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Emerging Christianity, Soularize, and the Future

2011 October 23

I spent this past week hanging out with the awesome folk at Soularize 2011 – a three-day learning party in (not so) sunny San Diego. This year’s Soularize marked both its tenth anniversary as well as its final chapter. Ten years ago the first Soularize (put on by Spencer Burke of TheOoze.com) was hosted by none other than Mark Driscoll at his Mars Hill church in Seattle. That fact right there is evidence that a lot has changed in this past decade. But a lot more has changed since then, the world has shifted and along with it this emerging conversation.

Ten years ago I had never heard of the emerging church. Oh, I was reading postmodern philosophy and asking all sorts of questions that were getting me in trouble, but I had no idea that there were other Christians discussing these sorts of ideas. I had just finished my first round of grad-school having studied Intercultural Studies and Missions at Wheaton College. I often had made my classmates (and a few of my professors) uncomfortable by asking why missions concepts like contextualization of the Gospel, socio-linguistic relativity, and intercultural difference could not also be applied to our own American culture. If it was okay to have the Gospel make sense culturally in some third world country, why couldn’t it make sense to all people in the United States?

But this was the era when “purpose driven” churches were cutting edge and where in a post-9/11 flag-draped America, homogeneity trumped authenticity. Facebook and Twitter were still years away, so it was a lot harder to discover that you weren’t the only one asking the crazy questions. Even so, it was early in 2002 when someone recommended to my husband and me that we might enjoy reading a book by this guy Brian McLaren. As others have often mentioned, what I discovered in A New Kind of Christian wasn’t completely new, but more of an affirmation that there were others exploring the same sorts of questions about faith as I was. And knowing that one is not alone holds a special power. Knowing that I didn’t have to ignore those nagging questions or divorce my intellect from my faith saved my faith. Instead of a hollow and confining static system, it had been transformed into a living reality.

Knowing that there were others out there meant I had to find them – which is where The Ooze enters in. I found that community online, and more specifically its message boards. I created a profile with a fake name (MaraJade) and a false avatar and jumped in with both feet. Over the next few years the evolution of my faith played out on those boards. I eventually added my real name as virtual friendships morphed into physical ones, but it was there that I began to re-imagine theology, and church, and what it even meant to be a Christian. While it was not always the safest place to explore such questions in a public forum, it was the only place where such dialogue could even occur. It is amusing now to think as The Ooze shuts down that all these old conversations, these snapshots of a faith in transition, will now be archived at Fuller Seminary. I pity the sociologist of religion who will sift through them someday for her dissertation.

But as the conversation grew, territories were claimed and lines began to be drawn. Certain groups declared that there was a range of acceptable questions (generally permitting the re-imagining of worship practices but not theological stances) and they (loudly) denounced the rest of us. Others set up camp as either for the Ooze or for Emergent Village – competing for publishing contracts, conference speaking spots, and (of course) advertising dollars. Those of us involved in both observed that tension and felt like we were being made to choose sides. Looking back, it seems so silly that in a conversation about deconstructing the systems of modernism in favor of re-imaging a wholistic and healthy way to be the church such petty fights would ever be waged, but I guess that is the way of man (and I intentionally used the masculine there). For me the conversation was holy in whatever guise it took.

I never made it to a Soularize until this year and I regret that. But there was still something intriguing to enter into that space ten years on and discover where the past decade has taken the conversation. In a struggling economy the trappings of financial success have long since lost the power to sway the conversation. Petty differences have given way to collaboration as those who believe that re-imagining church for a postmodern world is more than just the latest trend to follow. The angst of needing to constantly deconstruct where we all have been has mellowed into a loosely held space where dreams and critique coexist. The urgency to fix the world has passed while the passion to hope for a better world remains.

In short, the emerging conversation I encountered at Soularize this year was one of hope. While it might not burn as brightly as it once did, a bonfire requires too much empty energy to sustain itself. What we have left is a smoldering movement – not in the negative sense of having been reduced to ashes, but of the sort of long-burning coals that warm homes and bake bread. And there are still new people joining the conversation – asking their own questions and desperately attempting to cling to their faith in meaningful ways. But how they enter in looks different now that there are those of us who have matured in this conversation for the past ten years or more there to welcome them in.

