I Owe Tony Jones an Apology

My first column of the year was “Don’t Hit Send.” You’re about to find out why I needed to write that, and it had a lot more to do with me than anyone else.

Tony Jones is a nationally known speaker, teacher, and theologian. He has been a part of what is called the Emergent Church movement (http://emergentvillage.org/), a group that I have frequented in recent years. As a founder of this movement, I’ve been privileged to build an acquaintance-ship with him at various events and via facebook/twitter.

No, it’s not a Mantei T’eo situation. I really have met/seen/talked with Tony Jones.

A few weeks ago, Tony tweeted about Emergence Christianity:  A National Conversation event that was held in Memphis, TN on Jan. 11-12. He tweeted a list of the people who were to be a part of this conversation, including Tony, Phyllis Tickle, Rachel Held Evans, and a few others. (Pretty sure Brian McClaren was in this mix).

My response was less than gracious.

I tweeted some criticism to the effect that this gathering was proof Emergence (or EmerGENT or EmergING or whatever) Christianity’s sellout to typical religion, where only the elite or worthy are invited to the conversation. It was not tweeted as constructive criticism. I was frustrated and disappointed that the Emergent community had become what it claimed that it did not want to be.

I apologize to Tony, McLaren, Rachel Held Evans, Phyllis Tickle, Doug Pagitt  and all the leaders of Emergence or EC13 for the way I said that. No, I didn’t curse anyone or anything like that, but it was a very sneering way to make a point.

At the same time, I do not apologize for what I said. Here’s why.

Emergent/-ence/-ing was supposed to be a grassroots movement of people sincerely searching for Christ, questioning institutional church structures, and seeking a more progressive approach to 21st Century faith. It is comprised of denominational “rejects” and those who feel alienated from institutional Christianity for a variety of reasons.

My fear is that it is becoming just another of those Christian institutions, complete with the “haves” and the “have-nots.” Those who are deemed theologically worthy or wise enough are invited to lead a so-called “conversation” about Emergence Christianity.

In truth, the conversation seems decidedly one-sided. I did not go to EC13 because I did not have the time or the money to attend, so perhaps this criticism is unfounded. But in watching Emergent/-ing/-ence for the last couple of years, it seems that ordinary pastors, Christians, and people are invited to stand or sit on the floor around the table. The big-name stars are the ones who truly sit at the table.

I read (when I can) and have limited conversation (mainly in the Twitterverse) with these people. But it struck me wrong that a very select group was being promoted for an event publicized as a “national” conversation.

This raised the hair on my neck a bit because I thought Emergence was about challenging the status quo of denominations and institutional faith. I did not think it was about creating an ongoing culture “kingmakers” and elites that control, or attempt to control, the Christian culture in the United States.

My fear is that Emergence is, intentionally or unintentionally, becoming the very thing that it did not want to be.

Perhaps I have not been involved enough to make such claims. I don’t know Tony Jones or Brian McClaren very well (which makes the need for my apology that much greater). I don’t know Rachel Held Evans or Phyllis Tickle at all. Maybe I’m totally misreading this entire thing.

And perhaps this is the nature of the beast. As Marion Aldridge, former director of CBF of South Carolina, has said, “I’m not for authoritarian pastors or denominations. But at some point Somebody has to be in charge.

But if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, quacks like a duck…well, you get the idea.

I hope, against all hope, that I am way off base. There are very few safe locations or groups of people for a pastor (or lay person) if he/she doesn’t toe the proper denominational, theological or church lines. It’s a lonely and isolated place to be.

But it Emergence is going to be about rubbing shoulders with the right people, saying the right things, or getting in with the right crowd; if it is going to be about climbing the ladder to be in with the in crowd rather than honest and open conversation; then you can count me out.

I have thoroughly enjoyed the conversations that I’ve had and events that I’ve attended involving Tony and other members of the Emergent movement. I hope that these conversations will be true to their title and encourage everyday ministers, believers, seekers and even doubters to participate. I hope that the leaders will truly seek to make room for everyone at the table. I’d like to have a place to sit for a change.

My fear is that Emergence may devolve into just more of the same. And I’ve had more than enough of that.

Maybe this is not much of an apology. It seems more like an explanation with a splash of apology mix in. No matter my feelings about Emergence right now, it does not excuse my behavior. And I apologize to all of you for adding a negative comment to what you intended to be a very positive event.


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