The Cool Kids

Everyone wants to be in the in crowd.

Why?

First there is the natural desire to belong, to be included, and to be wanted. There are also perceptions of power and position associated with various groups.

I have noticed a similar pattern of reactions with emerging/missional conferences and events. First there is the reported excitement and camaraderie of those who were able to attend. This is often followed by criticism or comments by others about the resulting dynamic of the group.

Too young and hip.
Too artsy.
Too white.
Too male.
Too old and boring.

I have mixed feelings about conferences and events. On the social side of things I would enjoy getting to meet others on this journey. However I still feel hesitant about the idea that conferences will define and shape the movement, that it will become centralized around a few dominant voices.

At what point do conferences and events, by nature, add to the perception of who is in and who is important in the conversation? Are we still attempting to gather around the experts? Is there a presumption that those gathered will become the voice for the many?

I am referring to conferences in general. At what point do we go from gathering to learn, support, and encourage to reverting to old, familiar power structures?

I know that many of my own feelings and reactions have less to do with gender, which I believe is a valid reaction also, and more to do with my aversion to hierarchy and the centralizing of movements.

To be honest, I don’t know how I feel about the whole thing, conferences themselves and the reactions to them.

That’s where you come in. Tell me what you think.

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25 thoughts on “The Cool Kids

  1. Even as a middle-aged white male, I agree completely, and was going to post something about this at my own blog as the week’s posts about the conference kept coming in, but decided I couldn’t say it without coming across too snarky. You did a better job of it than I could. Besides the “aren’t we just replacing one set of authorities with another” aspect, I also see it as a waste of resources, frankly. Flying and driving around the country/world to such things is money/time/resources better spent in mission (and with less environmental impact, too). It’s a problem I have with my own journey (which I have been taking steps to rectify) and it’s a problem I see with the whole online “missional” movement in general.

    “Talking about missional is not being missional.”

    [And the corollary – “Blogging about missional is not being missional, either” – the people who need mission probably don’t have computers.]

    I need to stop, or I will just post here what I was trying not to in the first place out of Christian love and trying to avoid being a finger-pointer.

  2. Excellent point. We see this is respect to the poor, especially within the church. Our approach to organization and leadership requires a significant level of financial stability and knowledge to participate, which often excludes many on the margins. We have even tried to rework our spiritual formation in our ministry so that it would be both financially available and contextually appropriate.

    On the same point, for those who are able to attend conferences, they act as emissaries which help link a geographically dispersed Church together. This is critical in a world where ethnocentrism and colonialism are so dominant. There is a dynamic tension on this issue that we need to learn to navigate. Glad you brought it up.

    Peace,
    Jamie

  3. Ooh yes…Just yesterday I was supposed to be going to a gathering of the UK cool kids, but was (genuinely) prevented by illness….and the awful thing is that I felt hugely relieved, because I know I’m not really part of the gang, just a hanger on around the edge, which is a distinctly uncomfortable place to be.

  4. Grace. You know I love you but I confess that this hurts. I’m old, white, fat, not particularly hip and rarely cool. I believe that it’s easy to be critical of the event and ignore that most people made sacrifices to be there. Would that there were more people of colour, a better gender balance and whatever else would be necessary to make it less easy to criticize.

    And Jim, “talking about missional is not being missional” is soooo obvious and such an easy criticism. The concept of a missional order is to help us develop the spiritual disciplines to be missional. Conversations are part of that process. And might I suggest that snarky blog comments are not being missional either. (Mine included.)

    Yah, I’m pissed. Forgive me.

  5. Grace, I think this is one way in which the classics monastic texts would be very helpful.

    Going elsewhere, meeting up, etc. is according to Cassian and the Philokalia a kind of frenzy. The monastics talk about it being antithetical to real spiritual devotion. Always going somewhere, doing something, talking, meeting, interacting. The busyness simulates a spiritual conversation but doesn’t get there.

    Now it’s fun being a cool kid. It’s amazing to meet others who share similar passions, and especially after feeling alone in these quests, it’s comforting to have a few moments where a person can just let it out and really engage.

    I understand.

    But the monastics who spent centuries finding the depths said this is counterproductive to the ultimate aim.

    “stay in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything,” one of the desert fathers said.

    Might be interesting to go back to those classic texts as a movement, and see what they say to our era. Because it seems there’s a lot of wanting to mimic the forms, without delving into their discoveries and teachings.

  6. Bill,
    First, I respect you and many of the people who attended, and I know that there were significant sacrifices made to attend this conference.

