Last weekend, I was deeply honored to join a group of 24 folks meeting in Washington, DC to re-imagine the growing, communal friendship that has become known as Emergent Village. This is a group that has over the past 5 years nurtured my faith and my family almost as much as my church, so I was heavily invested in helping EV to find a fresh way forward– to be stronger for itself, and to be even more welcoming to any and all who are interested in it.
The group that gathered in DC on Friday afternoon was an eclectic collection of artists, poets, musicians, activists, writers, social entrepreneurs, community organizers, and church leaders. They exude creativity and innovation: these are the kind of folks who see needs and fill them. When they can’t find something to teach, they create cirriculum. When they see a social gap, they create communities. When they perceive some thoughts that are interesting to a wider group, they write books. When they can’t find a liturgy or song that fits an occasion, they write their own. And when they are called ‘heretics’, they might offer a nuanced defense of their ideas and practices, or they might just shrug and agree with their accuser.
The metaphor ‘herd of cats’ is obviously overused, but fitting. Not because these folks are independent– they are high-level collaborators in their local communities, and most are good friends (even if friends who see each other infrequently). No, they’re not iconoclastic or autonomous , but they are creative cats. So submitting to any program or plan or process (or even asking them to sit still for too long) creates a huge sense of unease for these rule-breaking folk. So it was no small miracle that through all of the various exercises shared over the course of three days (some of which were incredibly effective, and others of which fell flat), there was a complete, committed buy-in and participation. Honestly, I fully expected everyone to defect at some point, but not one person did. In fact, I don’t remember even one heavy sigh or rolled eye when yet another exercise or activity was introduced. Their sheer commitment to the process and to one another speaks volumes about the value of this wider network of friends.
The goal of the weekend was to discover and describe what it is that we share together. EV is an organic, complex adaptive system– a true expression of the wider cultural emergence– and our hope was to identify what and why and how it works. Further, we hoped to come up with some creative and practical ideas as to how we might further the organism and give it a clearer, fresher focus on just what it can contribute to the cause of Christianity and to the wider emergence. We were disappointed that we were unable to get to the more practical matters, but were very surprised and fulfilled to unearth some of EV’s uniqueness, and to better understand our collective hopes and dreams for it. Too, it was wonderful to see how our wider data collection– gathered through extensive interviews with those not able to and/or not interested in coming to the meeting– seemed to sync with what we were finding together.
From where I was sitting, I saw several vectors emerging– general directions as we look back and move forward.
Toward a distributive network. When we dreamed about the future of EV, we found a common theme of organizational invisibility, and of a lack of individual ego or single spokesperson. It wouldn’t be a secret society, not by any means. But it would be a place of rampant collaboration and nearly nonexistent national and formal ties. My new friend Jon put it this way: “it is not that EV would disappear, but that it would truly go public.” Activism, creativity, and kingdom goodness would spread wide.
Toward a new emphasis on village. My new friend Eliacin put some nice words to this idea, saying something like, “Maybe we should be more of a village and less ‘emergent’.” Here, we talked about providing a warm welcome to newcomers to and inquirers of EV. But in contrast to many other communities, we value this being a place of activity and collaboration and volunteerism and constant entrepreneurial effort. So the same hand that embraces a newcomer will give them a slap on the backside and send them out to take action on their ideas and dreams. To put this idea slightly differently, if you see something that needs to be done, you’re probably the one to do something about it.
Toward indigenous expressions. It is perhaps unavoidable that in various life cycles in groups like this there develops a kind of celebrity or groupthink or conventional wisdom. Creative people– authors, artists, musicians, storytellers, and dreamers– can have their ideas commodified and can find themselves an unwilling part of a kind of an establishment mentality. At which point their initial explorations of and invitations toward new kinds of thinking get drowned out by a consumeristic cry for more product. And certainly, such creative artifacts (books, songs, magazines, etc.) can and should be commended for helping to spark our collective imaginations. Yet at the same time, we found ourselves longing for local, native, indigenous expressions of creativity. I noticed in particular that many of us found ourselves mentioning weeds, which are usually attractive and useful flowers and plants that someone decided to label as unhelpful. What are the native plants that are cropping up in our local communities, and how can we encourage their life? Here, we were cultivating an expectation of productivity from local EV cohorts and churches and other communities.
Toward simple structures. For many reasons, it probably makes the most sense for EV to retain its 501c3 status (and therefore it’s Board of Directors). At the same time, there was a lot of energy and optimism around the idea of developing some basic teams to fund our collective imagination about several of our shared values. Of finding some new initiatives and ways to further the work of friendship, arts, distribution (of ideas via various media), and the theological and philosophical provocation that have become the hallmarks of EV.
Toward integration. Yet when– in the interest of time and efficiency– we broke up into the aforementioned groups to do some thinking about them, there emerged a protest group. It was three people who, when asked to “find a group!”, just couldn’t do so. To pick one group out of the many just felt wrong, and so they banded together to explore their feelings. It was a helpful and poignant reminder that one of the great contributions of EV is its sense of holism. For if any one of these values is separated from the others, then we all lose out. The artists need the theologians, and vice versa, and etcetera. And everyone needs the beauty that is created when everyone works together.
Perhaps the most fulfilling thing for me as I look back on the weekend is that none of this stuff is truly new. Indeed, these ideals are the root of this plant that has become Emergent Village. My hope is that we can deconstruct some of the i
nstitutional architecture that we have– in spite of our own best interests and intentions– allowed to be built over the plant. My hope is that by pruning back some of what has grown– both branches that are dead and/or dying, and those that might be young and green– we can nurture a more healthy plant. And I know that my 23 friends are deeply committed to doing our very best to make this happen, too, and to welcoming the efforts of many more people as we head toward the future.
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