Off The Map: reflections on 'Revolutions' conference

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Here are some of my thoughts from the Off The Map, 'Revolutions Conference'.

1. Organisation: Jim Henderson runs one of the most tightly planned and organised events I have ever been to. Short main sessions talks (20 minutes), panels with short planned questions, short planned content for seminars, interviews, music interludes, and lots of time for Q&A were great. Intention, planning, organisation, provide a fast paced event, that was far from boring and an extended stream of consciousness with lots of participation (as any muscian about the process of practice and planning for creativity).

2. Balance: Given the provactive content and interviews with de-churched people and atheists, something that could have become a heated and polarising event, seemed far from that. Lots of honest and open questioning and discussions, certainly from what I saw. Jim Henderson set the tone for this, and mediated a great atmosphere.

3. Uncomfortable: Yet I found the event uncomfortable, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. Hearing from de-churched, de-converted, and atheists about their struggles with church, can foster understanding but my soul wanted to hear more from people who found Jesus more in this process. I know the people who shared are on a journey and they spoke gently and eloquently (amazingly so). But I wonder where off the map is going in that sense?

Rather than a re-configuring of church is it's focus the de-conversion of church? Whilst that is one thing I took away, no doubt others took away other things very different. It got me grateful for how Jesus found me in the first place, and continues to in all the ups and downs of life and my faith. It got me searching for him over the weekend. I certainly found him in Sunil Sardar, who was so full of Jesus and the Spirit of God, it was palpable.

3. False Dichotomies: Hearing George Barna list the ideal church, and then suggest that 20 million people leaving church is a revolution of people doing to find that ideal, seemed as simplitic as when I read his book, and still wishful thinking.

I think the reality is very different. None of us would question that aspiration for church life that he listed but that the 20 million is a mixed bag of secularisation, post-secularistion, consumer individuation, de-conversion etc. No doubt there is some real revolution in there but I think it is much more murky than George portrays it. Whilst he tried to be more nuanced when questioned, I was still left with the impression that God is outside the church.

There is nothing knew about seperating Jesus from the church, and history should be a cautionery reminder that reactionary de-emphasing of church doesn't seem to lead to much except a knew dogmatism about new forms of church (at least as I read it). As Brian McLaren countered/suggested, 'the way forward is progressive and convergent, not reactive and divergent'. It was a view that seemed to resonate with a lot of people.

5. Connnections: Two guys from Mark Driscoll's 'Mars Hill' Church, were at the event. They seemed to have had a lot of people surpised that they were there. I was glad they were. They seemed to genuinely engage with others trying to understand and participate. It made the event more enriching having them there. Whilst I don't like a lot of Mark Driscoll's theology and posturing, I admire the missional engagement of his community. And if Gary and John are typical of it's members, I'm looking forward to talking with them more. Also in the depths of conversation about church and mission and theology, I sensed the confidence in Jesus we had in common which was a nice experience.

Also meeting Todd and Angie from the Bridge in Portland, sharing what we have been learning about church, theology and creativity was a great time. I'm looking forward to visiting with them, if I can, when I teach in Portland October 2007. Also it was great to re-connect with some old friends.

6. USA vs UK: Just meeting in a chapel (the small room) of a church that can seat 5, 500 people reminded me that the USA is so different to the UK and so similar. The post-church de-empahisis of church is a trajectory common on both sides of the pond. The building was good in that it stimulated conversation, and bad in that is might have been polarising. The staff of the church certainly stuck their necks out hosting this event, and I am grateful to them.

With 75% of young people in the USA having a churched background compared the almost non-existent churching of young people in the UK, could be good and bad. Bad in that the institutional and modern church at it's worst can run counter to real mission. But it makes the possibility of renewal and revival an exciting possibility in a way that couldn't happen in the UK.

Conclusion So alot in two days, despite my discomfort. And in that weekend I ended up in hospital with an infection, and nearly didn't get to fly home, another kind of discomfort.