    If there have been any events recently that I wish I were at, this was probably it, and I am genuinely happy that those who went were encouraged and blessed.

    In fact, I am looking forward to further reports of all that happened, including your latest missional shampoo post. I have closely followed the posts and reports during and after the conference with sincere interest hoping to glean from your experience together.

    Please hear that my point is not to be critical of this conference.

    Honestly, for me, this isn’t about gender and it isn’t specifically about the Allelon conference. However, in being expected to weigh in on the gender issue, I have had to deal with the reactions that were triggered.

    I am looking at why I wanted to be there. If this was about shaping and defining the missional movement, why do I want to be included? Do I believe that my voice is necessary, am I looking to position myself, or am I just looking to have a good time?

    In fact, I was dealing with these thoughts and feelings more privately a month ago when considering whether or not to attend.

    Early September in an email to Br.Maynard, I said “while I am still drawn to the latest-greatest, cutting-edge, ground-floor, inner circle, all-the-big-names-will-be-there, we’re-making-church-history type of events/conferences, I am also skeptical and cyncial about them.”

    None of this is a reflection on the Allelon conference, but rather on my own motives about wanting to attend various events.

    I just can’t figure out how I feel about conferences in general. That is what I really want to address.

    Personally, I like the missional guys and that is who I would probably most like to hang out with, although I won’t admit to being old and uncool. ;)

    That would have been my motive for attending. This time it wasn’t doable.

  7. Jim,
    I guess I am sincerely torn because there are teachers and speakers that I would like to have the opportunity to hear. Maybe there is still a place for that as part of the bigger picture of equipping the Body.

    Jamie,
    Wise words as usual. I like the idea of those who could attend acting as emissaries. That’s how I feel about Bill, Br.M, Rick and others who are reporting their experiences in this case. I think I am experiencing some of the dynamic tension that you mentioned. :)

    kathryn,
    I hope you find a place of inclusion or can create a place of inclusion for others who might also feel on the edges.

    Patrick,
    Those are interesting points. I’m not sure that I could survive as a monastic. Perhaps it is an area of spiritual immaturity on my part, however I thrive on engagement and connection. Please don’t lock me in a cell! (at least not without an internet connection)

  8. Patrick, If you have any specific texts in mind, or could recommend some, I’d be interested.

    Grace, I’ve been feeling/thinking all the things you describe here. With the landslide of posts and comments being generated following this particular gathering, I chose not to join the chorus on my own blog. Mostly because I don’t know how I feel either.

    I wonder, since so many of us feel a bit homeless in the church world, if we aren’t just a little too desperate to belong and therefore somewhat resentful of those who do. By we, I mean ME. Or I, I guess. I do wish more women could have attended, if for no other reason than I’d like to read their comments. It would be great if more of us could meet each other face to face. I honestly do envy those folks who seem to regularly get together with others from the emerging church blogosphere. Locale does have a lot to do with it, unless you’re Andrew Jones, of course. How he gets to so many places on the globe truly baffles me.

    Anyhow- I wanted to speak up and out with you. I concur with your ambivalence. :-)

  9. I hope this doesn’t sound rude. But why are we worried about how others are doing it?

    Conference, no conference… methods for communication, learning, relationship and all of that are varied.

    I can see the value in the face-to-face, and I can see the validity of being concerned about the centralization of movements.

    I have enough to worry about my own personal reformation… Having to make changes in my own life to become ‘more missional’ than to worry about how others approach it.

    I’m not trying to imply that I think questioning the helpfulness of one forum or method over another is wrong. But I do think finding things to criticize in other’s attempts is over-rated.

  10. Sarah, for me at least, I’m not criticizing others. I’m using this moment to assess myself.

    That’s the trouble with a lot of this kind of conversation too. A whole group of people gathering together to critique what “those” people are doing, but the moment the critique is turned their direction it’s all “don’t be critical”.

    Meanwhile there’s a vast, increasing, swath of people who are recovering from dysfunctional emerging/missional churches even as the leaders go off to start yet new things and applaud each other.

    If we cannot critique ourselves, others for what we are doing, then the whole emerging movement is a sham about replacing one power structure for another.

    I shouldn’t think I’m better. And I certainly don’t. Conferences, classes, discussions are grand.

    But do they further the Kingdom? Or can they be distractions or replacements for what might be better uses of time. Or even more subtle can they be creating patterns of thinking much like materialism or consumerism that degrade more difficult engagement?