Groups like Soularize and The Ooze may be winding down, but that is because the conversation has shifted. We no longer just need space for questions; we need space to build as well. Learning parties are no longer just about questions, they are also about formulating responses with our lives. I am grateful for this last Soularize for serving as a transition in that shift. And I am looking forward to what lies ahead.

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17 Responses leave one →
  1. October 23, 2011

    Well said, Julie. It was so great to experience this last Soularize with you and so many who have become friends over these last 10 years. Here’s to the next 10! And the 10 after that, and … and …

  2. October 23, 2011

    Julie, great reflection. yes, hope-full building.
    I remember looking at the 1st Soularize with so much lust from afar, with so many questions, angst and loneliness. Ten years later, I’m invested in building and forming. I’m looking forward what this new season is bringing.
    Peace.
    E.

  3. October 23, 2011

    “What we have left is a smoldering movement – not in the negative sense of having been reduced to ashes, but of the sort of long-burning coals that warm homes and bake bread.”

    This is THE best summary of the transition Spencer spoke of at Soularize. From fiercely burning bonfire to fireplace and oven-fire. Excellent. This was my first (and last, of course) Soularize as well, and I’m very happy to have found so many new companions on the Way!

  4. October 24, 2011

    I’ve known about the emerging church for years before I officially joined the conversation. When I did finally join, though, all the big media outlets were saying that the emerging church was dead!

    But anyway, you bring up a good point when you said “we need space to build as well. ” I keep thinking of St. Francis of Assisi’s vision of the crucifix telling him to rebuild His Church. And maybe it’s time for us to start doing that, rebuilding the Church.

  5. October 24, 2011

    This is a great summary and a hopeful look to the future. 9 years ago, after reading ANKoC, I wondered what other restless souls were out there and what it would be like to encounter them and share their ideas. I’ve always considered you to be a steady, clear eyed witness to the conversation and a relentless voice calling us to action. I loved reading this post. Our conversations were a highlight of my Soularize experience, and I’m looking forward to see what else will happen. Thank you!

  6. October 24, 2011

    Hey Julie,

    Great wrap up, thank you. And so nice to meet you at Soularize.

    Peace!

  7. October 24, 2011

    thanks Julie! glad to share the experience with you.

  8. October 26, 2011

    “Learning parties are no longer just about questions, they are also about formulating responses with our lives.” So true and beautifully put.

    One minor correction. I was at Soularize in 2001 – a growing megachurch of the sort that wants little to do with me now sent me – and I would like to note that it was not hosted by Mark Driscoll or at his church. Mark led a workshop at that gathering and it was clear even then that he was unhappy with the tone and trajectory of the Soularize and Terra Nova/Emergent conversation.

    Keep up the great work.

  9. October 27, 2011

    The church, by its very nature has to be continually reforming or emerging. Or is that just me being a Presbyterian?

  10. October 30, 2011

    I’ve always wanted to go to Soularize and I’m sad that I never did get to go. this reflection mirrors much of my own journey. I hope that something does come together as it changes so that I can someday meet folks in person that I knew through The Ooze back in the day. And I love the phrase “learning party” – just makes me happy.

  11. Tim permalink
    November 1, 2011

    I missed it. Why was this the last Soularize and why is Ooze shutting down?

  12. November 3, 2011

    For those of us who find ourselves not really fitting with places like the ooze (I pretty much dropped out after the reboot, when it became clear that much of the conversation was in a sort of rational post-Christian mode), and lacking the ability to travel to events like soularize, where should we be looking for community and interaction at this point?

  13. November 4, 2011

    There is ‘nothing new under the sun’ I guess; movements come and movements go. I think I’ve been carried along by 3/4 in my 42 year old spiritual Journey. Some promise much but fizzle out, leaving the religious status quo intact, others head off into a cultic exclusive direction.

    Emerging church has I believe played a key role in trying to get believers to think again but has in places just turned into a debating shop with various thinkers flogging their take on truth.

    Events on the ground seem to be bypassing the Christian debate – a shift in consciousness and social order may be the ‘next wave’. Time perhaps to get the surf boards out?

  14. June 4, 2016

    This web site was… how can you say it? Relevant!!
    Finally I actually have found an issue that helped me.
    Appreciate it!

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