the weekend to so many people I’m honored to call friends and many times I stopped and thought to myself how beautiful this life is, to travel the road with these people.

Things feel more centered. I feel more centered. And I feel it collectively when we all get together, too. We’ve grown, we’ve changed, we’ve become the next step of whatever it is we’re on the road to becoming. And we’ve been simmering for a while, just letting it all settle, giving the soil its sabbath, waiting for whatever is coming next. And if what we need to proceed forward is a resolved centeredness, if what we need to see and pursue the next step is a sense of calm, I feel it more now than I ever have in the past. I think we’re getting there. Whatever has been growing may be ready to come up from the ground. I don’t know when it will sprout, or what it will be. I’ve let go of the assumptions and expectations. I’m trusting that whatever it is, it will be beautiful.


Other Voices Blogging: (and hey, if I missed you, leave a link in the comments section!)

Kelley Hudlow

Marci Glass

Julie Clawson

Adam Walker Cleaveland (this is the first in a series of posts)

Anthony Smith (this is a YouTube video)

Robb Ryerse

And if you REALLY want to delve into it, here’s the Twub feed from the weekend.


  1. Thanks for this Danielle. It really helps to put the weekend into a broader perspective. And I think you’re probably right about giving Phyllis the benefit of the doubt as a historian and not a pastor.

    Also, if you’re interested, I wrote about Jay Bakker’s Pecha Kucha presentation, which talks about the need for benefit of the doubt as well.


  2. Jenni FairbanksJanuary 18, 2013 at 8:58 am

    Thank you Danielle! I have been so unsettled this week with the other things I’ve read about the weekend. I was not able to attend. As I’ve read various responses to the last session, I keep thinking about how phyllis and her family left the conveniences and comforts of their priviledged life to move to the farm for a simpler way of life. Her perspective is unique from her life experiences. I totally give her the benefit of the doubt. Your post is beautiful. Thanks, Danielle!

  3. I appreciate reading this post. I would have loved to read a transcript of what Phyllis Tickle had actually said but your comments are comforting and at the same time challenging!

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