    The evangelical church has made Christianity very expensive to be a Christian. Conferencism is a potent force.

    And even as its not an evil, and likely in many cases a boon, there’s a conversation here worth having if the present movement is going to avoid the traps every other movement falls into.

    Cindy, I’ll dig in and see what I can find. I’ll likely post on my blog and leave a link here when I do so. They’re scattered.

    Grace, I’m the same way. I tried for a little while. But the value of community and conversation is too needed. And we can offer something in return to those teachings. My lesson is that I shouldn’t want to go “there” to find my spirituality, but if I can’t find it “here” (with my local community) then I’m looking for some inspiration other than the Spirit who should, I would think, be working in everyone around me.

  11. Having been around the block a few times, I must agree in part with most of what is written above.

    However, I have resolved to just do the stuff and let the chips fall where they may. Folks from my church love to travel here and there to see this conference and that conference. That’s fine. The point really is not church, missions, conferencing or even community. The point is that any thing we do in Him draws us closer to Him.

    I have had the recent fortune to serve those farthest away from my little Christian circle and marvel at the acceptance, love and mercy shown. We christians are so filthy rich in relationship yet…

    Paul

  12. This is what spoke to me;

    At what point do we go from gathering to learn, support, and encourage to reverting to old, familiar power structures?

    The natural tendency is to re-institutionalize “power structures”. Perhaps our response should be to view structures with a healthy amount of disregard, and not empower structures and those who would seek to use them.

    Always seek and persue dialogue and relationships, but eskew all that isn’t relational and mutually informative.

    Tom

  13. Two paradoxical reactions:

    1) Yes we need more diversity and need to do whatever we can to remove the barriers that keep diversity from happening. Most of these are systemic rather than overt (i.e. no one was deliberately excluding anyone), thus our efforts at removing them will need to be more creative.

    2) Using the word “too” seems like a slam on the people who do show up for conferences. Should I judge the hip and artsy people for being who they are just because I’m not hip or artsy myself? I’m white and male. Should I stop going to conferences just so I don’t through the diversity balance off? Can we find a way to include the marginalized without having to thereby exclude others?

  14. The problem with conferences per se is that they encourage us to see certain people as ‘special’ (the conference speakers at least, if not the attendees in some cases). If we elevate some to ‘experts’ then don’t we encourage the pattern where a few ‘do’ and the majority sit back and receive?

    Its great that there are people talking about what it means to be ‘missional’, but doesn’t events like this (unintentionally) make us think that its about a few ‘names’ doing the thinking, the talking, the leg-work, and not the countless, nameless people in their churches and communities who are also trying to be ‘missional’ but who don’t write the blogs or go to the conferences…?

    Putting a select few on stage encourages us to view them as in some way different; more gifted, better equipped. Which encourages your Average Jo to think that, maybe you need to be special to do this ‘missional’ living thing… Don’t conferences end up working against the idea of a ‘priesthood of all believers’?

  15. I have typed, I have erased …. numerous times. I think that I am suppose to op out of this discussion and enter the next one …

    The post was very good and brought up some valid thoughts.

  16. Hi Grace,
    With respect to your “aversion to hierarchy and the centralizing of movements” I read an interesting book recently called “The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations” by Ori Brafman & Rod Beckstrom. Although this book is not directed towards the church (or anything Christian in particular) I believe it is something the church needs to address. I also believe the early church was leaderless in the way this book promotes. Leaders were more like the village elder, they were people who led out of their wisdom and a history of having made right choices. Its worth a read. It has changed my perspective on leadership and church structure completely.
    http://www.starfishandspider.com/

  17. Thanks everyone! I appreciate the nuance and perspective that you have added to my wondering.

    Cindy,
    Thanks for joining me in my ambivalence. :)
    I know that there are probably thousands of people wishing they were there for every event that happens, and the reality is that any given event will only represent a fraction of the people who would like to attend.

    sarah,
    I agree that criticism isn’t helpful. However, I would like to focus on how events as a tool can be useful for equipping the Body, both for those who attend and for those who don’t.

    Patrick,
    Conferencism is precisely the word that describes my hesitation. I believe that conferences and events themselves are neutral. However, I believe we should be aware of and guard against the tendency and history of conferences to create power structures. As you said, the conversation is worth having if we want to avoid the traps of other movements.

    Paul,
    I hear you. Perhaps conferences can be pulled out of the realm of attendance by passive consumers.

