I’ve been intrigued for a while now with the idea of an unconference. I mean, I really got conferenced-out through the 90’s… the 80’s were still fun, but by the time the calendar rolled over “00” I couldn’t be bothered. But The recent Allelon gathering to discuss the formation of a Missional Order looked different. I decided to give it a chance.
We arrived at the conference center, got processed through the registration tables, visited briefly, and filed in to the first evening session to open the conference. Some of us jockeyed for position to grab seats in the first three rows, hoping to stake them out for the entire run of the conference. The din of conversation slowly faded as the crowd hushed when the conference organizer stood up to the microphone at the podium. Surveying the assembled crowd, he said, “You know, I’m really glad some of you women came out, too… it’s great to see some women here, it’ll really help with the signing so it won’t sound all male!” Everyone laughed. He continued, “Seriously though, I’m glad that some of you older women whose kids are grown could join us — you know, you have a part to play in the church as well.” He introduced the featured guest speakers. and promised a fantastic God-infused conference, and turned it over to the session musicians assembled to lead the worship for the event. After the worship, the evening session featured a great message following some fabulous worship-leading, and we walked out suitably blessed. It was late by then, and but for a few old friends visiting, we all turned in early, eager to see what the next day’s messages would address, what new ministry model we could take home to help revolutionize our gasping churches. That conference “buzz” was in the air… you know the one, that excitement about the great things God was about to do in our midst, that airy feeling that you go home and try your best to communicate back to your church and your friends as deeply moving, inspirational, and exciting, all balled up in a single sustained moment of waning elation.
You know, if any of that had happened, I’d have been hitching a ride back down to the Bremerton ferry to sleep on a bench and catch the first ride back to Seattle where I could spend the entire week more profitably drinking coffee by myself and browsing used bookstores… disappointed, but spending time meditating and enjoying just being by the ocean. And sampling a new microbrew with every meal, of course. I have this sneaking suspicion that I would have had an easy time finding a ride fleeing such an event, and that my conference-refugee Seattle wanderings would have seen me bumping into many a now-familiar face doing exactly the same thing. What actually happened was pretty much the antithesis of the introduction I’ve just given. Without saying a whole lot about what we talked about, I’m going to attempt to give you an impression of what it was really like. Here’s a photo I snapped of the platform, with pulpit, microphone, and superstar speakers:
Left-to-right: Andrew Jones, Mark Priddy (Allelon), Pete Askew (Northumbria), Alan Roxborough, and Sara Jane Walker (Allelon). Notice something about these people: they’re almost as clueless as the rest of us. I’m not sure what SJ is saying, but Andrew is either tired
from carousing or praying (you decide), Mark is, uh, I don’t know if he’s fully there, Pete can’t make head nor tails of any of it, and Alan is just staring at the bottle of cough medicine he was downing like water in the Sahara (he was actually quite ill). Ladies and gentlemen, may I present “the experts”? I say this all, of course, in a respectful and loving way toward them all, each having endeared themselves to me and to us all over the course of the discussions. Important word, that. Although those who were invited specifically to share something did so, it was in no way a feature of the event, which was very participatory, inclusive, and somehow lacking the assumption that the “big word” was just about to be issued from the pulpit. The people pictured here are all carriers of wisdom and insight, and none of them were all that quick to place their own above that of anyone else present. Also of note, the crew arrayed along the front was not constant, except for Alan and SJ who were chairing the meetings, save for the one or two that Alan missed while busy being ill and seeking medical attention… which point reveals how important this was to him; most people would have just packed up and gone home. And I think it really was that important.
To illustrate (literally) my main point here, I now submit three images of emerging/missional gatherings for your consideration, all of which were taken during the past week when they appeared on other blogs. As you might guess, they are of three different gatherings.
Guess which event I was at? I’m going to go ahead and stipulate immediately that if you recognize the other two photos (and I’m not going to tell you where I got them), I’m in no way disparaging these events… both are gathered around subjects and in places where it’s necessary to be discussing such matters. They’re just doing it in their way, and they don’t look the same.
Now, the Seabeck Gathering was “advertised” in a muted way without harping on big names, it was limited in size, and it didn’t fill up. I’m glad, actually… another 9 or 10 people might have changed the dynamic just a little too much. The tripod in the middle, btw, is evidence that Bill Kinnon has amassed hours of tape to be edited “someday” into a documentary, even though not everything was recorded. Oh, dang… I just gave away the answer to my riddle. But none of you were still guessing, were you? And for the record, the first thing we did after stashing our stuff in our rooms… was share a meal together. The place we were meeting served all of the meals “family-style,” and we served food to one another as we conversed around various tables in (mostly) different groups from one meal to the next. Oh, and the picture of the registration sign above is a stock photo.
The point of all of this is simply to attempt to provide a sense of what the tone of the event was for those who weren’t there. Reports are beginning to spring up around the ‘sphere, as is the odd unjust criticism… but those of us who were there are still processing. I know I am. More discussion will follow, but the point of the whole event was not to “get” something to bring home and share or impart or revolutionize ministry models. Anyone who tells you differently wasn’t there. Although there’s a boatload of stuff to be said, those who were may not end up saying it very quickly because most of us walked out with a commitment and an urge, a strange inner drawing to pray the Daily Office and to continue dwelling in Luke 10. (Verses 1-12, we were using the NRSV while there.) I say this with caution, but for the first time in my life I’ve returned home from a conference (and I’ve been to and run my share) without a set of ideas that are to change everything, without a kind of post-conference emotional high, but instead with a quiet desire to simply change what I’ve been doing with my time. And friends. Oh, but I’ve got some high-quality new friends, and that’s been the first thing I wanted to talk about with my wife when I got home, identifying people in photos for her… people for whom she really has no context yet, but who are nevertheless important to us.
Not the kind of conference I’m used to… and I don’t want to call what we did a “conference” at all. I’ve been saying for more than a year now that we need to change the way we gather for things like this. If you need to think more about what an “unconference” is — and I recommend you do — check the Wikipedia definition to get your bearings, consider Kathy Sierra’s question about why we still attend conferences anyway, and maybe even look into How to DIY Unconference.