    Tom,
    I love what you said, “Always seek and persue dialogue and relationships, but eskew all that isn’t relational and mutually informative.”

    Mike,
    I trust that within emerging/missional circles diversity will increase as those with influence are intentional about inclusion. My concern is that attendance at events doesn’t become another type of exclusivity.

    I would like the discussion of inclusion taken beyond the events themselves to address how the event can also impact and empower those who can’t attend.

    andy,
    You hit on some of the concerns and traps with traditional conference mentalities. While I agree that we want to avoid the expert/celebrity trap and the passive consumer trap, it would be naive to not acknowledge that there are individuals who deserve a platform for the purpose of training and equipping greater numbers of people within the Body. We just have to make sure that our events have the result of empowering the Average Joe in his missional living.

    Jeff,
    See you at the next one! What should we talk about? ;)

    Dan,
    I’ve heard enough about the book to know that I would appreciate and agree with it.
    The concept of empowering leadership is exactly what I would like to see addressed in the structuring of conferences and events. I believe that with intention, we can produce events with an ability to empower that was absent in traditional conferencism.

    Again, thanks everyone! I believe there is wisdom in the collective thoughts and ideas that have been shared.

  18. btw,

    Dan’s observations about leadership as expressed in the book by Brafman & Beckstrom sounds like it was lifted directly from chapters 5 & 6 of Rethinking the Wineskin by Frank Viola. And, of course, Viola lifted it directly out of the N.T…

    Tom

  19. I’ve written about feeling out of place when I’ve attended emerging church movement churches and conferences. There have been a number of times when I have been in a room of a hundred people and I have been the oldest person there. I’m only 53. Sometimes I wonder why I’m drawn to dreams that seems like they would best be handled by someone in their 20s or 30s. Yet, I feel God is in these dreams. There has to be a way to sensitively engage those who have always distrusted the church, and those who have been burned and/or burned out by the Church. I dream that there could be a way to create a safe place for anyone to come to engage in conversation, exploring answers to the question “What is meaningful faith in God and what does it look like?”

    So next weekend a friend and I are going to meet with a couple in Seattle who also have a vision for this type of conversation. This couple is in their 70s, but very aware of what is happening in their community at all levels. (I met the husband at a Mustard Seed Conspiracy conference.)

    I’m going to attend the Off the Map conference in Seattle in a couple weeks. I have no particular expectations. My last experience at a conference was painful. But that was because God revealed things to me that were painful to face, not because of anything about the conference in general, which was sort of inspiring.

    Oh man, I should stop, but; one thing that is important to me about attending conferences is that I finally meet other people who are just as crazy as me, who believe that God is not confined inside a systematic theology book, that numbers do not equate “success”, and that God is offended by the pursuit of the Great Commission when it violates our call to live out the Great Commandment.

  20. First time on your blog. Some very interesting stuff. I think I’ll come back often. I have been to millions of completly useless conferences and some really cool ones. So for me, I guess I just choose a little more careful nowadays…

  21. Tom,
    I appreciate the thorough and scriptural writing and study that Frank has done in this area as it pertains to the church.

    Gary,
    I think that you hit on one of the benefits of conferences or events. Being among other like-minded people is encouraging in what can otherwise seem like an awkward and lonely journey. I wouldn’t worry about the age issue, and I think it’s awesome that you are finding ways to connect and follow what’s in your heart in a local way also.

    rickard,
    It’s nice to meet you. I’ve added your blog to my reader and look forward to getting to know you.

  22. Perhaps the idea of interactive “workshops” is much more conducive to what you’re getting at, grace, than “conferences”. Passive learning has its place, but I think it has been grossly over-emphasized and marketed in this culture. And the church bought into it.

  23. Steve,
    The church bought into it big time, especially when they realized the money to be made. Conferences are big business.

  24. thanks grace, thoughtful articulation.

    I am sure that there are people who turn up to be on the inside. I am troubled however by the old baby/bathwater syndrome. If we stopped conferences would it take the insider issue away – i doubt it there would be some new forum instead.

    On the other hand what other ways are there for cross fertilisation of ideal, for interactions, for personal connections, long night conversations over coffee or insights that God slips in cos we’re out of our comfort zone and therefore open more than usual.

    I guess i’ve come to the conclusion that it is often what happens in the space and place provided that makes conferences worthwhile.

  25. Paul,
    The things that you mentioned I think are the important parts of conferences. Maybe the conclusion is to create spaces for those things without promoting the passive celebrity-driven machine that conferences have become (at least in the US).

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